Mens sana in corpore sano

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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

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2 thoughts on “Mens sana in corpore sano

  1. pandorastreasure

    It’s a strange thing, I have always found exercise and prayer to go together.. it is the one time I am still enough and alone enough with my own thoughts to think and pray…while my body does it’s thing, I am elsewhere. And a friend who swims every morning uses her time there for prayer too… perhaps one can feed the other or perhaps they are linked. I love the idea of a chapel in a gym.. a great place to have one, Katie,

    I couldn’t work out how to comment as me so am on an old blog account! 🙂

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