Recently I learned a hard lesson. It was a concept that I knew was coming, as people close to me had informed me of the changes I needed to make. But because I am basically an infant in the spiritual realm, it took me awhile to really get it. It was worth it though because it could basically change my whole life… hopefully, when I learn to unite with God’s will!
Now I normally don’t like to share my spiritual or life lessons that I encounter because I am very young (23 years old), and I am basically still in the process of learning to walk down the paths that I feel God has set for me. So I always feel that I have little credibility in the words that I write. Even so, I feel that what I have realized is very important for every person, no matter who you are.
In recent years, my life has been pretty hectic. I knowingly chose for things to be this way, but I never anticipated the amount of adjusting that I would have to do. Within the past 20 months, I quit school, got engaged, got married, was blessed with my first child. I’ve adjusted to being far away from any family or friends, and I’ve adjusted to my spouse’s crazy medical school life. I’ve adjusted to being a mother and I’ve taken on all of the changes required for the title. I’ve also adjusted to being in a new and intimate relationship with my husband.
That being said, I may have adjusted but I have not responded to my situations in the holiest way. The way I’ve reacted to my environments and relationships have caused me more anxiety and despondency than I thought possible. It caused me to resent my spouse, have a negative outlook on my life, and worse, it drove a wedge between God and myself. I found myself being overly fearful of the future and I didn’t even want to be open to God’s will. Then I started to be ashamed of myself in front of God, knowing that I was avoiding His gaze. What if God asks me to do something difficult? My spiritual director tells me that her priest says that we can’t reach Jesus unless we climb the cross. Well, the cross freaks me out!
When my husband and I would have a conflict, I would panic, shut down, and tell myself that I couldn’t handle his shortcomings. I would use up so much energy trying to change his perspective and then end up angry when I didn’t succeed. In reality, God was teaching us both a lesson in being patient and more aware of each other on our journey through marriage.
When we needed to consider big life decisions, I immediately assumed the worst and panicked. I scrambled to figure out how I could travel down the path of least resistance, even though we really didn’t know what was going to happen yet. In reality, God was probably giving me the opportunity to trust Him.
See a pattern? I was relying on myself and my will because I felt in control. I was also relying on my husband to be perfect and I expected him to respond exactly how I needed him to when in reality, he was learning as much as I was. And who was I not relying on? God the Almighty Father, who basically has the perfect plan for my life.
Here is my main point: If we do not involve God internally, our external reactions will reflect the chaos of our souls.
So how are we supposed to gain internal peace? That may look slightly different for each of us. For me, it entails the need to heal past wounds so that I am okay with myself as God created me. It also will require that I recognize in His infinite and perfect love for me. I have to be able to trust in His ultimate plan, no matter how hard the lessons of the cross will be.
When this happens for each of us, we will be able to carry the crosses and shortcomings of those we love without losing internal peace. No matter what happens, our souls will remain in an undisturbed state while God helps us to grow interiorly and draw into a deeper union with Him.
My high school batch at St. Paul College of Pasig, a Catholic school for girls here in the Philippines run by the Sisters of St. Paul of Chartres, just celebrated its homecoming. We prepared for it for a year, a year that was spent reminiscing about high school memories and organizing a grand celebration dinner.
Among the fond memories of our high school days, a favorite is that of the Intramurals. The Intramural athletic competitions were, and still are, a big thing in our school. Rivalry between batches in volleyball, softball, track-and-field, swimming, and chess events was intense, although everyone played fair and clean most of the time. Even members of the non-athletic majority, such as I, were expected to take the Intramurals seriously as we formed part of their batches’ pep squads in the cheering competitions. The cheering competitions were the biggest events in the Intramurals. We practiced hard for hours amidst the demands of high school homework, and each batch tried to outdo each other in coming up with the most sophisticated and most artistic pep squad and cheer dance routines.
