Saturday, October 8, 2016

Confessions of a Gymrat: Of six-packs, steadying a saint's shaking hands, and realizing that bitterness is a choice; but so is hope, so is joy. (II Mc 7:1-2,9-14)

"Whoa, bro! You have a six-pack?"
"Yeah, why?"
"Exactly! Why?"
"What do you mean, 'why'? And what's wrong with a six-pack? If I could do it, I'd get an eight!"
"I mean, what do you need it for? You're not getting married!"
"That's right! Celibacy, baby! I signed my papers many years ago."
"So, why?" 

This was a real conversation I had - and it's an exchange that's recurred a few times with friends at the gym (here in Miami, in Manila, and wherever else I've found myself working out these past eighteen years) who know I'm a priest. And no, very few - I can count them with the fingers of one hand - know that I'm ordained. And fewer still are those I talk to. (I just don't like chatting when I'm "in the zone", and I don't like striking up conversations in the gym. I like to go in, lift, and get out. Gym is for working out, not socializing; at least that's how I've always seen it. But those I do have brief conversations with are mostly folks I've known for some time or who need someone to spot for them.)

But going back to this particular conversation, the question did make me pause and think. You see, I've never really wondered why I needed to find a reason - especially one my questioning gym buddy seems to have associated with my being celibate - for taking care of this gift God has given me, this thing we call our 'body'. It's his gift to us. Shouldn't taking care of it be a 'given' for all of us then?

Perhaps he wasn't really wondering why I was exercising; maybe he just felt that doing a ton of exercises targeting one's core seemed a tad vain for a priest. Whatever his reasons for asking the question, I do have to confess, I have a six-pack, and it's something of which I'm neither ashamed nor proud. It's just there, and I've done my best to maintain it all these years. Am I being vain? Maybe. Maybe not. Let me explain.

A few years ago, the relics of Pope John Paul II visited our seminary here in Miami. I was a young boy when John Paul II was elected. I was in kindergarten when Albino Luciani, Pope John Paul I died after an extremely brief reign. I remember sitting in class and seeing one of the religious sisters crying as she knocked on the classroom door and whispered something to our teacher. I didn't know much about John Paul I or his predecessor, Paul VI. I was far too young to even know what a 'pope' was. But John Paul II visited Manila early in his pontificate; and the moment he stepped off that plane and I saw his smile (I only saw it on TV, of course) I was hooked. I remember being so fascinated when he kissed the ground.

I tried to know everything I could about the man. But of all the amazing things I learned about him, the thing that most captured my imagination as a young boy was his rather painful past. We all know, of course, that he lost his mother before he was even nine years old, and his beloved brother before he was nineteen. He and his father were so poor that they lived in a basement and scrimped on everything so that he could pursue his studies. And then his father passed away, alone, while the future pope was in school. By the age of 22, Karol Wojtyla was a complete orphan. When the Nazis invaded Poland, many of his friends disappeared and were killed. And he had to study in an underground seminary for fear of being killed himself. As bishop he was hounded by communists, as pope he was shot by a fanatic, and in old age, he became so frail he could barely speak.

Whenever I think of his life, I can’t help but wonder how a man who went through so much suffering, pain and, I'm sure, great sadness, could have accomplished what he did. How could someone hit by one tragedy after another possess such titanic strength, not just to survive and thrive, but to inspire and edify so many?

So what does this, in any way, have to do with working on one's abdominal muscles? Well, my admiration for John Paul II was to take an extremely important and tremendously personal turn in my final year in seminary. 

I was ordained deacon in early December of '97, and during the Christmas break that followed, a number of us students from the American College in Louvain had the opportunity to visit Rome, have an audience with the pope in his personal quarters, and attend a Mass he was celebrating. I had the truly awesome experience of serving as one of the deacons at that Mass.

Pope John Paul was already suffering from Parkinsons back then, the shaking of his hands was something we couldn't help but notice. And for some reason, his hand shook rather badly that morning. Anyway, during the consecration, as the good pope lifted the cup (I was standing behind him, on his right), his secretary who that day was serving as Master of Ceremonies, came up to me from behind and whispered, "Hold his hand; steady it". "What?!" I asked with a great mixture of surprise and nervousness. I hesitated. "Steady his hand", his secretary, Msgr. Dzsiwisz (now Cardinal Dzsiwisz) insisted.

And so I did. I held Saint John Paul II's right hand, steadying it as he elevated the cup at the consecration.

I steadied the shaking hands of the vicar of Christ! I steadied the hands of a saint lifting the Body and Blood of Christ! But it wasn't the steadying that made the most impact on me. It was the fact that his hands shook, that this man who carried on his shoulder the weight of so much personal suffering, but also the weight of the entire Church's concerns, seemed so frail and yet so strong at the same time. I would never forget that encounter.  

