Mens sana in corpore sano


ymca poolThe pool at the YMCA gym (me in the reflection)

I am currently in what might laughingly be called training. Really it is a last minute effort to avoid embarrassing myself or expiring, or both, swimming across Blenheim lake next weekend.

I have been gyming it in the morning and swimming it in the evening. Early trains in and late trains home. I am hoping that once this foray into the rigours of competitive athleticism is over I won’t fall back into only occasional bursts of activity. Tired as I am, I feel better for the exercise.

The Roman poet Juvenal coined the phrase Mens sana in corpore sano, which roughly translates as a healthy mind in a healthy body. This is now the motto of many academic, athletic and army institutions, and even a Japanese clothing company (ASICS). Juvenal’s poem is generally considered a satirical one: mocking those who wish for more superficial things from life than these two fundamental virtues, or maybe suggesting that it would be nice to have those with corpore sano showing a little more in the mens department.

What has spawned this widespread discipline of going to the gym? Fifty years ago did people get enough exercise in their day to day lives that it wasn’t necessary to take an hour out of the day simply to run? Or is it the modern expectation of beauty and success that demands a toned body from its bourgeosie?

In 1 Corinthians 6:19, Paul likens the body to a temple. This oft quoted verse is used to prohibit smoking, sex, drugs, over-eating, under-eating, in fact all the temptations both good and bad in which we indulge. I have also heard it used by Christians who go to the gym religiously. And I don’t use that term lightly. The endorphins released by vigorous exercise can be elating, much like a charismatic religious experience. The routine of regular attendance and working towards a goal of perfection can become parallel to – or perhaps overshadow – their Christian journey. Excessive exercise can be as damaging to the body in the long term as drug use or eating disorders.

I prefer the ASICS acronym: anima sana in corpore sano. This translates more as a healthy soul in a healthy body. In the Latin Vulgate bible the word anima is used to describe the human soul (Matthew 10:28). In more modern adaptations, Jung used the term anima to describe man’s feminine inner psyche (the masculine form animus describes woman’s inner masculine psyche). It is one thing to exercise the mind through study and learning, it is another to exercise the soul. The incongruous juxtaposition of a healthy body – measurable, achievable – against a healthy soul – ephemeral, incorporeal, eternal – is one that for me expresses the discord of being human, the challenge of faith and works.

…My gym has a chapel. It is a place of prayer and quiet for all, overlooking the main studio and adjacent to the dumbbells. I like that there is a chapel; I wish that I made more time for reflection as part of my exercise routine. I know that I should.

Over the last few weeks I have found myself grateful to God, as I am able to swim a little further, a little faster each day, mistaking perhaps my improving fitness with divine intervention. However, I wonder how healthy my soul is. I wonder what goals there may be to aim for and how I might see improvements, be they my own or the Lord’s…

YMCA chapel at the gym


Queasy like Monday Morning


my new bus?I am starting a new job this week. It is Sunday night; all the ironing has been done, tomorrow morning’s outfit has been laid out and my bag is packed.

New beginnings have always frightened me. I know I’m not alone in that. Except that I am. People may have similar experiences, they may even share the same experiences, but their reaction to such experiences will always be different, will always be unique to them.

I could explain how I feel, try to find relief in comforting words from others or suggestions on how to calm my nerves, but ultimately it is me alone that will get on that bus tomorrow morning, travel a new route to work and try to settle into a new management and routine.

Or am I alone?

Christianity offers the promise of a walk with God. From the very first book of the Bible, men and women are described as walking with God (Genesis 6:9) Famous passages like “Footprints” paint the idea of God not just walking beside us, but carrying us through the bad times. People far holier than me appear to do this effortlessly, they may talk of times God has spoken to them or when they have ‘felt’ His presence. Others empathise with me and say that this close, almost physical, relationship with God eludes them also, but I think we all wonder how it is that we can truly walk with God.

Here I am now: worrying how I can work with my colleagues and walk with my Lord. I might Google for advice, open the bible at random, phone a friend, but I know that all of these things would be no more than a placebo. There seems to be a lot of blanket rhetoric in literature and preaching – both religious and secular – but rather than paint a roadmap, they offer a mode of transport.

So like those who entered the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, like Socrates and like Neo in the Matrix, I need to know myself. I need to be honest about my faults, failings and fears, the way I react to situations and how to find confidence in myself.

And I think most of all I need to be patient (Hebrews 12:1).

Jack Daniels


JD posterJack Daniel‘s poster at Embankment Station

I really hate when adverts suck me in. Even while my conscious mind fights the lure of a well-crafted piece of advertising I am drawn inexorably into an Altantic drift of interest and amusement. Fuckers.

For personal reasons Jack Daniel’s will always be somewhere close to my heart, but the essence of what their advertising says is something that strikes a chord even closer to home.

The JD brand is about tradition being a beautiful thing. It says that taking the time to wait for the maturing of good bourbon is as important as daily shifts of lugging barrels here and there. It says that the dynamic of work and rest is a good thing. JD invites you to partake of a drink that means more than a swift glug of something alcoholic to numb the senses.

Tradition is – or can be – a beautiful thing. But before I wax lyrical in order to make some kind of comparison with church and a life of faith, I need to focus in on what this poster says in particular.

Ask a Barrelman how many people work at Jack Daniel’s and he’ll tell you “About half of them.”

How often do we consider the people around us to be slackers? To hear of our friends’ working hours and feel envy, to read of the salaries of those in the media and wonder how deserved that is, to glance at our neighbour and wonder about their own working life.

It’s easy to resort to a rosy glow of history to make some kind of sociological point, but I do find myself wondering about working hours and working attitudes of now compared to those in the past. In this country of ours we exploit the esoteric knowledge base of employees more than practical skills: hedge fund managers on millions, a whole industry based on “management consultancy”, lawyers revered over teachers. This kind of working makes it difficult to encourage the dynamic of ebb and flow, work and rest, play and practicality. At what point do we wait for maturation?

This advert works because it invites the busy London commuters with their astronomical mortgages and stressful work environments to imagine a life where the barrels have been set and the porch benches rock gently in the calm breeze.

Meeting new people (1)


rajStudents Urge for Immediate Permanent Ceasefire in Sri Lanka

Raj was very unassuming as he wandered onto the tube. So unlike the rest of us arrayed in our fashionable finery, which said little more about ourselves than how much we might spend on not looking too plebeian, he walked on to a few worried glances.

He had spent the last few days protesting against British foreign policy in Sri Lanka.

We had only 2 stops for me to attempt to learn his life story. Definitely not long enough. I do know that he’s starting a post-graduate degree in Economics here in London, in part because he doesn’t feel he would have the same educational opportunities back in his home country.

It was liberating going up to the person in the carriage that everyone else is studiously trying to ignore in order to start a conversation.

It was also fascinating to see a protester on the move. Next I want to see a sports’ mascot as they make their way to the place where they stop looking out of place…