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The Allure Of the Crunchy Catholic

October 22, AD 2012 21 Comments

Flax oil was the gateway.  When I got engaged two years ago and signed up for Natural Family Planning courses, I received a hefty box containing workbooks, charts, a thermometer, and most interestingly, the book Fertility, Cycles, and Nutrition by Marilyn Shannon.  Figuring the months leading up to my wedding and eventually, babies, were as good a time as any to really learn about my body, I opened up the book and promptly determined that my caffeine consumption, my sugar intake, my failure to take multiple supplements, and the fact that I had never made my own bread or yogurt were all going to doom my best efforts at NFP.  At Shannon’s suggestion, I started taking flax oil to help regulate the last phase of my cycle.

Reading this book was one of those experiences where there’s so much information that you freak out, convinced you’ve been doing everything wrong, go a tad overboard on amending every relevant part of your life, and eventually, after a few months, find yourself on a much more moderate keel, hopefully with new knowledge to spare.  That book, along with the coworkers who became my sisters and brothers during my first job after college, revealed to me a fascinating, heretofore unfamiliar breed: The Crunchy Catholic.

You might know one yourself.  It’s your friend who walks or bikes instead of drives whenever possible, composts, homeschools, cleans everything with vinegar, carries her babies in a sling, puts raw honey in his tea, prefers warm salt water over NyQuill, and would never touch meat with hormones or antibiotics.  The hardcore ones eschew microwaves, drink raw milk, and brew kombucha, a fermented tea made from a live bacteria culture that looks like a mushroom.  I am not making this up.  In my case, a marginal interest in all this eventually turned into a much deeper awareness of what I put in and on my body.  It turned to a life of kale, quinoa, Dr. Bronner’s Peppermint Soap, coconut oil, organic apple cider vinegar with apple strings floating in it, and a rampage during which I tossed most of my beauty products, deciding they were all toxic.

Mumford and Sons, Awake My Soul, LyricsWhile I was drinking fermented things and giving chastity talks, my then-fiancé was living the lean existence of a bachelor and graduate student.  He spent exactly $30 a week on groceries and survived almost solely on frozen burritos.  I’m not making this up, either.  As my crunchiness increased, he’d ask me sometimes why I felt it so necessary to go above and beyond typical conventions of healthy living.

I asked myself a few times if my desire to be countercultural was just pride.  Maybe, at first.  But I had other reasons, too.  “Think our future children’s health!” I’d insist.  “I want us to have a nice long life on earth together before we go to Heaven!”  “Eating kale even when you hate it will sanctify you and get you to Heaven!”  He persisted, and I wondered: what’s the draw of a less processed, slightly weirder lifestyle, and what exactly distinguishes a Catholic hippie from a non-Catholic hippie?

I certainly never want to do anything for no reason.  That’s the great thing about the Church, isn’t it, that there’s always a perfectly natural, logical explanation, with our deepest fulfillment in mind, for every truth and every teaching?  And I definitely wouldn’t call myself a hipster, arbitrarily following a path just for the sake of being original.  So I thought about it — the appeal of the crunch. Aside from the fact that I feel physically better when I eat well and am content knowing I’m living more simply (thrifting, foregoing the gym in favor of runs and bike rides outside) and thinking critically about the medical and nutritional staples that are marketed as essentials (bleach, dairy, certain vaccines, and, of course, hormonal contraceptives), I think there’s also something deeper at work.

The answer, I think, lies in the Theology of the Body.  It lies in who we are.  According to John Paul II, the body expresses the soul, so why wouldn’t I want to nourish my body just as well physically as I do spiritually?  Maybe it is just temporary, this life, but I say it’s worth nourishingThere is a deep peace that comes from knowing you’re living as you’re created to live; as in, living in a way that embraces our humanness.  After all, our bodies, our flesh, are so essential to who we are as humans and how we share in Christ’s life—it’s only through His body, and our own, that we can experience the deepest satisfaction of our longings in the Eucharist.

Do I want to be healthy?  Of course.  In a countercultural way?  Well, yes, but not just to make a statement.   In First Corinthians, Saint Paul says my body is a temple, but I don’t want to turn it into a site of idolatry as I worship my own pride in how I raise my future family, or my own self-image as a result of my eating and exercise choices.   I don’t want it to be a Holy of Holies, either, to be feared when I one day sit my child in front of the TV or eat the occasional slice of pizza.  No; I want to be a tabernacle, a dwelling place for what’s pure, what’s good, and what’s holy.

