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!
About the Author
Lisa Fullam is 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).