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Sweaty Penance

So there I was in a spin (studio cycling) class. For those who don't partake, spin is a form of group exercise in which participants on stationary bicycles are led through a series of "hills"--increasing the resistance on the pedals--and sprints, accompanied by music. The leader's role is mainly to structure the class ("OK, we're heading into an 8-minute hill, now, so let's start on resistance level 5, at about 70-80 RPM!") but also to exhort cyclists to do their best, to encourage the class, and to remind us of proper form. ("Relax your shoulders, now, and don't rest your weight on the handlebars!") The instructor is also cycling, and his/her sharing the workout and his/her visible fitness are inspiring as well. It's a heck of a work-out.I've done lots of spinning, but a recent class provided an interesting twist. We were down to our last three minutes, and the instructor said "OK, now I want you to think about the last time you told somebody a lie. This sprint is for that--ready, GO!" After the sprint she said, "OK, look, that's way behind you. Now think about the last time you weren't as nice to somebody as you should have been. 3-2-1, GO!" And then "OK, this last sprint is for yourself. Ready....GO!"A number of things caught me about this sudden examination of conscience and penance during my work-out:

1. Depending on how one engaged that "not as nice as you should have been" question, the questions were roughly reflective of the cardinal virtues as Jim Keenan lays them out. To tell a lie violates fidelity. To fail to be as kind as we should (my immediate thought was of a homeless person that I'd ignored,) can be a violation of justice. And self-care is straightforward. (Prudence is a different case, and perhaps reflects our decision to get up early on Saturday to go to spin class at all...)2. I thought "gee, this 'penance' doesn't really address the root of the sin in question." True. But how often do penances in sacramental confession ACTUALLY address the root of the sin? Do 5 Hail Mary's compensate for rudeness to a colleague? Some penances try to get to basic practices like kindness, but if one confesses anything like a spectrum of kinds of sin, it's harder to customize a penance to fit them all. Arguably, it's not the task of the penance to fix the penitent, but to demonstrate and maybe symbolize his or her resolve to do better. A brisk sprint kinda can do that, too.3. I admit--I confess--that I hadn't done an examination of conscience before spin class. I didn't expect I'd need to. But I did love the integration of moral life into something often construed as a purely private endeavor. In a sense, the self-care of regular exercise was lifted beyond itself to engage other aspects of our lives, and served to frame self-care also in terms of moral categories. As a person who teaches that "every (chosen) act is a moral act," I love the broadening of the work-out into moral reflection.4. And I'm intrigued by the notion of secular penance. Absent a sacramental or at least religious context, how do we express or symbolize our desire to acknowledge, regret, and leave behind behaviors which we feel do not represent the people we want to be, or that harm others? I don't know the instructor personally, (though I did invite her to come take a class at my school!) She is of the generation who mostly find religion irrelevant to the concerns of their own lives, but whose thirst for spiritual things is as great as, well, any cyclist's thirst for water during a spin. She might be a person of faith herself, or maybe an incipient moral theologian or pastoral minister, but her generation is less interested in church than in, say, spin. With moral reflection. For which addition, let the sweaty church say, Amen!


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Good read. This reminds me (mutatis mutandis) of the scene early in the movie The Mission, when Robert DeNiro's character lugs his armor up a mountain as penance.

Nice little vignette of life in the exercise room. Interesting that the instructor/motivator/leader/whatever assumed you'd all understand what she was getting at - that thinking about personal failings would cause a burst of energy. Is it really that obvious?

Lisa, I agree that is extremely interesting. It does sort of tie into other connections that are made between fitness and an entire way of life, e.g. yoga can be much more than just a way to improve balance and flexibility. It does seem to me that a number of fitness professionals really do see their profession as extending beyond the realms of cardiovascular fitness and muscle strength. They see, rightly, that diet, relationships, our work lives - all affect our health, and if we're really serious about improving our health, it's a holistic endeavor. A number of them really do have a sort of missionary fervor about changing one's life to be healthier, happier and longer lived. There's a lot to be said for it.FWIW - I'd think the traditional view is to not pedal away from our faults as fast as possible, but to face them, repent of them, apologize to the persons we've hurt, beg their forgiveness, and try, to the extent it's possible, to repair the damage caused by them. Admittedly, I'm not sure how that translates into motivation for a spin class. But perhaps your instructor is after a sort of psychological cleansing rather than true spiritual healing.

Is it only me that finds it amusing that someone gets in a car, drives across town to a fitness center, and rides a bike that goes nowhere? I think this is part of what is called, oxymoronically, the "leisure industry."

I agree that it's amusing, but it doesn't follow that it's a bad idea. Calisthenics are amusing and artificial, and running around the neighborhood doesn't take you anywhere. The body needs exercise, and modern work doesn't provide it, and those machines really do!

Similarly, the hundreds of thousands of people who attend the March for Life each year may be thought to be doing it for health and penitential reasons, since so much of the media makes an annual tradition of non-, un-, and mis-reporting. contrast, the occasion of a marriage amendment, about 8 people started protesting at the California state house. CNN hovered helicopters and streamed live coverage of that historic crowd. This happened yesterday:

Is it only me that finds it amusing that someone gets in a car, drives across town to a fitness center, and rides a bike that goes nowhere?Greatly amusing for the farmer side of my family: the ones who try to get things done while minimizing the strenuous work involved, and who think of calories in food as being good for you, as a way to replenish your energy.Echoes from a way of life that belongs to the past!

Like any form of ascetism, biking is one of those esoteric pursuits that has nothing to do with going anywhere - in fact most don't want to 'arrive.' Similar to compulsive joggers, marathon runners, workout fanatics and others of that ilk, the physical 'high' gets translasted into a spiritual experience. But the real test, is one a better human being because of it or despite it?

@ L.C.--Indeed, I am inordinately pleased on those occasions I get a parking place near the gym so I don't have to walk far to exercise!! I used to jog, but alas, my knees seem to be aging faster than the rest of me...@ Jim, yes, actually healing rifts is better. At least the instructor didn't invite us to imagine running down someone who'd hurt us!@ Mike--Amen! Any spiritual practice, or any habitual practice, perhaps, should be measured in terms of whether we are better people overall. Hinges on the notion that virtues cannot conflict (though acts referable to them certainly can,) and human flourishing is, ultimately, an integrated concept.@Claire--yes, the "food is fuel" concept became very clear to me when I walked the Camino, but also, e.g., I know I shouldn't spin or play squash without breakfast. A recognition of finitude, perhaps.

@Lisa Fullam:I am glad you stopped running - my principle is to run only if someone is chasing you. My form of penance is to swim; that activity is alleged to be good for you but the main ascetic appeal is that it is extremely boring and I almost always fail to remember to "offer it up."

"@ Jim, yes, actually healing rifts is better. At least the instructor didnt invite us to imagine running down someone whod hurt us!"Ah - you have put your finger on a possible motivator :-)


About the Author

Lisa Fullam is associate professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. She is the author of The Virtue of Humility: A Thomistic Apologetic (Edwin Mellen Press).