August 18, 2016

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

Acquiring Meaning in Life

Living within fallen society it is natural to deal with all those things that constitute the so-called "leather tunics," namely corruptibility and mortality, and with them we can integrate the asceticism of the body, and even exercise to deal with various problems which arise in the body and for the balancing between physical and psychological strength.

But we can never forget that a Christian with Baptism and their presence in the Church has another higher purpose and higher meaning in life. If people only occupy themselves with lesser meaningful things and not foster a high purpose and higher meaning, then they become disorientated and fall into error. And here are applied the words of the Apostle Paul: "So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God" (1 Cor. 10:31). Applicable also is another saying of the Apostle Paul: "For physical training is of some benefit, but piety has benefit for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come" (1 Tim. 4:8).

At this point I would like to briefly refer to a text of Saint Gregory of Nyssa titled "On the Christian Profession," in which he talks about what the purpose of the Christian life is. In this text Saint Gregory of Nyssa begins by identifying that, to see what the real profession of a Christian is, they should consider what the name of Christ means. And this is necessary because then the Christian will respond to the meaning of the name they receive, just as a doctor, a rhetorician and a mathematician would not want to demonstrate they have nothing to do with their name and the work they do and with the lack of education deny their name.

At this point he uses an amazing example he received from Lucian. An illusionist in Alexandria trained an ape to make movements like a man. And after he donned it with the mask of a dancer and a suitable outfit and taught him to do astonishing dances. Everybody wondered how a man could make such fantastic movements. But one spectator understood the fraud and sought to uncover the truth, so he threw some nuts into the orchestra which provoked the gluttony of the ape. When the ape saw the almonds, immediately it forgot about everything, the dance, the applause and the clothes, and rushed towards them. And because the mask prevented the ape from eating the almonds, it ripped off the mask and his true face could be seen, so that instead of a man it was an ape. This time the spectators, instead of expressing praise and admiration for what he did, burst into laughter, for the ape appeared "hideous and ridiculous without the mask."

Just as the ape, in spite of the effort to make it look like a man, was revealed because of its gluttony, in the same way those who do not form themselves in accordance with the faith, but rather in a way put a mask over their face, will be easily revealed with the bait of the devil. Christians who put on masks of prudence or other virtues and pretend to be Christians, in a moment of weakness and expression of the passions, will show their internal situation, because the passions "as a rebuke lead to ape-like souls." Thus those who impersonate the Christian name, and do not show a life that corresponds to that name, they according to the example of the ape refute their name and "the mask of a lifeless human character is molded in the place of an ape."

Saint Gregory of Nyssa identifies the name of a Christian as beginning with the name of Christ. Christ is King and, of course, this name shows His royal office and means that Christ has a lot of high qualities, such as justice, wisdom, strength, truth, goodness, life, incorruptibility, changelessness, non-alteration and other higher concepts. This means that those who are associated with Christ must acquire all these qualities. This is why a definition of Christianity is "that Christianity is an imitation of the divine nature."

Thus high is the purpose and high is the name of the life of a Christian. But this purpose is not "exorbitant" and does not exceed "our humble nature." And this is because man is created in the image and according to the likeness of God and therefore the definition that Christianity is an imitation of the divine nature "does not exceed the measures of our nature." Man was created with these conditions, and these must be restored.

When man does not live with these conditions with which he has been created and recreated in his association with Christ, then there are many tragic consequences in life. Just as the painter when called to paint the face of the queen or king if he does not succeed, but constructs a deformed face, will rightly cause the wrath of the king, so also a Christian if he does not accept the word of the mystery and does not conduct themselves in accordance with it, will distort the image of God and this distorted image will be handed to God with terrible consequences. Even a Christian who is unresponsive and not altered by Christ, and takes the forms of beasts, because beasts are perversions of our nature, will be the cause of unbelievers to criticize God.

Of course the question is how can humble humanity extend to divine blessedness? How can the earthly man become like the heavenly, since the difference of natures (divine and human) shows "the impossibility of imitation?" The answer is that the human nature cannot compare with the divine nature, but in our human life it is possible to imitate virtuous actions. And the imitation of the divine nature is to be alienated from all wickedness and as much as possible, of course, to be clean of any act, word or thought of defilement.

The words of Christ "be perfect, as your Father in the heavens is perfect" (Matt. 5:48) does not mean heaven is a particular dwelling-place, since God in His energies is throughout the earth, but heavenly life is a life free of every wickedness. Therefore, Christ, who commands us to imitate our heavenly Father, commands us to be clean of earthly passions.

The distancing from wickedness is done by the momentum of the intellectual property, which is why this work is not hard, because it is not connected with the momentum of the intellect. Therefore the heavenly life is easy for those who want to carry it out on earth. Christ instructs us: "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal" (Matt. 6:19-20). Therefore we should transfer our ventures towards heaven.

According to Saint Gregory of Nyssa the purpose and higher meaning of the Christian is to imitate the divine nature, which in detail means to be united with Christ, and for the properties of Christ to become our own properties, to become like Christ. This implies man eliminating the mask of a good Christian and gaining the true face of a Christian.

The example of the ape can be used in the case of the athlete, as it concerns us here. The athlete can not and must not only be trained to achieve high performance, overlooking their true internal person. If they indeed achieve high achievements, but at the same time passions rage within, then at some point when the lights of publicity turn off, or for some cause and occasion the passions are manifested, or when they find themselves on the borderline of existential problems, their true self will show, since their outer mask will fall off and they will become like the ape used in the example - "hideous and ridiculous." This is why physical exercise should go in parallel with spiritual and mental exercise.


Man is created by God in His image and according to His likeness and, of course, his nature consists of soul and body. The body is neither absolutized nor despised. It is possible for man to worship the body (somalatry) and it is possible to arrive at Manicheanism. Both of these divert from the theology of the Orthodox Church. Inside the Church we train the body and the soul, practicing mental and physical exercise, but our higher purpose is our spiritual completion, our union with Christ. When one is united with Christ all things in life receive their optimal value, while when we deal with many other things, without satisfying our deeper ontological purpose, then we feel hungry and thirsty existentially and deprive our lives of meaning, thus experiencing an existential vacuum.

Source 1 and 2: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.