From the conversations and social media interactions among my batch mates, it is clear that the spirit of the Intramurals is still alive among us – especially since we could never forget that we were the champions of the cheering competition during our junior year.
It seems that sports competitions were a big thing, too, to our school’s patron saint. In St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he used athletics as an example to illustrate the determination and sacrifice it takes for a Christian to reach the highest goal in life, which is union with God: “Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.” (1 Corinthians 10:7).
In other words, St. Paul was cheering on the Christian community in Corinth, “Go! Fight! Win!”
I like the way St. Paul viewed the struggle for sanctity as a sport.
Often, we balk at the suggestion that we should aim to be saints. We tend to think that sanctity is reserved for an elite few, and that the rest of us are doomed to either spiritual mediocrity or damnation. We want to be good but we find it hard.
St. Paul himself knew how hard it is to aim to be a saint. His writings reflect his awareness of his sinful past, and even post-conversion he wrote about “the thorn of the flesh” and having had to be delivered from his “body of death”.
Perhaps it is because he knew how discouraging the struggle against oneself can be, that he wrote about it in terms of sports to encourage his readers. Sports are tough and demanding. They involve pain and hard training. But they are fun, too. They are all about a sense of accomplishment when one wins, hope for another second chance of victory when one loses, and camaraderie with one’s teammates in any case.
It is depressing to examine one’s conscience every night and discover that one has committed the same faults and sins as the day before. But it is less discouraging to see one’s repeated falls as the reps that an athlete must do to master a technique. The struggle for sanctity is not about loathing oneself for being a sinner and beating up oneself to become what one is not. The struggle to be a saint is a spiritual sport. One can win with training (developing virtue), proper nutrition and hydration (the Eucharist and the other sacraments), proper treatment of injuries (the sacrament of confession), following the advice of one’s coach (spiritual direction and the teachings of the Church), the right mental attitude (the theological and cardinal virtues), and teamwork (the support we get from each other as members of the Mystical Body of Christ). Like any other sport, it is enjoyable; one fruit of training in this spiritual sport is joy.
St. Paul’s reference to a “perishable wreath” refers to the fact that during his time, victorious athletes got nothing more than crowns of leaves for all their efforts. Today’s athletes receive more durable prizes – metal or plastic trophies, or medals of gold, silver, or bronze – but just the same, these prizes serve no further purpose than to be displayed. Nevertheless, athletes invest a lot just to win these prizes. The prize for winning the spiritual sport of pursuing sanctity is priceless, and surely worth all the effort involved in attaining it.
When we are defeated in the struggle to be good, we can either give in to discouragement, or we can, like a true athlete, train for the next match and try again as many times as needed to win. One day, we will be able to say, like Saint Paul, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith “ (2 Timothy 4:7)
It is usually said that Western democracies are the most free societies on earth. But is that true? This video provides a rather different way of deciding what societies constitute prison societies.
If the information presented above is accurate, and there is no reason to think it is not, then an excellent way to judge how free every country’s citizens actually perceive themselves to be is very straightforward: just measure the addiction rates in each country.
There are two or three major classes of addiction, depending on how you count. Alcohol is such a prevalent drug that it generally gets its own category. Opiates and every other drug are grouped together as a separate class. Sex, especially homosexual addiction, is the last major class. So, how do countries fare on the addiction scale?
Notice that third-world areas, like South America and Africa, simply don’t have the addiction problems that industrialized nations do. These areas struggle with famine, disease and poverty, but they don’t have addiction problems to anywhere near the extent of the “advanced” countries.
Now, this is not to say that living in physical poverty is a walk in the park. Obviously, it is not. But, if the addiction-cage theory is correct, we cannot say industrialized nations are well-off. Industrialized nations simply suffer a different kind of poverty, a poverty of freedom. According to the addiction studies, the industrialized world is simply a series of prison societies.
