“We are an uphill people!” my cycling instructor cried. Sweat poured from my forehead and I felt a surge of nausea from all the intense pedaling.
My insides screamed, “No, I’m a downhill person! I’m an eat rocky road Haagen-Dazs in my bed while I peruse reality TV shows kind of person.”
I wanted to hop off my bike and hurl in the hallway.
Instead, I decided to contemplate the profound spiritual metaphor the instructor inadvertently communicated. I decided to think about how I desire to be an uphill person, a person who rises above my basest wants (like hopping off the stationary bike and into my bed) so that I can act according to God’s will. I want to be the kind of person who walks up the mountain in search of Someone Great, not down it in search of myself.
Full disclosure: I struggled during cycling class because this past fall, I gave up the exercise regime to which I had been very dedicated to for almost two years. I got burnt out and decided exercising was taking up too much of my time.
It’s almost like Screwtape himself was whispering, “See? You’re good now. You don’t really need to walk those 10,000 steps. Why don’t you take it easy for a while?”
Sadly, I listened and now, ten pounds and no stamina later, I’m back to the physical education drawing board. Incidentally, I’ve been reading Dante’s Inferno. I’m not perusing this great work of art on my own, of course, because like my lack of motivation to exercise and eat well, I’m also not motivated to dive into difficult masterpieces on my own accord. My book club selected The Divine Comedy to read and so in the past few weeks I’ve been walking with Dante through the dregs of hell.
The people who live in The Inferno were a downhill people during their life. The souls in the second and third circle, in particular, allowed their desire for pleasure (sex, food and drink) to dictate the way they lived on Earth. In the third circle, therefore, the gluttonous are condemned to live amidst a constant freezing slush that falls from the sky and pools on the ground, creating a foul stench. These souls are guarded by a three-headed dog named Cerbus, who circles the drowning gluttons and waits to prey on them. The souls condemned to this level lie in fallen waste all day, guarded at all times by Cerbus, and they lack the energy needed to arise from the muck. In his excellent translation, Anthony Esolen explains these shades have “polluted their bodies, the temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19), turning their bellies into gods (Esolen, 434).”
The lustful and the gluttonous subjected their reason to their passions, instead of using reason to inform and direct their will. Consequently, these souls used all kind of excuses and rationalizations to justify whatever evil behavior they willed. Their passions ran these souls, not their will. (Esolen, 430).
I recognize something in myself in most of the sinners on every level of hell Dante describes, but I especially recognized myself in those sins focused on bodily pleasures. I’ve realized that with regard to food and exercise my reason is frequently subjected to what I desire. If I want to eat half a dozen cookies, I do it, even if I know it’s not good for my body and my soul. If I want to take six months of physical exercise, I do it, even if it’s not good for my body or my soul.
This realization has prompted me to make rethink the importance of doing small but physically challenging things now so that I acclimate to the rigor of going uphill. When I by-pass the drive through and make a meal at home or get off the couch and take my kids to the park for a walk, I am required to do more initially. However, there are spiritual dividends I experience from choosing the hard thing. When I skip the extra dessert or exercise for thirty minutes, I’m less likely to let too much time go in between trips to the Confessional. I’m less likely to engage in uncharitable discussions. I’m less likely to turn on the TV instead of using quiet time to pray. For me, skipping a few indulgent foods I enjoy and doing a few physically challenging things begets more attempts at other spiritually challenging things, like more time in front of the Blessed Sacrament or more fervor as I pray the rosary.
The truth is, my cycling instructor professed great wisdom when she claimed we were an uphill people. The difficulty I face in the here and now is brief compared to the joy promised me in eternity. It’s true, I could coast through life, sailing downhill and feeding all my passionate desires and gluttonous tendencies, but I want to do what it takes—even if that means pedaling up the rocky mountain—so I can live with my Greatest Desire forever.
I want to go uphill.