Strengthening body and spirit

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"I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith," St. Paul wrote to his mentee, Timothy. The cultivated virtues that allow athletes to finish strong are the same that allowed St. Paul to stay true to God through shipwreck, imprisonment and persecution.

Exercise groups within parishes give Catholics a chance to build healthy habits that can be transferred to the spiritual life. There's also the added benefit of Christian fellowship and, of course, the means to stay fit and trim.

Running to Christ

Every Monday night, a few young adults run through the wooded trails around St. Leo the Great Church in Fairfax. They're members of the parish's Frassati Fairfax, "(young adults who) under the patronage of Blessed Giorgio Frassati, are striving to deepen our faith, serve the community and evangelize the culture, all while enjoying coffee and outdoorsy activities."

In the past, the group has hiked Old Rag Mountain under a full moon, rock-climbed and camped in the Shenandoah Valley. They have a book club, Whisky and Wisdom on Wednesdays, and enjoy sitting around the fire pit they made last summer near the rectory. About five members of the club are regulars of the running group.

Rather than the impersonality of a gym, the group provides a chance for fellowship and offers accountability. Teresa Allen helped start the club in part to have friends to run with. "Virtue development is a big part of it because it takes a lot of perseverance to run, especially on a Monday night when you're tired," said Allen. "But we're committed to it, and then we're energized by it, and I think God rewards that with a great social atmosphere."

Every run begins with a prayer, said Patrick Burke, a runner and Ultimate Frisbee player. Many choose to end the run with a prayer, too. "A lot of us will go sit with the Blessed Sacrament for a few minutes, and that's my favorite part," said Allen.

Even the exercise itself can be a way to honor God. "I feel like God gave me this body, so I should take care of it," said Burke.

Meditation in motion

Victor Franco stood at the front of the classroom, leading tai chi at Sacred Heart of Jesus Church in Winchester. "We move like fish in water," he told the 15 participants, his manner reminiscent of Mr. Miyagi from "The Karate Kid." Calming Eastern music played in the background as he led his class through poses, such as "white crane spreads wings" and "ride the tiger."

Franco discovered tai chi at the age of 40, and studied it for four years under Master Jou Tsung Hwa. "He almost adopted me," said Franco.

After returning from the Vietnam War, Franco found tai chi restored his emotional and mental stability. Now, the retired bluegrass musician hopes to pass on the many health benefits of tai chi to others, especially retirees, whose health often deteriorates in a less-than-active lifestyle, he said.

Peggy Gibson's almost two years in the class has increased her energy level and greatly helped lessen her arthritis, she said. After visiting the doctor in December, she found that her bone density had increased 6 percent. "The key is to practice every day at home," she said.

Interspersed between the lunging and stretching, Franco teaches the students about the tai chi philosophy through a Catholic lens. "I work very closely with the Bible because the Bible is the Word, so if anything we do conflicts with that, I question it," he said.

More often than not, Franco finds Christian virtues like patience, concentration and commitment within the Chinese martial art. "The trouble I think people get into is many people look inside and recognize the power, but they call it 'Source,' " he said.

"His name is not Source. His name is Jesus," he said. God will protect those who know His name, said Franco, quoting Psalm 91:14, a prayer he recites each time the 70-year-old hops on his motorbike.

Fien Garnes remembers her mother practicing tai chi when Garnes was a little girl living in Indonesia. When she and her husband, Richard, retired, they wanted to do something for themselves, and decided to join the class. Tai chi has helped heal Garnes' tennis elbow and increased her strength and balance.

"You know why I like it?" she said. "Because it's at the church," her spiritual home since 1979.

For more information:

Email the running club at FrassatiFairfax@gmail.com.

Call Victor Franco at 540-888-3014.

Di Mauro can be reached at zdimauro@catholicherald.com or on Twitter @zoeydimauro.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016