Whenever I have a cold or stomachache, or when I’m feeling exhausted and overwhelmed, I struggle to pray the way I normally do. But I know that in those moments, I shouldn’t just give up prayer altogether. In those times especially, I am in particular need of God’s guidance and grace, and even though I have trouble focusing on traditional prayers, I still need connection with God. Praying through sickness can bring great comfort and consolation as well.
For days when I have trouble focusing on prayer, I’ve found a few simple methods that help me connect with God even in my weakness:
—Icons and Religious Images: This is the simplest and most effective method I’ve found to refocus on God when my brain is fried. Rather than trying to digest a passage of Scripture or even recite familiar prayers, I allow myself to simply rest, while keeping my eyes fixed on an icon or religious image. The Divine Mercy Image, Our Lady of Guadalupe, and Our Lady of Perpetual Help are all great images to use for this. Being still in the presence of God, allowing everything else in my mind to fall away except for the image before me, reminds me that prayer is not about how many words I recite. It’s about placing myself in the presence of God and just being with Him. It’s about being open to hearing His voice and acknowledging my littleness in His presence, my own reliance on Him.
—Offering It Up: Sometimes I forget to do this in the middle of my sickness, but it’s so important! All of our sufferings and all of our small sacrifices have meaning when we unite them to the sacrifice of Jesus. God can use all of our pain for good. Taking a moment to offer up your suffering will help bolster your spirits to endure it, and your sacrifice is precious to Him. Suffering can be a powerful form of prayer. You can offer up your suffering in any words you choose; one form is the words given to us by Our Lady of Fatima: O my Jesus, this is for love of You, for the conversion of sinners, and in reparation for offenses committed against the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
—Audio Rosary: Sometimes, I’m so dazed and exhausted that keeping track of Rosary decades takes a great deal of focus. On days like that, I put in my earbuds and listen to an audio Rosary. It allows me to relax and reflect on the mysteries without having to count all the beads myself. It makes for soothing background noise, too, if I’m trying to get myself to sleep when I’m sick.
—Conversational Prayer: Talk to God as if He were here in the room with you. Tell Him what you’re feeling; unload your burdens and ask for the grace to bear them. Take some time to articulate, both to God and to yourself, what you’re struggling with and where you need His help. Even when it feels like you’re not getting a response, God hears you and delights to hear you speak to Him.
—Contemplative Prayer: Take in your surroundings and reflect on how God is present with you in this moment, in the ordinary circumstances of your life. Maybe there’s something that happened today where you experienced God’s providence: reflect on that moment. Maybe you feel a deep emptiness right now in the midst of your illness: reflect on how this unites you to Jesus on the Cross.
As human beings, with both bodies and souls, we don’t always come to prayer in the same way. Sometimes, we are full of energy and insight; other times, our bodies are weak and weary. But we are called to care for both our body and our soul; both are gifts from God. We can’t tend to one at the expense of the other, and our prayer should reflect the fact that we are not mere spirits but fully corporeal beings, undergoing all the ups and downs of human existence. So when our bodies are suffering, we can adjust our prayer to meet God in the midst of it.
New year, new you!—a motto that makes me want to vomit. What’s so great about a new me if I couldn’t even love the old me? And thinking that I’d have to create a new me every year just makes my anxiety flare. Lose that weight, make that money, achieve that goal, by all means! But all of these things should be done because we love ourselves (and God and those around us), not because we loathe looking in the mirror or think we are failures for not having a ton of disposable income. When we can set goals or resolutions that draw us out of our weaknesses and into lives lived more fully, for ourselves and others, then we have set good, solid resolutions. So, instead of a traditional resolution, this year I have decided on a theme: be stronger. I want to be stronger physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. (NOTE: Change is essential and necessary and we will all become new creations, but not in the way that New Years resolutions tend to lead us to believe. The great Simcha Fisher wrote a really poignant article on this metamorphosis we shall all go through.)
