Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Body and Athletics in Orthodox Theology (1 of 4)


On Saturday, 27 September 2003, in preparation for the Olympics in Athens in 2004, the Synodal Committee for the Olympic Games in 2004 of the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece, together with the second Youth Sports Executive Congress, organized a conference with the theme "Athletic and Spiritual Exercise: The Body in Athletics and Orthodox Spirituality". This took place at the Inter-Orthodox Center of the Sacred Monastery of Penteli.

The Conference was chaired by His Beatitude Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens and All Greece, who declared, among other things, at the beginning of the conference:

"The hierarchy of body and soul as valuable and the virtues that should adorn us that we may not fail in our lives, are a key element in our lives and that we all, regardless of the service all of us have assumed in our society, must be fighters in life and ascetics of body and soul. And the Lord will crown us with the wreath of victory, having fought honorably and conscientiously. For achieving this purpose let us never forget that the greatest virtue together with love is discernment. Let us never forget how everything relating to the soul is immortal and this is what we should mainly care for."

The first speaker was His Eminence Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos and Agiou Vlasiou, the President of the Synodal Committee, who presented the paper published below.

This was followed by the basketball coach of the national team Ioannis Ioannidis, who thanked His Beatitude and the Holy Synod for organizing this conference and showing their interest in athletics, thus showing the interest of the Church in all aspects of our lives. In his impressive speech he asked the Church "to embrace and enhance this difficult feat, which we have served and for years have ministered. Give us your lights and your backgrounds for that which is needed to fill the spiritual shortcomings of current Greek sports. Give us the appropriate tools and spiritual conditions, to fill the holes left behind in today's global professional sports. Fill with your spiritual experience and Orthodox theology today's unilateral physical exercises with the spirituality that it needs." Mr. Ioannidis confessed that before he finished his paper, he gave the text to the Abbot of Gregoriou Monastery at Mount Athos, Archimandrite George Kapsanis, and his spiritual father Fr. Philaretos, to study it.

Next to speak was Anastasios Stalikas, a researcher and Clinical and Sports Psychologist, who spoke on "Athletics and Elite Sports", explaining what athletics is, as well as high competitive sports, mass sports and exercise for everyone.

The Director of the Office for Youth of the Archdiocese of Athens, Protopresbyter Anthony Kalligeris, spoke on "The Theological Basis of Fair Play".

The Deputy Minister of Sports, Mr. Yiannis Lianis, praised the active participation of the Church in the Olympic Games, and offered the observation that by Emperor Theodosius the Great eliminating the Olympic Games, he saved them from the further humiliation to which they had fallen.

Then His Eminence Metropolitan Hierotheos had a discussion with Olympian Nikolaos Kaklamanakis, who said that before matches he prayed, and made particular reference to his spiritual struggles where he leaves everything to the will of God. In his discussion with Olympian Valerios Leonidis, he spoke about his relationship with Christ, who helps him overcome his difficulties. Coach Vasilis Kokkolis spoke how it was part of his coaching experience of many years to know how all athletes pray and ask God for help in their matches.

In all the presentations and discussions it became clear that the Church favors symmetric sports and not the biomechanics of elite sports. It is concerned over the use by certain top athletes of eastern meditation practices and wishes to teach them Orthodox noetic exercise. It also showed that for the Church the Olympics presented both pastoral challenges and temptations.

The Body in Orthodox Theology

By His Eminence Metropolitan Hierotheos
of Nafpaktos and Agiou Vlasiou

The theme I wish to briefly address is the reason for the human body, as well as the relationship between the soul and body in man, and this will actually be the introductory theme for the entire Conference.

It should be noted that on this issue I have written a special study published by Apostoliki Diakonia of the Church of Greece (Human Body: Ascesis and Exercise), but here we will highlight a few other points that I consider important.

So I will divide my subject into four separate sections. The first is, what does Saint John of Damascus say about the human body in relation to his soul. The second, what is the view of Saint Nektarios, Bishop of Pentapolis, on exercise and the fitness clubs of his day. The third, what mental exercise is necessary for the athlete. And the fourth section, what meaning of life is essential to man and superior to the exercise and athleticism of the body.

1. Man and Body According to the Teaching of Saint John of Damascus

Saint John of Damascus is a leading theologian of the Orthodox Church and his writings summarize all the teachings of the earlier Fathers, especially of Saint Gregory the Theologian, whom he calls his spiritual father.

In his text "Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith" he refers to the creation man, and he even seems very influenced by the teaching of Saint Gregory the Theologian.

After talking about the creation of the world, he then speaks of the creation of man. God first made the angels who belong to the noetic and incorporeal nature, then He made the material world and in the end created man who was a mixture of these two worlds. So man is a link between "visible and invisible nature". Because the soul and body is united in man, for this reason "man is also a microcosm".

The union of body and soul in an indissoluble unity makes man "capable of worship, compound, surveying the visible creation and initiated into the mysteries of the realm of thought, king over the things of earth, but subject to a higher king, of the earth and of the heaven, temporal and eternal, belonging to the realm of sight and to the realm of thought, midway between greatness and lowliness, spirit and flesh...."

The creation of man consisting of soul and body took place simultaneously, which is why Saint John of Damascus says: "Body and soul were formed at one and the same time, not first the one and then the other, as Origen so senselessly supposes." While the body was fashioned from the earth, the reasonable and noetic soul were created by "His own inbreathing".

There is a close unity between soul and body and they cannot be separated from each other. The rational soul uses the body as an instrument and provides it life, growth and generation.

Because of this unity man communicates through the senses with inanimate things (plants), is involved in the lives of irrational animals, and with the rational soul partakes in the cognition of beings endowed with reason, joining the bodiless and noetic natures to attain the virtues, even reaching up towards the pinnacle of the virtues, which is piety.

The characteristic attributes of the soul are piety and cognition, but because the soul is united with the body, this is why the virtues are "common to soul and body", precisely because the soul uses the body as an instrument.

As was noted above, man is the king of the things that are on the earth, and he has dominion, with the power received by God, over all worldly things, but he is subject to things above. This is the ontology of man and, of course, his purpose as Saint Gregory the Theologian writes and is reiterated by Saint John of Damascus. That is, man's "life is ordered as an animal's, but elsewhere, that is, in the age to come, he is changed and — to complete the mystery — becomes deified by merely inclining himself towards God; becoming deified, in the way of participating in the divine glory and not in that of a change into the divine being."

Translated by John Sanidopoulos.


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