Saturday, November 20, 2010

Naked in the Palaestra

Bodily exercise profits a little, but godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life that now is and of that which is to come.
—the Apostle Paul

Plato was discussing the impropriety of training female guardians for the state with his friend, Glaucon: “Yes, and the most ridiculous thing of all will be the sight of women naked in the palaestra,[1] exercising with the men, especially when they are no longer young; they certainly will not be a vision of loveliness, any more than the enthusiastic old men who, in spite of wrinkles and ugliness, continue to frequent the gymnasia.”[2]

I think of the little gymnasium I frequent each week, where I work out with a group of “enthusiastic old men” (and women), and I ponder our efforts to stay alive, or at least look alive, as long as possible. A vision of loveliness we are not, but at least we’re not naked in the palaestra. Believe me that would not be a pretty sight!

Exercise does profit a little, Paul says, and I struggle to be as fit as I can be. I try to eat right (more or less, though I do love fried chicken). I lift and walk and do other stuff, but I know that my body is a wasting asset, not long for this world. Its powers are vanishing, or have vanished out of sight. “High notions of myself are annihilated by a glance in the mirror...”[3]

Better it is, then, to concentrate on godliness because it holds promise for this life and the life to come. Contrary to the old adage, we can take something with us after all.

Godliness sounds dull, foreboding and far from us, but the essence of godliness is simply self–giving love, caring more for others then we care for ourselves—a love that is hard to come by, but one that grows in the presence of love. We grow loving and more lovely by sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to Him, talking things over, learning God–likeness from one whose name is Love.

Youth is all about doing, while aging is a journey into love, it seems to me, and (if you will believe me again) there’s nothing half so beautiful as a loving old soul, “wrinkles and ugliness” notwithstanding. Physical exercise is good, no doubt, but there is something far, far better: It is to love and to love and to love.


[1] A gymnasium for wrestlers
[2] Plato, Republic 5.452.b
[3] Nobel laureate, Czeslaw Milosz

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Shmoos and their Kin

"No good deed goes unpunished."

—folk saying

Some of you may be old enough to remember the lowly Shmoo, Al Capp's pint–sized, pear-shaped, lovable, little creature that laid packaged eggs, gave grade–A milk and rendered sweet cream butter (no churning required).

A Shmoo swooned with ecstasy if someone wanted to eat it. If you looked at one hungrily, it would happily jump into a frying pan. Fried, it tasted like chicken; broiled it tasted like steak; roasted it tasted like pork; baked it tasted like catfish. Eaten raw, it tasted like oysters on the half-shell. If a Shmoo really loved you, it would lay a cheesecake, though Capp confessed, "This was quite a strain on its li'l innards…"

Shmoo's eyes made ideal suspender buttons; their whiskers made first-rate toothpicks; their pelts, cut thin, made fine leather; cut thick they made the very best lumber. Shmoos were supremely useful, happy, harmless creatures that loved people (especially children) and existed for no other reason than to do good to others.

Yet, according to Capp's sage, Ol' Man Mose, "Shmoos is the greatest menace to hoomanity th' world has evah known."

"Thass becuz they is so bad, huh?" asked Li'l Abner.

"No, stupid," answered Mose, uttering one of life's profoundest ironies. "It's because they're so good!"

In the end Schmoos were hunted down to extinction (except for a small remnant in Dogpatch), but a great enigma was resolved: Why do some folks hate good people? Simply because they're good
[1], that's why. No other reason. Darkness cannot tolerate the light!

So, don't be surprised if some folks hate you when you're trying to do the right thing. You can never be good enough to appease them. In fact, the better you are the more they will despise you. Remember: they hated the only really good person that ever lived; they hated Him, as they will hate you, "without cause."

But, no matter. No one can harm a truly good person.
[3]  Oh, they can slay the body, but they cannot harm the soul. So don't be surprised if people despise you. Keep a good conscience and return every act of hatred with a blessing. Bless and do not curse. "Be tenderhearted, courteous; not returning evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary blessing, knowing that you were called to this that you may inherit a blessing.[4]  

The blessing is happiness in this world and the next. No matter what people say or do, they can't take that away from you.


[1]John 3:19
[2] John 15:25
[3] 1 Peter 3:13
[4] 1 Peter 3:8,9 Peter is not insisting that we submit to physical abuse. The Bible makes a strong case for the necessity of force to restrain evil when it endangers human life. The state "carries the sword." Even individuals may defend themselves when physically assaulted. Augustine was perhaps the first to note that Jesus' instruction about turning the other cheek refers to an insult and not an assault. His argument is that, given the fact that most assailants are right-handed, an attacker would normally strike us on the left cheek. To turn when someone strikes the right cheek assumes a back-hand slap—an insult.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Old Men Can’t Jump

“Well, we must be getting home,” said Kanga. “Good-bye, Pooh.” And in three large jumps she was gone. Pooh looked after her as she went. “I wish I could jump like that,” he thought. “Some can and some can’t. That’s how it is.”

—Winnie the Pooh

I see young men and women doing extraordinary things that I cannot do. They can; I can’t. That’s how it is. It’s easy to feel useless when you’re old.

 It comforts me to know that our Lord understands these moods; He was of this world. I don’t know how one who lived only thirty-two years can feel the dismay and disgrace of the elderly, but I take it as truth that He does. He lived all possible lives in the life that he lived and thus He knows it all: “how moons and hearts and seasons rise and fall.”

And then I gave myself another idea: We old folks may not be able to “jump,” but we can love and we can pray. These are the traditional works of the aged.

Love is the very best gift we can give to God and others. It is no small matter for love is the means by which we fulfill our whole duty to God and our neighbor. Love for one person may seem to be a very small action, but it is, in fact, “The Greatest Thing In The World.”[1]

And we can pray. John sees the prayers of the saints ascending before God and an angel hurling them back to the earth: “And there were noises, thunderings, lightnings, and an earthquake.”[2] We raise our reedy, time–worn voices in prayer and God shakes everything that can be shaken—a return that George Herbert termed, “reversed thunder.” Our prayers may be immature and incoherent, but there is no greater force in the universe!

Love and prayer—the mighty works of the aged, indeed, the mightiest works at any age! It seems then, that old folks may not be so useless after all!


[1] Henry Drummond’s phrase. Cf., 1 Corinthians 13:13
[2] Revelation 8:4,5

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