I receive quite a few publicity releases for Catholic books – someone must be selling a list of Catholic bloggers. Some promote books or speakers that I’m happy to support; the rest I simply ignore. Yesterday, though, I received a promo that boggled my mind – in part because I had just finished reading Ehrenreich’s Bright-Sided: How Positive Thinking Is Undermining America.
The Catholic Workout is a new book by exercise physiologist and personal trainer Michael Carrera. He says he wrote the book because “There are a lot of people out there who, like me, want to include prayer and fitness into their lives, but seem to struggle.” He’s right – and yet I couldn’t shake my sense that there is something spiritually off-base here.
Pray Always … or Exercise Program?
The materials say that the program “involves performing five specific resistance exercises while meditating on important events in the Life, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.” From St. Paul through the ancient Desert Fathers and the long-standing tradition of the Jesus Prayer to my own Benedictine tradition, constant prayer is a cornerstone of the spiritual life. Carrera accurately named the problem – unlike the ancients who stitched tents or wove baskets, much work in the modern world requires us to concentrate on computer screens or students or meetings – and it’s hard to have a time of prayer.
Many of us tie patterns of prayer to particular times or actions. The Little Manual of the Duluth Benedictines, printed at the turn of the last century, included prayers for getting dressed, for walking, and for many events of the day. These were memorized, not so that they could be crossed off on a checklist, but to facilitate turning one’s mind towards God on a regular basis. In modern times, each sister has to find her own way to fold prayer into her daily life. The idea at the core of this book – suffusing some part of one’s daily routine with prayer – is exactly the sort of spiritual practice that many Christians undertake, and which all the spiritual teachers would support. Why did I have such a negative reaction?
The Promises of The Catholic Workout
While leading prayer with the sisters in our infirmary the morning, we had the antiphon “I pass on to you what I received from the Lord” (1Cor 11:23). Aha! The basic spiritual elements in The Catholic Workout are widely and freely available, and we do share them and pass them, one to another. If this book simply described Carrera’s spiritual journey as he combined prayer with exercise, he would be passing on what he had received. It would seem like dozens of others books of that genre – some of which I’ve read to my benefit.
Instead, The Catholic Workout is selling a specific exercise program. In typical marketing style, the website makes the claim “All you need is a Rosary, a set of dumbbells, and thirty minutes, three times a week to get the body and life you always wanted!” Flat abs and eternal life, all in one easy program. What a deal!
To be honest, I suspect the book is better than its publicity – at least, I hope so. Michael Carrera has sincerely grappled with common spiritual dilemma of the modern world – distractions – and shared his method for dealing with them. The book and the promotion go off track, for me, by using prayers and faith to sell an exercise program, rather than the other way around. Years ago, Dorothy Donnelly wrote Spiritual Fitness: Everyday Exercises for Body and Soul, highlighting the importance of our bodies in our prayer life – a strong incarnational theology. Christian bloggers often note passages of scripture that call on us to use and care for our bodies as gift to God.
The differences is in the promises. Rather than promise us “the body you always wanted” these authors know that there is only one thing that really matters. Michael Carrera probably knows that too – he also writes “At the end of the day, it is all about meeting Jesus at the foot of the cross and witnessing the event that has forever changed, shaped and revolutionized the world. By focusing on Christ’s Passion and using our body as an expression of our love, we are better able to listen, embrace and ultimately live in the love of God.” I just wish that perspective had carried over into the rest of the message.
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