Looking Back on Lent: A Lesson at the Gym

The last few days of Lent are winding down, and it’s usually at this time I find myself looking back on the last 40-odd days and wondering where it all went. Often, regret tinges my memory of Great Lent–I never feel like I quite “Lented” enough. This year, though, I find myself with a different–I daresay even uplifting–perspective.

For this change of attitude, I have my body to thank–in its weakness, it helped remind me of something I easily overlook in these latter days of Lent…

I lifted some weights on Monday (or maybe it was Tuesday?) It had been a while, so I intentionally kept things light and only did a few reps. Despite these precautions, I rolled out of bed the next day to the tune of achy arms and hamstrings. Once the initial stiffness wore off, I found I was only sore in little, annoying places–muscles I’d forgotten I even have.

I like lifting weights, though I have never been very strong. Years ago, I only used to lift with those big machines at the gym. I got pretty good at it and could lift what, for me, seemed like a lot of weight. But I almost never felt sore afterward and also never seemed to get any stronger.

Then someone told me to try free weights–actual dumbbells. Doing this, she said, would be good for me because free weights don’t just work the primary, big-name muscles (like biceps and glutes) but all the tiny, stabilizing muscles, which is actually more important.

“Five pounds lifted with free weights are like thirty pounds lifted on any machine,” she told me.

So I switched, and at first, it was grueling. Free weights are so much harder to work with, mostly because there is no machine doing any of the work. Not only do you have to lift the weights, you also keep them balanced in your hands and not drop them. It’s like taking the training wheels off a bike–now you’re not just pedaling forward, but steering and keep the thing upright.

Most of the time, I can’t lift more than five or ten pounds (I’m a weakling!) And I get sore afterward–not in the bragworthy muscle groups, but instead in random, annoying places. A tiny curl of the wrist produces a hairline twinge along the side of my forearm. Lifting a bag of groceries sends a pang up a very narrow strip of my bicep.

Lent is a little like taking the training wheels off the weight of faith. In this season of more intense fasting and prayer, we are summoned to lift our hearts to God in ways that can seem grueling at first (or just… always).

And going into Lent, if I am completely honest, there is usually a part of me that subconsciously expects (even desires) to work the big, showy muscles of faith. This part of me (pride, I think it’s called) just wants the spiritual six pack–to grow in a way that will be obvious and flashy. Pain is fine, as long as it is a sort of bragworthy pain.

Now that the last days of Lent have come, though, I find that–like my foray in weight-lifting–I am not sore in the big places but the small ones. I’m not tired from valiantly soldiering on through an all-night vigil or some extreme sports version of Great Lent.

But I find that I am more tender than usual in a few tiny places–places probably no one sees but myself and God. Places that used to be atrophied from lack of use now seem sore and vulnerable for some reason, though I don’t remember working them.

I feel this new pain, this new tenderness, when I turn inward in a certain way or look at a certain angle toward my neighbor. Tiny, barely perceptible movements that send a sharp jolt of awareness-bordering-on-love through my being that I don’t think was there six weeks ago.

These little pangs of tenderness–they are maybe one of the few indications I have that my meager Lenten askesis has actually served to exercise me.

Ordinarily, I might be discouraged by how small and seemingly insignificant they seem. But then I remember weight lifting. I remember my stabilizing muscles. I remember that five pounds lifted with my full self–all my muscles–are as good as a whole lot more weight lifted in a more superficial way. And I remember that these tiny growths of the heart are probably more in line with what my soul needs to learn to stand upright and fully aligned.



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