Our Bodies, Our Souls

Our Bodies, Our Souls

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boyd1It is only in Christianity that we find the belief that each human person is a unique, unrepeatable, and eternal, body and soul.

For Christians, being in the body takes on profound and counter-cultural significance. To be in the body is to share an experience that our Lord understood first-hand. The body of Jesus is our perfect guide to the Body of Christ.

A subject this complex requires far more space than is possible in the context of an article. My goal here is to establish some basic considerations for further development regarding the health of body and soul, and the relationship between physical and spiritual fitness.

“Glorify the Lord in your bodies,” St. Paul wrote in Corinthians. The way we treat the body, then, is a visible witness of discipleship. Of course, a healthy body alone does not encompass the fullness of St. Paul’s teaching.  Many great saints have been afflicted with less than ideal health, and acceptance of illness can often be part of our spiritual journey.

How do health and fitness relate to our lives as Christians?

From its foundation in the Resurrection of Jesus, Christianity alone among religions has expressed the deep connection, and ultimately, the permanent unity of body and soul. New Age philosophies, which are modern variations on eastern spiritual traditions, attempt to link body, mind, and spirit, but it is only in Christianity that we find the belief that each human person is a unique, unrepeatable, and eternal body and soul.

Despite this eschatological belief in the union of body and soul, finding specifically Christian-based programs for health and fitness can be a challenge. Many Christians have gone outside the Church for easily and widely available eastern-based body awareness techniques, such as yoga and martial arts. At first glance, yoga practice, especially given its ubiquity in America today, seems relatively harmless. Many people practicing yoga state that they are doing it just for exercise benefits; the more one studies yoga, however, the more questionable that possibility becomes.

As a yoga teacher for nine years, before coming home to the Catholic faith, I understand yoga’s appeal. But these paths of self-discovery, and self-improvement through the perfecting of postures, can distract us from our larger purpose. Fr. Robert Barron made this point recently when he said, “The Christian spiritual journey is never primarily a journey of self-discovery…it’s a journey toward mission.” When we are converted to Christ, we now have got “the privilege of participating in God’s own life, God’s own purpose, which is to bring grace, joy, and life into the world.”

Jesus makes clear that there are times to feast and times to fast. We take pleasure readily in the feast, but without a period of fasting, what is there to make the feast day special?

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAIn the modern era, it is rare to find the practice of religion suggested as part of a fitness plan. Holistic medicine offers tips on cultivating mindfulness, but mentions nothing directly about worship.

And this is expressly not how our Lord conducted His earthly life. Jesus, who by any measure has to be one of the most fit persons in history, continuously prayed, and referred all His actions and efforts to the Father in Heaven. For Jesus, and for us, prayer is the most essential element of fitness.

What about exercise? The Bible speaks of good stewardship; we honor our Creator by taking good care of his creation. And we can look to our Savior. He walked everywhere. Walking is great exercise, free, and available to almost everyone. Pilgrimage, a long and noble tradition in the Church, has the added benefit of directly combining prayer with physical effort.

We know that physical exercise is valuable for bodily fitness; “fitness” relates to our mental and spiritual natures, as well. When we are physically fit, we have the strength and vitality to fight off pathogens more efficiently.  Mental fitness might be described as clear-headed thinking, being able to turn down the volume on personal neuroses and cultivate empathy. To be spiritually fit is to come through the dark night of the soul with one’s belief intact or restored.

In terms of diet, the foods mentioned directly in Scripture would be a good starting place. Even in biblical days, however, one would have to exercise the virtue of temperance. Saying no to excess food or wine at the table, for example.  Myriad habits can creep up on us so gradually they can feel entirely normal, and deviations to more moderate consumption, by contrast, odd.

Jesus makes clear that there are times to feast and times to fast. We take pleasure readily in the feast, but without a period of fasting, what is there to make the feast day special?

The Church long ago established every Friday as a fast day, and every Sunday as a feast day, corresponding to the day of Christ’s death and the day of His Resurrection. Even keeping this simple arrangement will help us focus more on what is and is not important about the food and drink choices we make. And as Catholics, we know that the Bread of Heaven itself, shared during Holy Communion is our ultimate nourishment.

This, from Corinthians, is an important reminder: “we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord.” We are not to become too satisfied or pre-occupied in our own flesh. When we are filled with worldly comforts or concerns, it is easy to overlook the Author of all our joys.

One of the great tools available to us as followers of Christ is to do what He did; that is, to fast. Fasting is powerful. It places our decisions and commitments above our impulses and habits. It humbles us, to realize how much of our time is spent chasing after transitory gratifications. It frees us from the grip of mindless repetitive behaviors. It corrects acedia, challenges our comfort zones. It awakens in us the deepest hunger, and takes us to a place of profound prayer.

The great season of Lent is the Church’s time of fasting — which isn’t simply “giving something up.” Fasting is a complete re-framing of our consumptions. What we choose to eat or not, drink or not, or take in via other sensory perceptions, all have a role in fasting.

boyd2Fasting is a complete re-framing of our consumptions. What we choose to eat or not, drink or not, or take in via other sensory perceptions, all have a role in fasting. 

St. Paul also states in Ephesians the important role each of us has in building up the Body of Christ, which is to suggest that as we are healed, we are to become healers. Being fit means we will have the energy available to give to others, to serve the purpose of building God’s Church, to have the stamina for the work of witness. As human beings, we are the crown of creation. And it gives glory to God for the crown to stay well polished — to shine the way He intends for us to shine.

The relationship of body and soul takes on special significance in the context of Christian community.  By comparison, eastern spiritual traditions describe the journey of the individual self toward enlightenment. The postures and meditation practices are all geared to help the practitioner reach this state. The goals are renunciation and non-attachment. There is no need for a savior because there is no one to save. And there is no particular need for community, either. Practitioners may find “community” in ashrams or yoga classes, but each person there is understood to be on a separate journey.

For the Christian, community is understood differently, beginning with the creation of Adam and Eve, symbolizing among other things, the unity of the human race.  The human journey continues through Abraham and his family, and through the new community founded at Sinai, Israel, and finally, more than a millennium later, through Jesus of Nazareth, who fulfilled Israel’s vocation to be the light to the nations, to gather all people into God’s House.

The disciples of Jesus will bear this message through the Church until the end of history. Community, therefore, is intrinsic to the experience of Christian life. Christ gives explicit instruction on the importance of love of neighbor, especially taking care of the least among us; there are the graces present when three or more are gathered in His name, and most profoundly, we have been given the commandment to celebrate together what Jesus accomplished in the Paschal Mystery: “Do this in memory of me.”

prayingAs a yoga teacher for nine years, before coming home to the Catholic faith, I understand yoga’s appeal.

The New Age enthusiasts have touched on something, though. The relationship of body to spirit is much more than incidental. Christians can honor the body through a program of health, fitness, and prayer, to increase physical and spiritual health, promote a deeper relationship with the Lord, and prepare our bodies and our souls for the life of the world to come. Our model is Christ himself. We should aim to make our earthly lives more like His: to pray, to fast, and to heal.

Our model is Christ himself. We should aim to make our earthly lives more like His: to pray, to fast, and to heal.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:  Losana Boyd is a writer and artist from New York, currently living in Florence, Italy, where she studies classical, realist painting. This article is excerpted from the prologue of her forthcoming book, “Our Bodies, Our Souls.”


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