Physical Exercise and Worship

As part of my formational training at Cranmer Hall, I had the opportunity in my second year to write a short Independent Learning Project of no more than 3000 words. The topic was anything I was interested in and my accepted proposal was:

Worship the Lord with all your Strength; the theological case for physical exercise as an expression of intentional worship, with particular reference to Mark 12:30

The original piece, with all references and bibliography, is on record with Durham University and is the product of my own work. The work of others has been properly acknowledged throughout. The original (with references and bibliography) is available via this dropbox link. This version simply has the references and bibliography removed to make it easier to read in a blog context.

Introduction

The Archbishops’ Council assert that ‘worship of God is central to the life of his Church’ and that Common Worship is rich and varied to ‘reflect the multiplicity of contexts in which worship is offered today’. However, the majority of worship engages the thinking and feeling aspects of our nature and rarely our physical nature.

The question I want to address with this Independent Learning Project (ILP) is, ‘May I worship God through physical exercise?’ My particular context is that of cycling, but I expect this to be applicable with any activity which engages the full capacity of our physical strength.

My question raises further questions which are beyond the scope of this ILP, such as; does physical worship have to be supported by verbal articulation and justification? How can I tell the difference between physical exercise which is worship and that which is not? How do I define the boundaries of acceptable physical worship? How do I avoid idolising my own strength: falling from worshipping ‘the God who made me’, into worshipping ‘the me who God made’? I hope to continue this work in future study.

In this ILP, my working definition of ‘worship’ is: ‘that which strengthens Christians for witness and service, is a forum through which God is made known, and is for the whole people of God’.

I expect others before me have wrestled with this question, so my conversation partners will be those theologians who’ve considered pilgrimage, a theology of work, the sacramental nature of the body and I will begin with Holy Scripture and an exegesis of Mark 12:30. The foundations of theology are ‘Holy Scripture, church tradition, reason, and religious experience’, which are intertwined in this ILP.

The Greatest Commandment

‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; you shall love the Lord our God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ (Mk 12:29-30)

Wright describes this as the ‘house-on-fire question’; from all that you have, what would you save if your house was on fire? Jesus was asked, ‘Given all the Jewish law, which is the most important?’ and he answers with the Shema, the most important prayer for the nation of Israel: ‘Hear, O Israel’ (Deut 6:4). Commentators highlight a Markan agenda to challenge the dominance of temple sacrifice and focus on the sacrifice of Jesus, but few explore the four facets of how we are to love God: ‘heart, soul, mind and strength’, perhaps assuming they are self-explanatory.

Although Jesus’ reply calls upon Deuteronomy, there are differences in Mark’s Gospel due to the author’s source material: Mark is most likely referencing the Septuagint (LXX) rather than the Torah, using ‘mind’ instead of ‘heart’ and ‘strength’ (ἰσχύος) instead of ‘might’. These interpretative differences invite a greater breadth and depth of understanding, for example Gooder highlights that the Hebrew word מְאֹד (meod), translated as ‘might’ could also mean ‘very’, ‘a lot’, or ‘much-ness’; i.e. ‘love God with all your much-ness’. In Semitic texts, ‘heart’ is associated with the place of our spiritual life and inner being, ‘soul’ has been associated with feelings and emotions, ‘mind’ relates to our intelligence and ‘strength/might’ to the sum total of our capacity for action. The Jewish approach of unfolding Scripture through public reading would allow the text to be interpreted as with your heart, mind, will, being, soul, life, vitality, singlemindedness and strength. Worship, therefore, requires ‘a person’s full capacities, perhaps including natural abilities and even resources’.

In Christian thinking there is sometimes a distinctly Neoplatonic flavour which was adopted in early church monastic communities. ‘The Neoplatonic ladder of ascent presented a movement away from the world, rising above natural, sensible things as if they were inferior and in some sense not truly real.’ This thinking led to an emphasis on the spiritual world instead of on the material world, replacing physical with meta-physical. Some Christian baptismal texts refer to ‘rejecting the flesh’. Migliore says that ‘Numerous studies have shown, negative and domineering attitudes toward the body and the physical world are present in many strands of Christian theology’.