To be stronger physically—This doesn’t only mean losing weight, but, I think more importantly, it means building my stamina again, helping my lungs grow strong to deal with my asthma, toning my arms, legs, and abs, and eating foods that I enjoy and that will also nourish my body. I’m achieving this by learning more about proper nutrition for myself and taking at least one class a day at my local YMCA (I’m taking a mix of classes to keep things interesting, including Zumba, Insanity, Body Combat, and an abs class). This will make me strong enough to keep up with my kids, hopefully not be in pain most of the time, and to start treating my body like the temple it is. The body is an important aspect of our beings and taking care of it helps to give us the discipline necessary in other aspects of our lives. Here is more about the importance of the body.
To be stronger mentally—For me, this will consist mostly of reading more books, and on more varied topics. I am determined to finally finish the Lord of the Rings trilogy this year and also, hopefully, The Silmarillion! There are also some various books on American history on my list. I’ve also subscribed to Lumosity to have a few simple games a day to stretch and train my brain in other ways. This is important because the mind, the intellect, is a gift to guide us in the right direction to God, to rule over our passions, and to order those passions correctly. A strong intellect will not only order the passions but also help to keep the will in check, especially in situations where the will might become weakened.
To be stronger emotionally—I keep it no secret that I struggle with depression and anxiety (which also cross over into the mental category), but getting help for these conditions is not the only way I want to grow stronger emotionally. Learning to rule my emotions instead of allowing them to rule me—especially anger/frustration and especially with my children—is actually at the top of my list. Those little moments throughout the day when I think ill of someone else, when I practice disgust instead of understanding, when I cannot or will not remain calm and at peace. These smaller, everyday moments are the most telling sign of someone’s emotional state, and I want mine to be in much better shape. I’m tired of feeling out of control and all over the place. This will be an exercise of the will, learning to not let myself be ruled by emotions and to stand firm in truth and righteousness even when my emotions are raging.
To be stronger spiritually—This is the most important one, the one that will ground and make possible all the others. So first things first, get my prayer life in order. Some of the changes I’m making are simple, like kneeling beside my bed for prayers in the evening. Others are old habits being resurrected, like praying Liturgy of the Hours. Next, I’m making Confession a much bigger priority than it used to be for me and going to receive the sacrament at least once a month. Getting a spiritual director is also in order. Here are a bunch of other Catholic, spiritual resolutions to get your noodle going with ideas. “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). If I trust in Him, if I turn over all my weak areas (the physical ones, too!), and make myself a complete offering to Him, He will give me His own strength and not just help me achieve strength but to be strength for others- I will be a vehicle of love and Truth to all that I encounter in every aspect of my life because He will radiate through me. This is the real purpose of becoming strong spiritually- knowing and loving God and then being His light to others.
Maybe your theme for this year is different; maybe it’s something like “die to self more” and that makes the actions of these same categories look different than how they look for me. That’s good! Becoming stronger in these ways will not only make me a better person, it will also give me the tools I need to achieve some long-sought goals and will also make me depend more on God, the ultimate source of strength. What is your theme for the year? What is God calling you to focus on? How will you set about to achieve that?
In my previous column, I discussed the cardinal virtues and stated that they could be of some benefit to us in keeping our New Year’s resolutions . I did not, however, discuss how (or why) the virtues are beneficial t us in this way.
So where do these virtues tie in to our new year’s resolutions? I have already given a brief description of which of the cardinal virtues might tie in to some of the more popular new year’s resolutions. I think that there are three more things to be said about virtues, and how they aide us in our resolutions.
The first is that the virtues are powers (ST II-II.56.1). Specifically, they are powers of the should which enable us to act as we ought. Now, the New Year’s resolutions which are more commonly made largely concern things which we ought to do, but which require some sacrifice on our part to do them. This sacrifice largely pertains to temperance: be it a sacrifice of time for doing something else that in the moment we would rather do, or of money that we are tempted to spend elsewhere, or of pleasures which we can do without. In some cases, it pertains (“in a restricted sense”, ST II-II.123.4R1) to fortitude.
