Today I posted a status on Facebook about not feeling guilty for skipping my Zumba class (knee), said I'd go to the gym later, and used the words "penance" and "indulgences." That prompted me to continue, saying that made the gym sound like the new Catholic church. Which, if you think about it, not only works but has some sad truths to it.
I'm not Catholic. I was raised Baptist and when I moved out of the house I also became an Episcopalian. As Robin Williams says, that's Catholic lite... same religion, half the guilt. But one does not do extensive graduate work in choral music and not learn some things about the Catholic church and its history. Rather than turn my inane little blog into a historical dissertation on the Catholic church's history of "indulgences," just know that waaaay back in the darker ages you could pay off your sins with "indulgences" instead of Hail Marys and Our Fathers.
Back to my observed correlations between the gym and the Catholic church... well, actually between the gym and church in general. And now, the list:
1. Devoted, intense Catholics go to Mass daily. Devoted health nuts work out daily. Correspondingly, you have your Catholics who only go on Sundays and maybe on certain Feast days, and we have those who go to the gym only to do the recommended 30 minutes, 3 times a week. Behind curtain number 3, we have what us church folks call the CEOs - Christmas and Easter Only - and every gym has the roster of members who sign up come early January and after a couple weeks rarely darken the doors of the gym again, unless they have an event or something and think two weeks of working out will help them drop 20 pounds.
2. The church has priests, the gym has trainers. You can go to church and pray and such without working with a priest, and you can go to the gym and work out without a trainer. Both experiences are made better with the respective leader, though.
3. In this day and age, every church is expanding its offerings to attract as many members as possible. So is the gym. Churches do various kinds of worship, have a plethora of study groups and social groups, things for the kids to do, things for singles of all ages, things for married people in all stages of life, ministries for the single parent, etc. Gyms offer, at times, a mind-boggling myriad of equipment, from cardio machines to free weights to weight machines, plus classes from spin to Zumba to core to yoga, child care, swimming pools, and showers with hair dryers included so you don't have to bring yours from home. People pick both their churches and their gyms based on the amenities, location, and the people already there.
4. People dress up to go to church. People dress up to go to the gym. If you don't believe me on the latter, go to the gym and see how many women (in particular) are walking around in perfectly matched & coordinated athletic designer work out clothing. (And, honestly, how few of those women actually break a sweat.) At my gym, there are plenty who wear just comfy shorts and big t-shirts, too, and at the same time you can walk into any church and see everything from "Sunday best" to outfits that make you wonder if they'd just rolled out of bed and gotten dressed in the dark. Without a mirror. With a color blind person choosing the outfits.
5. Both cost money. Honestly, this is a bit cynical of me. Obviously gyms have membership fees, although depending on where you go you can often negotiate lower fees or be scholarshipped. Churches don't require you to pay anything, but Biblically we are expected to tithe and if you've ever been in a church during a stewardship campaign, saying you aren't "required" to pay can feel like a real stretch. Nobody does guilt better than a church, except maybe your mother.
6. Both make you feel better overall. The Church nourishes your spirit, the gym your body. The Bible is full of verses about physical health - some have been taken to the nth degree to support those who believe medical intervention is wrong - and others have a double meaning when the writer says to "be strong." Paul admonished the church in Corinth in his first letter to them about their bodies being a temple of the Holy Spirit and thus should be treated with respect. The entire letter is full of analogies between a physical body and that of the body of a church. Conversely, the gym can help your spirit and the church your body. There are plenty of empirical studies showing that regular exercise helps wards off mental illness such as depression and even possibly Alzheimer's, and having a healthy spiritual life has been shown repeatedly to heal illnesses and injuries doctor's couldn't fix - the power of prayer.
7. You get back what you put in. There is a page or something on Facebook that I recently "liked" that says, "Going to church makes you no more of a Christian than standing in a garage makes you a car." The point of it is, just because you go to church doesn't mean you're a Christian. Likewise, just because you go to a gym doesn't mean you're in shape. I see so many people at my gym using the equipment but never elevating a heart rate or actually working their muscles. A membership card isn't enough, nor is just showing up and going through the motions. The same is true about church: just because you attend doesn't mean you are actually, in your spirit, participating. Or, honestly, participating at all. Go to church and see how many people don't sing during the hymns/praise choruses, and don't pray during the prayers. Why are they there? To be seen? To check something off the to-do list?
8. Both have obligations outside of their respective buildings. Going to church and participating and, if one is Catholic, going to confession, does not give you carte blanche freedom to be a wild and crazy heathen the rest of the week, committing every sin in the book and a few that aren't. Likewise, just because you go to the gym regularly and work out well doesn't mean when you aren't at the gym you can eat whatever you want and punish your body in other ways.
9. People join because they have a need. Yes, there are those who are already in good physical shape who join a a gym, and those with a great spiritual walk who join a church. But new members come because of something innately personal. I got my first ever gym membership because I'd blown out my knee for the second time and needed to rehab it. I also realized that I was in my 30s and facing life-long health problems without insurance if I didn't do something about my overall physical being now. Likewise, people turn to the church in their times of need. After 9/11, church attendance shot to some of the highest levels in decades. People face some sort of devastation in their personal lives, maybe a death, divorce, loss of a job, and they will often turn to the church or at least to their faith to cope.
And now, I have to head to the gym and do my penance for yesterday's Fourth of July family reunion food and beer indulgences.