“I want to start working out,” I told my husband. “I’ve been reading up on asceticism and the desert monks. I definitely think a little discipline and corporal discomfort could be just the boost I need in my spiritual life.”
“But your life is fraught with daily frustration and discomfort. Just this morning you had to change two poopy diapers, clean up the vomited remains of a squirrel left in the bathroom by the dog and then you had to argue with your teenager about what the term “my school is done” actually means. And that was all before breakfast,” he said. “And then they all complained about breakfast.”
“I know,” I said. “God has blessed me with many crosses to offer up on a daily basis, but I think I’ve grown numb to them. I’d like to set aside a little time each day to make my own crosses for a while. To kind of shock my spiritual system. Plus, Saint Paul said our body is a temple. After all these kids, my temple has been destroyed and could probably use some rebuilding.”
“Is this going to end with me having to exercise too?”
“Then, it sounds good,” he said.
That afternoon, after getting the baby to sleep for her nap, I ventured into the back part of our basement where the exercise equipment had been placed when we first moved in and then had since forgotten. It was dimly lit and covered in cobwebs. I was thrilled! All it needed were a few skeletons and maybe a couple of squeaking rats and it would be like getting in shape in the catacombs. Unfortunately, our neighborhood association gets bent out of shape if I leave our garbage can in front of the house, so they probably wouldn’t be too keen on my bringing home either rats or human remains. I’d just have to let my imagination fill in the holes.
My mind tends to wander and I’m very visual so I wanted an image to help remind me that any discomfort I felt had a purpose. This was not ‘relive conversations I had in 2003 and can do absolutely nothing about now’ time. I had to focus. I found a print of “The Miraculous Mass” and put it on the burned-out digital display of the elliptical. It had a great Eucharistic focal point.
Since King David didn’t lay down any of his sweet harp tracks and put them up on Youtube, I had to settle for running to 90s ska, though I am aware of the (small t) tradition that the desert monks probably listened to progressive metal.
I climbed up onto the elliptical and set my timer. It was time to make some suffering to unite with Christ’s!
And suffer, I did. It had probably been over a decade since I’d been on that machine. My limbs were burning, I got really sweaty and I felt a little nauseous at first. I grew very thirsty. Why was I so thirsty? My sciatic nerve started acting like I was nine months pregnant with a 20 pound baby and was sending shooting pains down my thigh. I kept thinking, maybe I should have checked with my doctor before doing this. Weren’t you supposed to check with your doctor before starting to exercise out of nowhere? My hair felt very heavy on my head like I was wearing a wig. Then I started to wish it were a wig so I could take it off because I was so hot from all the ellipticalling. How long had I been going? My timer had to be close to going off. I checked. I’d only been on that machine five minutes!
Offer it up! I screamed at myself. I’d spent so much energy on not dying, I nearly forgot the whole purpose for all the pain.
After about ten minutes, I settled into a groove. It was like the muscle memory from my running days woke up and took over. Except I couldn’t figure out the origin of the rhythmic, thump, thump, thump sound. Was it an old world ascetic flogging himself on the back? No. It was my belly flopping up and down with each step. And at that realization, my nausea came back.
The music stopped and the sound of church bells rang out across the basement. It was the timer on my phone letting me know my run was over. Sweaty, red-faced, breathing like an English bulldog in the heat of August in Southern Georgia I managed a weak “Saint Michael the Archangel pray for me” as I collapsed off the side of the elliptical.
I army crawled the couple of feet over to the small home gym we owned. I told myself it was part of my hard-core ascetic workout, but really, my legs were jelly and I couldn’t walk for a couple of minutes. Which is kind of desert monk-like except they had trouble walking from their extreme fasting, not from moderately exercising their semi-atrophied legs after years of sedentary living.
Now for the second part of my modern mortification routine: weights. The lifting started off well. I carry my giant baby around everywhere, so it turned out my arms were in pretty good shape. After moving to my deltoids, however, I heard a sound. Was it a voice crying out in the desert? No. It was my shoulders screaming at me “What are you doing to us?” The poor things hadn’t had to do much for years and they were not at all happy having to participate in my newfangled ascetic notions.
The ab workout was even more painful. With so many pregnancies, my abs had a wider separation than when Moses had parted the Red Sea. I heard a weeping and thought it may have been the women Jesus met on the way to the cross. It wasn’t. It was me trying to squeeze out three more crunches.
The dismount from that ab workout was such a humbling experience. Humiliating. It was a humiliating experience. I tried to sit up but my abdominal muscles were at total muscle failure. I reached for the bar in front of me to pull myself up, but it was inches from my grasp and try as I might, I couldn’t rock up to it. Even if I could have reached it, I’m pretty sure my shoulders had turned traitor after that workout I put them through and would have sabotaged any attempts to pull myself up. I laid on the bench for several minutes, pondering in my heart the pickle I’d gotten myself into.
“Please Jesus, help me to arise and walk,” I prayed.
Instead, he helped me to aroll awkwardly off the side of the bench and crawl.
This is too much, I told myself. Modern bodies weren’t meant for this kind of suffering. Otherwise, God wouldn’t have invented high fructose corn syrup, Segways or streaming on demand.
Then I realized that was devil talk.
“No it’s not,” the devil said.
“Yes it is,” I said. “Those are basically the same three things you tempted Jesus with in the desert.”
He thought it over.
“Darn it!” he said. “I’ve got to get some new material.”
He vanished in a puff of sulfur. He’d argue that smell didn’t come from him. He’d argue a smell like that could only come from the flesh. Especially if that flesh had been subjected to rigorous exercise and had eaten a bunch of broccoli the night before in an attempt to get healthy. But remember, he is the father of lies and his words can’t be trusted. So we’ll go with the sulfur story.
I found that there is a difference between offering up the daily mortifications that God sends me and the mortifications I do on my own. It did shock my spiritual system in that I recognized a spiritual maturation had occurred. Like when I’d realized I was no longer trying to be good out of fear of hell but because I’d grown rather fond of God and didn’t want to disappoint him. The same occurred down there in Gold’s Catacombs. Generally, my daily suffering was going to happen to me anyway whether I chose for it to happen or not and therefore I might as well offer it up. It was nice to offer up something that I came up with on my own. In the same vein as a child doing all of her assigned household chores but because that child really loves her daddy, she organizes his sock drawer in addition to her regular duties. It doesn’t really move the needle a whole lot in the big scheme of the house being cleaned, but the father appreciates the love behind his little child’s effort.
I also found I was in worse shape than I thought and that it was going to take a lot longer than three days to get the ole temple rebuilt. All the better for my ascetic aspirations.
Of course, I should probably get my husband down there. His temple could probably use a little remodeling too.