Let us consider the very specific resolution of dieting, exercising, and losing weight. Dieting as dieting pertains to abstinence, a part of temperance. Getting up early to exercise (if in the morning) also pertains to temperance, in that it limits the pleasure of sleep. But returning to the exercising after feeling sore from the first (or hundredth) workout is an imperfect, “restricted” form of fortitude. So is cutting back portion sizes (or cutting out snacks between meals) when one feels hunger pangs. So, for that matter, is increasing a workout’s intensity (or load) when the last one seemed difficult. So much for the virtues as powers.
Second, then, is that the virtues are also habits (ST II-II.55.1-3). In considering habits in general, and virtues and vices (bad habits) in particular, the philosopher Mortimer J. Adler writes
“You know how habits get formed. To form the habit of being on time for appointments, you have to try to be punctual over and over again. Gradually, the habit of being punctual gets formed. Once it is formed, you have a firm and settled disposition to be on time in getting where you promised to be. The stronger the habit, the easier it is to act in that way and the harder it is to break the habit or to act in the opposite fashion.
When you have formed a habit and it is well-developed, you take pleasure in doing what you are in the habit of doing because you do it with ease—almost without effort. You find acting against your habits painful” (Aristotle for Everybody).
Virtues are habits, good moral habits, and they can help us to fight bad habits. They can, moreover, help us to develop the skills or abilities that we desire, as Adler notes in continuing his discussion:
“Having temperance enable us to resist what appears to be good in the short run for the sake of what is really good in the long run…Just as temperance is an habitual disposition to resist the lure of pleasures for the sake of more important goods that overindulgence in pleasure would prevent us from getting, so courage [fortitude] is an habitual disposition to take whatever pains may be involved in doing what we ought to do for the sake of a good life.
For example, we recognize that getting knowledge and developing certain skills are intellectual virtues that we ought to have. But acquiring knowledge and skills may be painful.Studying is often hard to do; learning how to play a musical instrument well, how t write well, or how to think well involves practicing that is often irksome” (Aristotle for Everybody).
There are several ways in which this ties into our New Year’s resolutions. For one thing, many of the resolutions in questions can be met once—and then forgotten. I can diet and exercise to lose weight, but once the weight is off, will I continue to diet and exercise to keep it off? If dieting and exercising have become habitual, and if the fortitude to face another workout and the temperance to resist the desire to stay in bed (or to have an extra helping at dinner) have all become habit, then my odds of keeping the weight off are good. I will not need to make losing the same 15 pounds my resolution again next year.
To pick on another resolution, consider the popular goal of saving money. For many people, this goal might as easily be stated as To pay down my debts. Now, one popular method of doing this is to use debt consolidation: a seeming short-cut to paying less money each month to get rid of old debt. Concerning this practice, popular financial advisor Dave Ramsey writes that
“Debt CONsolidation—it’s nothing more than a con because you think you’ve done something about the debt problem. The debt is still there, as are the habits that caused it; you just moved it! You can’t borrow your way out of debt. You can’t get out of a hole just by digging out the bottom. Larry Bucket says debt is not the problem; it is the symptom. I feel debt is the symptom of overspending and undersaving.
A friend of mine works for a debt-consolidation firm whose internal statistics estimate that 78 percent of the time, after someone consolidates his credit-card debt, the debt grows back. Why? He still doesn’t have a game plan to either pay cash or not buy at all, and hasn’t saved for ‘unexpected events,’ which will also become debt” (The Total Money Makeover: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness).
