I’ve recently given special attention to my physical well-being. I did this, so far as I know, not because I face a major health crisis and a doctor ordered me to do it. I just felt very strongly that I was long overdue to lose some unnecessary weight and, in the process, get my body into better condition. I adopted a plan (Weight Watchers), thanks to the inspiration of my wife. I stuck to this plan (especially because of a very good app on my iPhone) since the middle of last September. Many plans work, I’m quite sure, but too many of them are faddish and nutritionally unbalanced. They also fail to build in accountability along with the science of the program. I chose one that took me a lot more time to reach my goal (seven months) but it taught me how to eat healthy food and how to make wise choices when I am away from home. (As some of you know I travel a good deal and eat a lot of meals with friends in various social contexts.) When forced to make choices about my food, especially without Anita’s superior skills in making me good and healthy food, I knew that there would be a real struggle. I was surprised that this challenge did not prove to be as difficult as I had imagined. Last Thursday I was nearly two pounds below my goal weight when I checked in at my Weight Watchers meeting. (Anita was there to celebrate with me!) Now comes a six-week maintenance plan/goal and then I become a “lifetime member.” As a lifetime member I can use the tools and meetings for free so long as I weigh in once a month and never go two pounds over my goal. Right down to this accountability, and the clear plan I now have for maintaining my healthy weight, the program works. But face it, programs are no substitute for hard work, prayer and serious discipline. This is true with all of life. For me I have experienced this in many other areas of my life but I had never applied it to weight as I have done since September.
With spring now here, and the days slowly warming up, I look forward to getting more physical exercise outdoors. I already notice that the loss of over forty pounds makes me feel very good when I move about even though I do move a bit slower at age 64. (I’ve had three surgeries on my right foot and this also gives me difficulty. But then who hasn’t had something go wrong before age 65?) As I was thinking about this recently I discovered that Asics, one of the more popular brands of walking/running shoes, has a Latin saying on its box: “Anima sana in corpore sano” – “a sound mind in a sound body.” This is a variation on the ancient Roman saying: “Mens sana in corpore sano” (which is similarly translated).
Juvenal, a Roman poet and satirist (55-127 A.D.), is credited with this saying, though I am unsure which version is actually the more authentic one. Regardless, the point the Roman poet made is a very good one. This body-mind connection is a clear reminder that we are whole persons, that our mind and body both influence our whole life. Intellectual, psychological and physical health do go hand-in-hand. I have noticed that I now sleep better, handle stress better and remain more alert because my weight is much lower and my food intake and nutritional content is disciplined and right. This is simply a fact. Everyone who has gone through such a program and succeeded knows it.
But back to the shoe: Asics. This shoe is a popular brand name but it is, in reality, a brand named rooted in an acronym. An acronym often provides a good way to build a reputation that requires people to ask: “What does that mean?” We chose the name of our mission, ACT3 Network, because it is an acronym for: “Advancing the Christian Tradition in the 3rd Millennium.” We wanted to make a statement about our faith and missional view of Christian tradition, a view that transcends denominational identity. This name has worked well for us.
Asics is an acronym for Anima Sana in Corpore Sano. Archbishop J. Peter Sartain noted in a column that he wrote some years ago that Asics chose “anima” over “mens.” “Mens” refers to the mind in its intellectual aspects while “anima” refers to the more all-encompassing “vital principal” of life, or the “breath of life.” This is a way of referring to one’s overall sense of well-being. What I remembered, from my prep school background in Latin, was that “anima” is the same word that is used for the “soul” in ecclesial writings and Christian liturgy.
Now the Roman poet Juvenal was not a Christian, nor is Asics specifically a Christian company from what I can ascertain. But this Latin expression invites us all to give attention to the nourishment and discipline that we especially need–that of our soul.
I am reminded here of the apostle Paul’s counsel to young Timothy:
8-9 As the saying goes,
“Exercise is good
for your body,
but religion helps you
in every way.
It promises life
now and forever.”
These words are worthwhile and should not be forgotten (1 Tim. 4:8-9, CEV).
While I do plan to take better care of my body this summer than I have in more than forty years the question that presses upon me today is much deeper and far more important: “What plan do I have for my soul’s care?”
I am also reminded of these words of Paul:
24 You know that many runners enter a race, and only one of them wins the prize. So run to win! 25 Athletes work hard to win a crown that cannot last, but we do it for a crown that will last forever. 26 I don’t run without a goal. And I don’t box by beating my fists in the air. 27 I keep my body under control and make it my slave, so I won’t lose out after telling the good news to others (1 Cor. 9:24-27, CEV).
Paul underscores the truth that no matter how much we train our bodies, and care for our health, striving intently for deep spiritual health is a much more significant discipline. An earthly crown, in my case a small key-ring token given to me by my Weight Watchers instructor, was nice for a brief moment. But it will soon fade away and it is an honor that few will ever notice. But the life of my soul is eternal. I know if I am giving my soul attention I will be growing more healthy in that part of my life because I am paying attention to my inner life as I should. Without a spiritual formation plan I will not take care of my soul anymore than I did my body without a Weight Watchers plan.
I desire to be a healthy man. I lost my weight, not because of guilt or physical appearance (I’ve done both in the past), but ultimately because of my soul. I want to be in much better shape to love and serve the Lord with “all my heart, mind, soul and strength.” Being in better physical condition should help me but I could all too easily miss the deeper issues here if I’m not very deliberately careful.
Several decades ago I lost a good bit of weight (through fasting and exercise) and became quite self-conscious about how I felt and looked. I spoke about this now and then, talking about it among friends. One day a very dear friend said to me, “John, I liked you better when you were heavier because then you were a lot less self-conscious.” That stung but it was true. It also gave me the kind of permission that I wanted to do what I have done all too often–to swing like a pendulum to the other end of the spectrum. I then gained my weight back and actually felt self-righteous about that fact. (The heart is truly deceitful.) This time I hope that I’ve learned some lessons. Hours spent planning meals, losing weight and getting into shape will most likely help me in many positive ways. But these gains, or should I say losses, do not guarantee me moral and spiritual strength or a truly healthy life.
While I give attention to my mind and body, now more than ever, I must give even more attention to my soul, to my “life in Christ.” If I do not do this I will not be paying proper attention to my “anima,” the life giving center or my being.
A sound mind in a sound body. Giving attention to our spiritual lives is the path to full heath, soundness, saneness and well-being. Our cultures’s obsession with healthy physical appearance is a constant invitation to train with and for Christ. It works both ways. Do we truly care about our body and mind? If so, we will care first for our soul (Of You My Heart Has Spoken, 49).