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

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