Neoplatonism is not universally accepted though, in her new book, Gooder encourages Christians to remember that the ‘Hebrew idea of the personality is an animated body, and not an incarnated soul.’ The Franciscan movement considers that through the Incarnation ‘God came to us’ and therefore ‘we do not pray to acquire relationship with God’ rather, ‘to disclose the image of God in which we are created’, ‘to give birth to God’ within us and to discover fullness of life in Christ. Other early church saints embraced the physical and spiritual together: Celtic saints famously undertook pilgrimage and in the north of Britain, St Columba was noted as ‘a pilgrim for Christ’. St Columba made ‘struggle, and living in harsh places, part of his calling to serve God’.

Pilgrimage

Bicycle outside Durham Cathedral
Cycling as worship?

‘Common Worship’ reflects that ‘worship itself is a pilgrimage – a journey into the heart of the love of God.’ Is this a metaphor for the physical journey, or is physical pilgrimage a metaphor for the inner journey? There is a long tradition of Christians undertaking physical journeys in order to grow strong in faith and to share their faith with others, among these are:

  • Travelling to Jerusalem, where Christians add context to their understanding of Biblical places.
  • The ‘Way of St. James’ known also as Camino de Santiago, which is an arduous walk from various locations typically covering 750km before reaching Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain.
  • The Taizé Community promotes peace and reconciliation through God’s love and encourages young people to make their site in France the target of pilgrimage.
  • Walsingham in the UK has a history of Pilgrimage dating back to the 11th century

In the ‘Quest for the Holy Grail’ King Arthur travels to find the Holy Grail, imagining it to be the cup from which Jesus drank at the last supper. He eventually discovers that the Holy Grail is God’s Grace, and that it is freely available to all. Physical pilgrimages differ from simply travelling because they change us as a person, inside and outside, whereas holidays are often only about change on the outside. This makes ‘travelling on pilgrimage’ a useful tool to reflect on the Christian ‘pilgrimage through life’. Bartholomew writes that there are three main ways of engaging in ‘pilgrimage through life’, these are:

  • practical service,
  • developing an inner relationship with God,
  • through experience and special places.

There is no suggestion that God is any more present in Jerusalem than in my back garden, and neither do I have to earn God’s favour by travelling from one to the other. Pilgrimage should instead be seen as something which might help faith to grow, something within which we might meet God, but something which might also leave us disappointed.

I have undertaken many pilgrimages, most recently a twenty-four hour, Easter bike ride from St Albans Abbey to York Minister. This was a group event, and my fellow pilgrims reported that their Christian faith was strengthened through the planning and participation. Ours was an undeniably arduous pilgrimage but I found it to be fun, so I wondered if it was okay to ‘have fun’ on Good Friday even if it was an act of worship. For many people work is not fun, it is a necessity; should worship be more like work than play?

Theology of Work

Witherington defines Christian work as:

“any necessary and meaningful task that God calls and gifts a person to do and which can be undertaken to the Glory of God and for the edification and aid of human beings, being inspired by the Spirit and foreshadowing the realities of a new creation.’

Greene agrees, writing, ‘Work is both necessary and good. God doesn’t take the Christian out of the world; rather he transforms all aspects of life in the world – including work.’ Less optimistically, Brother Lawrence, renowned for ‘praying while at the sink in the kitchen’ considered ‘all bodily mortifications and other exercises useless’ if they don’t bring us closer to God.

In Europe, prior to the Industrial Revolution, work and physical strength were interwoven, but through the revolution came a society ‘interested in new ways of using leisure time’. The boundaries between work and leisure have become blurred; gardening, for example, could be either. Witherington therefore expands the definition of work to include hobbies. He understands someone’s intrinsic need to be active and highlights that: ‘if we belong to the Lord, then we know that what will truly please us is the residue of what God has placed in our hearts, what God has meant us to be.’

Witherington closes his book with a chapter on the ‘relationship between Work, Faith, Rest and Play’. Given the Sabbath is a non-negotiable commandment from God, and ‘since worship is also non-negotiable for a Christian’, he writes that ‘it is best to figure worship into rhythms of rest and play’. In a world where work and physicality are often disconnected, work may also be defined as ‘responsibility’. Sabbath rest includes setting aside responsibility, relinquishing the idolatry of our self-importance. Is it too playful for me to suggest that Sabbath rest might be ‘holy-irresponsible’?
We cannot sing God’s praises, or even participate in Holy Communion without our bodies, so we can’t ‘be’ the body of Christ without ‘being’ physical. ‘So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.’ (Gen 1:27). Given that we are made in God’s image, does this make us holy?