Years later, as I (once again on TV) saw this titan of the spiritual life, strain to speak one last time, from the window of his room at the Vatican, I remembered that December morning, when I held his hand, and learned a valuable lesson in embracing all the gifts we are given - including, and especially, the difficult ones.

Why was this experience so significant for me? And what connection does it have with what some of my close friends think is an obsession with working out?

At 26, I developed asthma. To this day, there are moments when I have such a hard time breathing, especially when it's hot and humid, that I want to simply shut the world out and lie down and close my eyes. I still remember the day the doctor told me the symptoms I was having was a sign of asthma, and that I would have to be more careful and curtail a lot of my outdoor activities. 

At 33, I was found to have the disease so dreaded in my family (both my mom's parents died from its complications): diabetes. Some five years ago, I learned that I now have to live with a liver ailment for the rest of my life as well.

They're minor illnesses to be sure, and I'm still grateful I didn't get the big tough ones. Still, each time the doctor broke the news of a new illness, I get flashbacks from when I was a freshman in high school and was told by my eye doctor that my eyesight had gotten bad and I would from then on, have to wear glasses. For some reason, I was depressed for days. It sounds rather silly now, but back then, the thought of having to always wear glasses (or contacts) just made me feel really bad.

The Stoic philosopher, Epictetus once wrote, "Everything has two handles, the one by which it may be carried, the other by which it cannot." 

The sentence seems rather cryptic; but really, all he meant was that life and all the experiences that come with it can be viewed from one of two perspectives: as a gift or as a burden, a blessing or a curse, a source of strength, growth, and fullness, or a millstone tied around one's neck. 

The choice is always ours.

Perhaps a more understandable and contemporary rendering of the lines from Epictetus' work, the Enchiridion would be "when life throws you lemons, make lemonade".  

And what lemons got thrown at John Paul II!

A lesser mortal would probably have ended up depressed, bitter, and angry at life, perhaps even paralyzed with anxiety and fear. But not this man who in his early twenties was already without his beloved family. I've always marveled at the fact that when he died in 2005, it was the entire family of humanity that gave him one final embrace and bid him farewell.

John Paul II transmuted sorrow into joy, not just for himself, but for everyone he came in contact with; he transformed his own pain, difficulty, suffering, sorrow, and the experience of death, into something completely life-giving, not just for his beloved Church, but for the entire world. 

That could not have happened by chance. I believe it was a conscious choice.

Transforming the difficulties and challenges we encounter in our day-to-day lives into something life-giving, into something that strengthens rather than weakens or paralyzes us, is a matter of our own choosing. We can choose to see things, no matter how challenging and tough, as gifts, as blessings, as engines that can move us from weakness to strength, from strength to greater strength and, finally, from self-absorption to self-emptying and self-giving.

At 45 years of age, I've shrunk my waistline to 29 1/2 and yes, I guess I am proud of my six-pack. Does that sound vain? It would be if that were the only purpose of religiously working out two hours a day, six days a week. But it isn't. Rather, it's the result (among other things) of deciding that asthma, diabetes, a liver ailment, and whatever else life eventually desires to throw at me, will never paralyze or terrify me. I want to serve the church as best as I can, for as long as I can. And if that means doing everything I can to preserve whatever health I have, then I have the inspiration of that December morning to thank, when I steadied John Paul II's shaking hands as he elevated the cup, transforming ordinary wine into the blood of Christ.

Bitterness is a choice, but so hope, so is joy. 

Whether it's our health or anything else, bitterness is a choice - one we should never make, no matter the situation.

Many years ago, as a young seminarian, I came to my spiritual director with a very serious problem, one that I felt I simply couldn't solve and which - as I now look back - could have easily led me to leave not just the seminary but the church and the faith. His advice to me, I believe I shall cherish for as long as I live and for as long as life never tires of throwing 'curveballs' my way: 

"When you encounter a problem, it's alright to feel bad, to be sad, and even for a time, to sit down and feel a little sorry for yourself; but don't let yourself stay that way for too long. Do not let your challenges make you bitter; choose the path less traveled, the one that leads to strength, to growth, and to fullness. Close your eyes, take a deep breath, then "pick up your mat and walk". Think of a solution; recognize the problem, but keep your mind, your heart, and your whole self, focused on finding that solution. And act on it right away. Don't be afraid; God will take your hand and guide you".
In the Book of Maccabees, we read of a mother and her seven sons who are all killed for their faith. Their tormentors all marveled at their strength, their tenacity, and their courage. Nothing, not even their impending torture and death could move them. Such is the courage that trust and confidence in God alone can give. No problem can destroy us, no pain, sorrow or difficulty can ruin us, no threat can paralyze us - for we know we are in God's hands, and in them, we can do all things, conquer death... and yes, even work on getting a six-pack.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)