It’s been about two months since I returned to the U.S. from eight years serving with ELCA Global Mission in Cairo, Egypt. Upon our return, my family and I lived temporarily near the beach. One morning while out for my run, I realized reverse culture shock had really set in.
It was a perfect day—the sun rising, the water glistening, seagulls floating about and people all along the boardwalk. Some were walking, others biking, but most were running. Some were dressed in the latest exercise outfits, others in simple T-shirts and shorts and still others in barely anything at all. There were shirtless men, women with bare midriffs, all with their legs exposed up to the thigh.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have noticed, but I did. Such dress isn’t a common sight in Egypt. I wondered, what would my Coptic Orthodox monk friends say?
I could imagine them walking down the boardwalk in their long black robes, hoods and soft-soled shoes. I pictured them stroking their beards as they stoically walked along—as monks do—trying not to notice the exposed flesh all about them.
And then it dawned on me. Perhaps my monastic friends and those around me have more in common than meets the eye.
The spirituality of the monastic life is fully integrated. Monks not only follow a strict discipline of prayer and worship but also of work. This is what is known as ora et labor (pray and work). In other words, my monk friends don’t only attend to their spiritual lives through prayer and reading Scripture. Their whole lives—including their daily work—are their spiritual lives.
Western Protestants often have a tendency to spiritualize faith—we see it as a matter of the heart and head, not the body. The faith is often reduced to “right thinking”—correct theology. In some circles, the faith is often reduced to emotional types of worship or prayer. Rarely, however, does the body—or bodily things—have a role in the spiritual life. Rarely is the body in its daily routine seen as a part of the worship life.
Monasticism, however, sees the body as an ongoing part of worship and communication with God. (We Lutherans have picked up some of this spirituality through Martin Luther’s focus on vocation as a spiritual calling, as well as through our theology of the eucharist. Even so, we would rarely call our daily routines an act of worship.)
My monastic friends try to integrate the mind, body and soul into one complete whole that is in communion with God. This spiritual life includes not only the purification of the soul but of the body as well—through a discipline of sleep, diet and work. The body is something that can impede the spiritual life; but if trained properly, it can enhance it.
So, what does this have to do with half-naked people jogging on the beach?
Although American Protestants haven’t been particularly good at integrating mind, soul and body in a holistic spirituality, U.S. culture does see the body as central to one’s life, lifestyle and health. Hundreds of people were out early in the morning forcing their bodies to run around to the point of exhaustion. Why not just sit down with a cup of coffee and watch the waves roll in? There certainly were some people doing just that, but far more were ecstatic runners, walkers and cyclists performing their rituals. All of those people out running, walking and cycling (myself included) were driven by a desire to have their bodies function well and to feel good about themselves.
American culture does have a spirituality of the body. The young woman in a sports bra and spandex shorts jogging down the boardwalk may have more in common with my monastic friends than I thought. For both of them, the body is an important part of their life that needs constant attention.
Many U.S. Christians don’t connect this spirituality of the body with their faith. If we could only harness this cultural spirituality of the body and see it as integral to the Christian faith, then perhaps we might wake up early for prayers and begin sporting black robes—well, maybe not, but I think you get the point.
As for me, I’m going to have a cup of coffee and watch the waves.
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