Saturday, October 29, 2016

Confessions of a Gymrat: Of 45-pound plates, a 40-pound bar, almost having one’s neck crushed, and trusting that God always has our back. ("See, I am sending an angel before you to protect you on your journey and lead you safely to the place I have prepared for you." Ex. 23:20)

“Angel of God, my guardian dear,
to whom His love commits me here,
ever this day, be at my side,
to light and guard,
rule and guide.

This, I think, was the earliest prayer I learned as a child. Yes, even earlier than the “Our Father” or the “Hail Mary”. Perhaps because of its brevity and rhyme, it’s perfect for teaching little children. I remember praying it with my parents right before going to bed, then with my brother and sister, when they were old enough to join us for family prayer.

I don’t recite it that often anymore. It doesn’t feel like a “grown-up” prayer. Though, I admit that, from time to time, I find myself praying it still, and when I do, two things usually accompany it: a torrent of childhood memories and a sense of life’s simplicity slipping away as one gets older and moves farther and farther away from the innocence of his childhood years.

About a week ago, in our class on St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles, the students and I got into a discussion of the theory of God as the “Unmoved Mover,” one of the more complicated metaphysical ideas Thomas inherited from Aristotle. In the course of the discussion, one of the guys asked a question about angels. He wondered whether as spiritual beings, angels didn’t have “parts” and if so, whether unlike human beings, they’re also “unmoved.”

It was an interesting question. When I tried to answer it though, my mind just went blank. [You can go to the end of this entry for the answer.] It was as if the theological and philosophical “parts” of my brain were switched off, and in place of a rational or logical answer to the question, that prayer to one’s guardian angel I learned as a child kept playing in my head like a broken record. For a few seconds as well (though it seemed like several hours), I felt like I was yanked out of the classroom and was back at my old gym in Manila on that day when the weights almost crushed my neck.

My session that afternoon began the way it always does: stretching, 20 minutes of cardio, a little bit of warm up so I don’t start out cold (muscles don't tend to respond well with cold starts), then its heavy lifting until I’m either sore or just bored and can’t take any more of it.

I didn’t notice this kid (yes, he was literally a kid, probably 16 or 17 years old) start doing presses on the bench to my left; I was too intent on getting done with my own routine.

After my light sets though, from the corner of my eye, I saw him move from the flat bench on the left to the incline one on the right. He had two 45-pound plates on each side of the bar which itself weighed a good 40 pounds. He didn’t use any clips.

When I finally got done with my heavy sets, I sat up, picked up my bottle of water from the floor, and began taking a sip. As soon as I did, I heard this really loud clanging sound right behind me, probably a foot and a half behind my back.

It was the two 45-pound plates and the 40-pound bar hitting my bench on the spot where my face, neck and chest had been, barely two seconds ago. The kid had taken off the plates on the right side of the bar, leaving the plates on left to fall off together with the bar itself, crashing on the spot where I had been lying and where my towel was still laid out.

He was shaken; so was I. A whole bunch of people rushed to the spot to see if someone had gotten hurt. Mercifully, we were both ok. The reactions of the folks who came over was quite predictable. One guy said, “I guess it isn’t your time yet, bro.”

Others kept telling me how “lucky” I was that I had gotten up from the bench, adding that had I not done so, they’d be rushing someone to the hospital who would probably not make it given the amount of weight that came crashing down.

One of the guys who knew I was a priest though, came up and whispered: “Father, you must have angels looking after you. That bar would’ve killed you. It’s good to know someone’s got your back.”

Because of that experience, of course, I’ve become very conscious of what’s going on around me in the gym. [We must always exercise caution when training. Safety, both one’s own as well as others’, is of the utmost importance when handling gym equipment, especially the heavy ones. One always has to have a spotter when lifting heavy weights, and using proper form is always necessary.]

At the same time, while exercising an abundance of caution, one mustn’t fear the weights nor the discomfort and even a certain amount of pain that’s inevitable in fitness training. We must be careful, that’s true; but unless we want to get stuck in a “plateau” – that’s a situation where the body gets so used to a particular routine or amount of weight, that the muscles no longer respond (and grow) - we have to be willing to risk experiencing some level of pain.

The risk of experiencing pain is an inescapable part of working out. It’s an inescapable part of life.

Perhaps that’s why we’re taught as children that there are benevolent beings that look after us, constant companions sent to always be by our side, guiding and keeping us from harm. Perhaps it’s one way by which we gradually learn confidence and trust in God’s providence in the face of the risks we all experience as we grow up.

As we grow older, of course, as the non-complicated days of our childhood recede farther into the distance, the idea of heavenly beings keeping us constant company slowly loses its appeal, until eventually, it becomes nothing more than a faint memory.

As we mature and our life becomes ever more complex, we take leave of the spiritual companions of our childhood, replacing them with more concrete, tangible, and often material sources of courage, comfort and strength: our career, work, relationships, achievements, successes, and possessions. The world of a mature adult, it seems, has little room for talk about heavenly protectors.

As I was telling my students in the Aquinas class though, I do believe in angels (even if it’s one of those religious ideas with which I’ve constantly struggled, philosophically and theologically). Because whether or not angels are, in fact, like those beings we’ve been taught as children to imagine them to be, wings, halos and all, I believe that they do represent something that all of us – whether child or adult – need throughout our lives, namely, that sense that there is a hand that guides and protects us, a reality larger and stronger than ourselves who always has our back and in whom we can rest secure.

When St. Teresa of Avila died, a small piece of paper containing this prayer was found tucked into her breviary:

Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing:
God never changes.
Patient endurance,
attains all things.
He whom God holds
shall want for nothing;
God alone suffices.

No one is exempt from the worries, fears, and anxieties of life, not even the most faithful and devout among us. And while Scripture tells us that God “gives his sun to shine on both the good and the bad, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust” (Matt. 5:45), it is equally true that suffering, difficulty, and pain are visited and distributed by life equally on everyone, on the good and bad, on believer and unbeliever alike. And yet, as St. Teresa says in her prayer, “he whom God holds shall want for nothing”.

One who believes and trusts that his life is always in God’s hands has something that no one else possesses (and which nothing can ever take away), and that is that unshakeable confidence that no matter what happens, “all will be well.” For if there’s one thing that Scripture so confidently proclaims again and again, it is the fact that God is in control and Christ is in charge, even of the darker, riskier and more worrisome parts of our lives.

Jesus heals the sick, expels unclean spirits, feeds the multitude, calms the storm, calls the sinner to repentance, even raises the dead. And because of this, St. Paul is able to urge us to cast off anxiety, worry, and fear.

For while we may no longer believe in angels the way we did when we were children, what they represent will never lose its relevance in our lives - because what they signify is that trusting and confident faith in a God who will always have our back, a Father who – in Augustine’s words – “cares for each one of us as if we were the only one to care for” and whose concern for our safety and well-being extends to even the smallest and seemingly insignificant details of our day to day lives, including sometimes being in a gym with careless kids who drop heavy weights.

[To answer the question my student asked about angels having "parts", they don't, at least not like human beings or other "be-souled" bodies do. Aristotle says that only a "simple" being, i.e. a being that has absolutely no "parts" or "components" can be "unmoved". Thomas thus argues that God is the only "unmoved" being since he is the only "simple" being, i.e. he is the only being that has no "parts". Angels may not have "parts" like God's other "material" creations, but unlike God, they aren't "simple" since their "essence" isn't the same as their "existence." (Only in God are essence and existence one and the same.) Thus angels have "parts," just not material ones. As such, they aren't "unmoved" like God. They too, like all other creatures, are "moved," by God, the One Unmoved Mover.]

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