I would emphasize here that the key point is contained here: this trick doesn’t work largely because the underlying habits which caused the problem—too much debt, in particular consumer  debt—are still there . The same thing can be said for the latest “miracle” diet drug with respect to weight loss, or for that matter to saving water and electricity (go green) by only changing to a more efficient version of a frequently-used appliance (though this can help!). Ultimately, any of these “shortcuts” may technically help us to keep our resolutions short-term, but longer-term it will be in vain. I may save some money this year, but if I then go into debt (frivolously) next year, what have I gained? Or if I lose 15 pounds by June, and then regain them by December, is my resolution actually a success?
I would like to turn now to the third, and final, thing which is left to be said about the virtues. The virtues are important to our living a moral life, that is, to living a good life. However, they are not the only thing to living a good life, and indeed the cardinal virtues are improved on by the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. Just as we might build upon a successfully kept resolution in our own lives, God can build upon the virtues with the gifts of and with the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Philosophy professor Peter Kreeft writes of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance:
“These four are called ‘cardinal’ from the Latin word for ‘hinge.’ Al other virtues hinge on these four. That includes lesser virtues, which are corollaries of these, and aso greater virtues (the three ‘theological virtues’), which are the flower of these.
These four virtues are not the only virtues, or even the highest ones. As Einstein surpassed Newton, Jesus most certainly surpassed Plato. But just as Einstein did not contradict Newton but included him, presupposed him, and built on him, so Jesus’ supernatural virtues do not contradict Plato’s virtues but presuppose them. Plato gives us virtue’s grammar; Jesus gives us virtues’ poetry….
Of course natural [e.g. the cardinal] virtues are real virtues, just as natural reason is real reason and natural beauty is real beauty.
True, it does not save you [to be virtues in the merely natural sense]. You do not get to heaven by being a little more just, wise, courageous, and temperate, That is not enough. But it is good.
It is also a foundation for the supernatural virtues, which do get your to Heaven. A person who is unjust, foolish, cowardly, and uncontrolled will find it harder to believe, to hope in, or to love God. The natural virtues are the seedbed, soil, or fertilizer for the flower of supernatural virtue [e.g. the theological virtues]. Ethics is preparatory to religion, because ‘the law is our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ'” (Back to Virtue).
I include this long passage because because it show that we need not stop with cultivating the natural virtues: we in fact ought to allow God to cultivate in us the supernatural ones. God does in fact build on whatever foundation we lay, if we will allow him to . Venerable Louis of Grenada writes that
“The gifts of the Holy Ghost also facilitate the operations of the virtues, animating them and strengthening them so that they will always be ready for the performance of their proper acts. Faith, hope, and charity are perfected by the gifts of wisdom and understanding; prudence, by the gifts of knowledge and counsel; justice, by the gift of piety; fortitude, by the gift of fortitude; and temperance, by the fear of the Lord” (Summa of the Christian Life).
In a similar manner, we can build on the success of keeping our New Year’s resolutions. If you ultimately want to lose 40 pounds, start with the goal of losing 15, then try for another 25 next year when that is successful. Or if you only lose 5, try to loose another 15 pounds next year. If your goal is to save up a third of your income as an emergency fund, but you save up only half of this, make saving up a third your goal next year (and then you will have a slightly more substantial emergency fund).
Remember that these New Year’s resolutions are not in themselves sufficient to make us truly happy in life, or truly fulfilled, or successful. Neither are the natural virtues by themselves sufficient to make us happy, nor saintly, nor will they get us into heaven. But, just as the New Year’s resolution (and its keeping) is a good start,so are the virtues a good start for us. They will make it easier for us to keep our resolutions, and to better our own lives. More importantly, they will enable us to allow God to work in our lives in such a way that we are able to live a good life in this world and enter into the joy of heaven in the next.
 Once, these may have been “Lenten Resolutions!”
 Consumer debt—there’s also student loan debt, and the mortgage. These are topics for another day, but it seems to me that there is a difference in habit between the poor college student who is $25k in debt from paying for tuition and the one who sailed through with scholarships but wracked up $20 k in debt from buying the latest in consumer electronics, etc.