About the Author:

Born a hop, skip, and jump from the Chesapeake Bay, Stephanie now resides in Appalachia, thanks to love. Her sweet husband Andrew teaches English there. She delights in bike rides, good books, puddle jumping, The Avett Brothers, hammocks, avocados, and the notes Andrew sneaks under her pillow. She is thirsty. Knowing so many others are, too, she spent a missionary year with Generation Life speaking to students about human dignity and authentic love. Her passion is telling young women they possess immense worth and that pure, sacrificial love is real; she thinks a truthful understanding of sex and love is medicine for an aching culture. Upon noticing there were few resources for Catholic brides-to-be, Stephanie decided to make a humble attempt at filling the void. Her blog,Captive the Heart, is a collection of wedding ideas, spiritual reflections, inspired dates, and general ways to plan a sacred, stylish celebration and a holy marriage.
  • JQ Tomanek

    Enjoyed the post Stephanie! Time to bring back truly conservative and traditional principles.

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  • Exactly–our bodies are temples, gifts given to us by God, and so we should treat them so! Thanks!

  • Yes, but St. Paul also says:
    “But I chastise my body, and bring it into subjection: lest perhaps, when I have preached to others, I myself should become a castaway.”
    1 Corinthians 9:27

    Something also to think to about.

    • JQ and Lianna- Agreed! And thank you!

      Jason- I’d love to hear more about what you mean in citing this passage. If you’re getting at the idea that spiritual health, discipline, and a sense of being well-informed are just as essential as the physical, I’m so with you.

  • Jed

    Hey Steph –

    I think you’ve nailed the tension: health is a good but it can become a god–and since health is an attribute of man, then man can become his own god with an unhealthy attention to his health. Mary didn’t get all the magic vegetables, she certainly didn’t take pre-natal vitamins, and Jesus was just fine.

    My personal view is that the inefficiency of organic food is wasteful. People ought to be free to make the choice, of course, but should not scold or frown upon people who don’t, or a world that doesn’t. If the world is going to eat, it cannot do so organically. Unless there are major developments. Or unless it is ruled by Nazis, who were apparently health nuts.

    Your obligation to care for yourself is not for yourself, at least not entirely. It is another way of applying the childish-pious formula that’s chock-full of wisom: J-esus, O-thers, Y-ou.

    Thanks for chewing the fat.

    • Amy

      Seriously?? Mary also didn’t use plastic, or eat cane sugar, did she? And I’d argue that she did indeed get the “magic vegetables”, as there was no such thing as chemical pesticide at the time! And neither was there industrially produced dry yeast – hello, sourdough! And also, in case you hadn’t noticed, we aren’t exactly feeding the world’s poor with chemical farming methods, are we? I personally do believe that it’s God’s will to produce all of our food locally and seasonally, with as much respect for and harmony with nature as possible within the paradigm of agriculture – that is the only sane, sustainable solution in the long-term.

      • We aren’t feeding the world’s poor with chemical farming methods??? I think plant scientist and Nobel prize winner Norman Borlaug would beg to differ — as would the hundreds of millions of starving people around the world who have benefited from his work.

      • Jed

        I don’t think I made my point clearly. Mary didn’t have access to a great many modern marvels, this is true. The point is, first, that it didn’t matter much, and, second, that health is a good that is becoming a god (less poetically, a disordered/inordinately-valued good) in an increasingly secular, anthropocentric world. Aside from nutritional obsession, it can also lead to other things–see this article, for example: http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2012/11/our-dangerous-obsession-with-lsquohealthrsquo

        Norman Borlaug is quite an authority, and he is exactly who I had in mind while thinking about this. You cannot get the same yields with organic that you get with real farming. A lot of your inputs end up wasted.

        The problem with hunger is not production; it’s distribution. And it’s not forcible or charitable distribution, either (not in the long term). What is necessary to end world hunger is peace, economic liberty, and the conversion of hearts in governments in hungry countries. In other words, more incarnational Christianity and common sense. It’s as simple and difficult as that.

        Seriously, indeed.

