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Soul Work

The invitation: Incorporate physical activity into your spiritual life

By Mardi Tindal

Having hunkered down for more hours than I wish to admit last winter, watching rather than emulating Olympians and Paralympians, I know it’s time to get off the couch.

As the weather grows warmer, I find myself thinking about the connection between body and soul and about the relationship between physical activity and spiritual health.

Michael J. Klassen, a runner, weightlifter, pastor and author, notes that running is the most prominent sport in the Bible. He speculates that Epistle-writing Paul must have been enamoured with it, given his references to running the race.

In a blog post titled “The Spirituality of Running,” Klassen describes his own experience when he took a break from regular exercise after years of running marathons. “I discovered a side-effect from my work stoppage: my heart felt a bit harder. I’m not referring to my physical heart, although I’m sure my cardiovascular system needed a tune up. My heart — the center of my emotions, self-awareness, and hidden place with God — seemed a little stiff.” Klassen’s heart got retuned as his body regained strength.

In her book SQ 21: The Twenty-One Skills of Spiritual Intelligence, Cindy Wigglesworth suggests that when our physical body is in good order and getting what it needs to function well, our attention is freed up for other kinds of intelligence, including spiritual intelligence. She defines the latter as “the ability to behave with wisdom and compassion, while maintaining inner and outer peace, regardless of the circumstances.”

Wigglesworth’s link between health and compassion reminds me of Jim McKibbin’s response to my January Soul Work column. McKibbin is an active United Church lay leader in Toronto. He says, “My spiritual practice is a daily prayer and regular yoga. The prayer has been developed over many years and resonates with me as I repeat the oft-said phrases. While I pray for everyone, the prayer has rules about who to pray for when.”

Whether it’s prayer with yoga or with swimming, running or walking, many of you have developed ways of connecting spiritual with physical discipline.

Very Rev. Marion Pardy, a former United Church moderator, recently mentioned her own body-and-soul connections: “Contemplative by nature, I seem to meditate frequently and in diverse places, even while walking the track at the recreational centre at Memorial University.”

United Church minister Rev. Dawn Vaneyk told me about her remarkable experience of following Zen Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh in a walking meditation. “He says that mindful walking awakens us (as Christians) to the knowledge that the Kingdom of God is within us and around us; and the peace that arises brings us to awareness that this experience of God is possible in the here and in the now, in every moment, with every step.”

For me, a comparable exercise is tai chi, at the end of which I simply say the Aramaic invocation maranatha (“Come, Lord Jesus.”) When I become more open physically, I become more open spiritually. I can better understand what Paul was talking about in 1 Corinthians 6, speaking of how our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit. American pastor and author Eugene Peterson paraphrases Paul’s words this way: “Didn’t you realize that your body is a sacred place, the place of the Holy Spirit?”

What physical activity most opens you up spiritually?

Mardi Tindal is a facilitator and mentor with the Center for Courage & Renewal and a former United Church moderator.

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