Is this an exercise in futility?

Father Mark Goldasich is the pastor of Sacred Heart parish in Tonganoxie. He has been editor of the Leaven since 1989.

by Father Mark Goldasich

Thought I was gonna die.

Most people probably missed it, but in my Jan. 6 Leaven column I mentioned — in parenthesis, no less — that I’d just joined a gym earlier that week. It’s called Anytime Fitness and I’d walked past it many times before, heading into a bar and grill next door.

When I signed up, the manager asked if I’d like to hire a personal trainer. As I looked at all of the instruments of torture — I mean, exercise equipment — I said, “Sure,” but never imagined that little word would throw open Pandora’s box.

Jasper, my personal trainer, has a friendly, welcoming smile and laid-back personality. Those traits prevented me from realizing that, in a previous life, he’d obviously worked for the Spanish Inquisition.

He led me through a “light workout” our first session that consisted of treadmill walking, squats, several hundred (OK, it seemed like it) step-ups and some planks thrown in at the end. I felt proud for getting through these various exercises, when Jasper said, “Now, we’re going to do two more reps of each!” My perspiration that night could have ended the global drought.

When Jasper asked how many times a week I’d like to meet, I thought about saying, “Annually,” but managed to gasp, “What do you recommend?”

“Two or three . . .” Before he finished his sentence, I blurted out, “Two!”

As I wearily hobbled away, I thought I was gonna die. I ached in places that I didn’t even know I had.

But I’ve returned almost every Wednesday and Saturday. And Jasper keeps coming up with different workouts. Even crazier, though, is that every time I’m lifting weights, there’s always a “husky” (some might say “overweight”) man across from me parroting my every move. Jasper insists that it’s just a mirror, but I have my doubts.

Last week, I did some crunches. I’m pretty sure that my body has not been contorted like that since I was in the womb. I’ve also come up with my own names for the exercises. What Jasper calls the hollow rock, I call the “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up”; the mountain climber I’ve renamed “the Jello mold,” since my midsection jiggles during it to beat the band.

Yet I keep going back, inspired by this little story:

A young man presented himself to a local expert on gems and said he wanted to become a gemologist. The expert brushed him off, fearing the youth wouldn’t have the patience to learn. When the young man pleaded for a chance, the expert consented.

The next morning — and many mornings after that — he put a jade stone into the boy’s hand and told him to hold it. The expert then went about his work — cutting, weighing and setting gems. The boy sat quietly and waited.

Eventually, as the youth held the jade stone, he could no longer stand the silence. “Master,” he asked, “when am I going to learn something?” “You’ll learn” was all he said and went back to his business.

After several more days, the expert approached the boy and beckoned him to hold out his hand. The boy was about to blurt that he could no longer go on. But as the master placed the stone in his hand, the young man exclaimed, without looking, “This is not the same jade stone!”

The master smiled and said, “You have begun to learn.” (Found in “The Sower’s Seeds,” by Brian Cavanaugh, TOR.)

Working out about a week ago, I noticed something: I have much more stamina. Gradually, with the guidance of a great and patient trainer like Jasper, things have changed. I’m in better shape than I’ve been in years. It’s come about through consistency and the unfailing encouragement of my trainer. Like the boy in the story, I’ve begun to learn.

Isn’t that how it is with faith? If we live it consistently, with the encouragement of our faith community and God’s grace, we’ll be stretched and grow stronger, into the saints that we’re called to be. Our Lenten “gym” has been preparing us, slowly but surely, for the new life of Easter.

I’ll close with what Kelly, a personal trainer in my parish, posted on my Facebook page this week:

Me (sobbing): I can’t see you anymore. I won’t let you hurt me again.

Trainer: It was a sit-up. You did one sit-up.

Hmmm. Wonder if she’s been talking to Jasper?

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