Sacramental Worship

Is it possible for our bodies, and therefore physical worship, to be sacramental? During a lecture on Christian Doctrine and ‘Sacraments’, one course handout included the statement: “God communicates with us in material, embodied ways; spiritual worship does not mean non-bodily worship” In the Book of Common Prayer, sacraments are, ‘an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us, ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof.’ This catechism was revised in 1962 and sacraments were more specifically identified as ‘material things’ for example: signs, pledges and means of receiving God’s grace. Although the sacraments of Christ were defined as ‘baptism and Holy Communion’, the church acknowledged other ‘ministries of grace’: confirmation, ordination, marriage, absolution and healing. It hardly seems that ‘going for a run’ meets these definitions of ‘sacramental’.

Cooke in his exploration of sacramentality says that ‘we humans are symbols in our very way of being’ and that these are so intrinsically linked we don’t think about it, ‘there are not two life forces, one bodily and one spiritual; there is the one living reality’. However, the thrust of his writing is that we are ‘sacramentalized in Christian ministry to people’s bodily well-being’ for the ultimate goal of ‘spiritual and personal health’.

These sacraments do not touch upon Incarnation though: Jesus is fully human, but not alienated from God. Jesus is fully divine but he experienced tiredness, pain, grief, thirst: the limitations of being human. Migliore writes that, through Incarnation ‘God and humanity are fully free and fully united in love’. 2000 years later, and humanity is still sharing in the experience of being physical.

Religious experience

In the Cloud of Unknowing, the author describes a process of letting go conscious thought, and rejecting that which we think we know about God. In physical exercise, where one’s mind is absorbed in either breathing exercises, or immersed in the beauty of the countryside, it is also possible to let go of conscious thought. Despite God’s continual revelation of himself to us, understanding human experiences as ‘religious’ can be difficult.

Meditation while taking part in exercise is not an uncommon experience, especially for those undertaking a repetitive endurance sport such as running or cycling. Athletes talk of muscle-memory; the impact of training is such that an athlete’s body is unconsciously competent in their sport. In turn the athlete may concentrate on breathing patterns, clearing their mind of distracting thoughts. For the sports-person focussed on performance this brings achievement benefits, but for the Christian seeking to grow in the knowledge and love of God, it brings an inner peace.

I have found my relationship with God grow through the respect I’ve gained for his creation while cycling. I’ve undertaken endurance events that last twenty-four or thirty-six hours, including riding from daylight, into the night, and then through into the morning. This has helped me to reflect on the source of my strength (Ps 121:1), or that ‘even the darkness is not dark to you’ (Ps 139:12). I find that my choice of physical exercise enables me to contemplate the world around me and give thanks to God. While my specific examples are related to cycling, I expect the concepts will resonate with any person using ‘all of their strength’ in worship through activity.

Conclusion

Given the definition of worship as that which strengthens Christians for witness and service, and is a forum through which God is made known to the whole people of God; the answer to the question, ‘May I worship God through physical exercise?’ may for some be an intuitive and emphatic, ‘Yes!’
This short ILP can only be an introduction to this topic, but through my reading and research I have found:

  • In Mark 12:30, Jesus encourages us to worship God with all our ‘much-ness’; everything we are. This is supported by Hebrew thinking and also by those Christians who are less influenced by Neoplatonic thought.
  • Pilgrimage is both a physical metaphor for growing in knowledge of God, and an actual exercise which enables Christians to witness to God; the journeys may be intellectually and physically arduous and without guarantee of success, but they are often undertaken anyway.
  • A theology of work provided the least satisfactory explanation of why physical exercise might be an act of worship, perhaps because I struggled with the obligatory nature of work compared with the voluntary nature of twenty-first century physical exercise. There is, however, support for physical activity being worship.
  • There is certainly a sacramental aspect to our physical nature, and as humanity is ‘made’ in the image of God as compared to ‘imagined’ in the image of God, it feels appropriate to respect the physicality of our created being. Worship through the use of our bodies to grow in the knowledge of God is unavoidably essential.
  • Although ‘religious experiences’ may be misleading, the experiences I’ve encountered appear to be consistent with the arguments put forward by scripture, tradition and reason.

Despite the further questions this ILP raises, I believe there is significant theological support to conclude that fundamentally, ‘yes, physical exercise can be worship of God’ and additionally, we should worship God with all our ‘much-ness’.