Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you that you have from God, and that you are not your own? Therefore, glorify God in your body. (1 Cor. 6: 19-20)
Father Alex Gibbs of St. Mary Magdalen Parish in Media, along with brothers Ryan and Mike Holloway of Paul Bunyan’s Fitness in Newtown Square, take seriously St. Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians.
Together they’ve developed a program called Don’t Sweat the Faith (DSTF) that combines workout sessions with reflection circles so that participants can glorify their bodies and their spirits at the same time.
Although the meetings are year-round, Father Gibbs observed how much they relate to this particular Lenten season. “The practice of fasting during Lent is all about disciplining the body, so if we can train physically to discipline our bodies all the time, it will help us spiritually.”
The co-ed group meets the first three Thursdays of every month. They begin with about 45 minutes of intense cross-fit training and follow that with 30 minutes or so of reflection. As Ryan sees it, the combination of the physical and the spiritual sparks a synergy that creates community.
“When you sweat together, you stay together,” he said. “When you suffer together, you build a closer bond. So when we tie in the workouts with the reflections, people feel more comfortable sharing.”
Ryan has the taut, sinewy look of the fitness buff and trainer that he is, but his attitude is as far from the stereotypical “look-at-me” muscle-bound hunk as can be. Both he and DSTF exude a sense of humility.
“I opened this place with the mission of bringing health and wellness together with something spiritual, like a prayer group. With my background, I saw a unique way to marry those things,” he said.
The men and women of DSTW share the grunts and groans from traditional cross-fit exercises like box jumps, burpees and hollow rolls. Then they share thoughts and answers to questions centered around Bible passages chosen by Father Gibbs.
The questions can be both broad and penetrating. “What stands out to you from the passage?” “What is going on in your life right now and in the world that relates to this passage?” “What do you think God is saying to you?”
As participants cool down from their workouts, they warm to the discussion. Physical gymnastics lead to mental gymnastics in the best sense of that phrase. Father Gibbs chooses the passages and the questions so as to provide spiritual jumping-off points into honest and helpful sharing.
The passages are new every week. Sometimes a verse will prompt a participant to see God’s presence in nature. Someone else may be reminded of the need to focus more on a family member or situation. The beauty and utility of the Bible is evident in the discussion and comments shared around the reflection circle.
To Father Gibbs, DSTF is a way of reaching out and practicing his ministry in a non-traditional way. And in so doing, perhaps reaching more people than he otherwise might.
“I see people frequently, especially parents, at Mass and at school. But I don’t always have the chance to see them personally connecting with their faith. So for me, this is like gold in terms of ministry.
“And,” he added with a grin, “sometimes it’s good to get out of the office.”
Unless parish business prevents him from taking part in a session, Father Gibbs sweats his way through a workout same as everyone else.
Approximately 40 persons have joined the program, with a typical session drawing perhaps 10 to 15 people. The workouts are open to anyone regardless of physical condition. Each individual can move at his or her own pace and level of fitness.
Any Catholic knows it can be hard to live one’s faith. And under the auspices of St. Mary Magdalen Church in Media, the DSTF program offers a strenuous physical way to make that journey even harder, in a sense.
Sound like a contradiction? Not if you believe that a healthy body can make it easier to maintain a healthy spirit.