  • Mary C

    Excellent post! I’ve had a very similar experience in life with Marilyn Shannon’s book (until my kombucha was infested with fruit flies, lol). You can question the sanity, but you can’t question the results. Her book, along with Dr. Hilger’s wisdom are the only reason I’m pregnant after 3.5 years of trying. I feel great, my marriage is healthy, and we’re able to do good in the world becuase of it. I think being crunchy and being Catholic are perfectly compatible and support each other. Thanks for backing me up! 🙂

    • Mary, I like what you said about being “able to do good in the world because of it.” If we are keeping our bodies in good condition, it means we have more energy to do good! And it’s also great to be able to educate others, too!

    • Jed- You bring up a good point that the ideal, i.e. an all-organic food supply, should never supplant the practical, i.e. producing enough healthy food to feed as many persons as possible. I’d still maintain that, within reason and barring paranoia, the human body flourishes physically when it’s fed and cared for in a wholesome, unprocessed way, and when approached with a prudent attitude that avoids idolotry, can bear spiritual fruit and nourish the entire person. I dig the acronym.

      Mary- Fruit flies! Mercy! It’s awesome that you were able to use your knowledge to conceive!

      • Jed

        “Within reason” is the key. Clearly, health is a good, and modern technology makes possible a greater degree of health than ever before. It’s just good to be on guard against the obsession with health in the ambient culture.

        Two very loosely related books come to mind. Crunchy Cons by Rod Dreher (describes the hippie-like appearance and preferences of people he calls conservative), and Coming Apart by Charles Murray (tracks the development of a ‘new upper class’ in America, separated from the rest of the country in an unprecedented way, 1960-2000).

        Hope to see you and A soon–in good health! Beg your pardon if I’ve taken up too much space.

  • Neal

    Stephanie- the Mayo Clinic has some important concerns about kombucha. Worth reading, especially if you’re contemplating pregnancy. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/kombucha-tea/AN01658

  • Molly

    It may be true that Mary, Elizabeth and any of the other Old and New Testament women did not have our super-foods and miracle supplements and that their children turned out fine. However, hundreds and thousands of children throughout history have not been so lucky and because we have the collective memory of this reality we should act with the best information we are given.

    Particularly as women who can be given the gift of life to shelter for 9 months it is important to remember that you’re body is not just a temple, but it is essentially a tabernacle and we should be doing everything we can with the knowledge we have to prepare, sustain and protect that sacred space.

    For some women this might be eating the best, pure food their money can buy and for some it’s giving up the diet coke as long as they can – as long as both decisions are from a desire to do good for herself and her child then they are equal in my mind.

    While it’s true that we shouldn’t judge a family on their food choices – because many more things affect the food that goes on a table than just high minded ideals – we should still be encouraging those same families to be making decisions based on the idea that they are not just feeding a belly, but nourishing a soul.

    • Well said, Mary. I like your approach of a person, particularly a woman, living not just for herself and taking healthy, prudent measures within reason. Thanks for reading!

  • Amy

    Oh my gosh I think we need to be friends 😀
    My main approach with all of this stuff isn’t even so much “nourishing the temple of the Holy G”, though that’s valid – to me it’s more about a moral imperative to respect God’s design in nature as revealed by sustainability. If a system isn’t sustainable, it can’t be God’s will. Hence, if eating a lot of processed sugar over time depletes your body’s resources, if it isn’t sustainable, it’s not God’s will. If buying products wrapped in plastic depletes our limited supply of oil, and the products aren’t life-saving (eg medical supplies), that can’t be God’s will. (I struggle with this a lot, mind; I’m not perfect…!)

    • Amy, I’m really intrigued by your idea of sustainability as a moral imperative. I struggle, too, with trying to discern what’s absolutely necessary for reasonable health, as opposed to what adds convenience to our wellbeing. The occasional Tylenol, for instance, might alleviate symptoms that can inhibit our ability to flourish in our daily work, concentration, or spirituality, yet medicine shouldn’t be used as a “band-aid” solution for any and all ailments, in my opinion. I do have the instinct that God’s will for us is, in the broadest sense, our best good, which can take the form of living out our humanness, as body and soul, in a true way that encourages flourishing. I’d be so interested to hear more of what you think about this!

  • Willie!

    great article, meepers. I’m gonna quote you online. And share it. Hope you’re well.
    I still put raw honey in my tea.

    • You are too good to me, Wilson. Totally thought of you when I wrote about the tea.