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.
While 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 nourishing. There 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.