 Dave Ramsey also notes that many of these loan consolidation companies do lower your monthly payments, in exchange for extending the period of the loan. This means that while the monthly payment may be a bit less, the period over which the payment is to be made will be extended by years, and so the total amount paid may also be greater. It’s also more difficult to attack debt one item at a time when all the debt is consolidated into a single large loan.
 He even offers us the perfect foundation, who is Christ.
Last month I joined a Beachbody challenge group with some women from college. I have some weight to lose and have some other fitness goals—not to mention that regular exercise and healthy eating are great ways to combat anxiety and depression—and I thought, what better way to do this than with women I already know and love to hold me accountable? As a woman, I do struggle with my body image. My body always seems to be in flux—between pregnancies, sleep deprivation, stress, and so many other factors, not only has my weight been on a roller coaster, but so has the look and feel of my body, and I want to rein that in.
Controlling the body is a discipline and can lead to or aid in spiritual and emotional discipline. It’s no coincidence that when I became less physically active, I also became less spiritually and emotionally disciplined. This is because we are body-soul composites, each aspect feeding off of and aiding (or hindering) the other. Jesus tells us as much when He says to cut off your hand if it causes you to sin (cf. Matthew 18:8). To paraphrase St. Thomas Aquinas, the body is the physical representation of the soul—what we do with our bodies does not only affect our souls but also reveals the state of our souls.
What I am not saying is that being overweight means that your soul is fat, ugly, or unworthy. There are many reasons for being “overweight,” from body types to illness to stress and any number of other factors. Furthermore, there are more ways to discipline the body than only exercise or physical activity. However, if you can do something to help your body be in or stay in good condition, you should do it. Now, consider a pianist—she must train her hands and fingers to move in exact precision and synchronization to create beautiful melodies and harmonies (also, she must learn to move her feet simultaneously, as the peddles add to the musicality). A pianist’s fingers must move with precision and intention—and the soul must move and act in the same way.
Surely, the body could act one way and the soul another, or vice versa, but that would be reflected in a person’s life. How many celebrity athletes who are in top shape and have trained their bodies with intense precision have been in the news for committing crimes or scandals? Plenty. How many people pay attention to the state of their souls with so much intensity that it borders on scrupulosity but neglect their bodies and suffer from negative effects on their health and well-being? Plenty. Most of us probably fall somewhere in between. There must be a balance. We have been out of balance since the Fall, constantly at war with our bodies and/or souls. It was not meant to be this way.
It is wise to remember the importance of our bodies. Christ did not just rise in His soul but also in His body and then ascended into heaven body and soul. The Blessed Virgin Mary was likewise assumed into heaven body and soul. It means that our physical bodies have eternal significance. What we do with our bodies and how we treat them isn’t just important in this lifetime or for our overall health or anything pertaining to the here and now. How we care for our bodies helps to shape how we care for our souls, and vice versa. To care for one at the expense of the other is to fall into believing a falsehood—that our bodies are only something to be tolerated until we can be set free from them, or that the soul doesn’t matter because there is nothing but right here, right now. Rather, eternity and the here and now are concurrent realities, existing simultaneously. God Who is outside of time came into time—He now exists as both. So we, in our persons, also reflect the harmony of these realities by being body-soul composites.
On our refrigerator, we have a list of family rules and values, and first among them is: “Exercise our bodies, minds, and souls daily.” Everything else flows from this. When we take care to be in harmony with ourselves, we can also then better practice other values, such as gratitude and compassion, and do things like controlling our finances so they don’t control us (another on our list). Harmony and balance. When we fully possess ourselves, we are also, then, free to give ourselves away.
As I finish with this Beachbody challenge group, I find that the more intentional I am with my body, the more intentional I’ve become with my words and actions, and also in my prayer and spiritual life. Ad majorem Dei gloriam—all for the greater glory of God.
A while back, the associate pastor at our church announced that he would be taking three months off to go to Mexico.
Now, before you sigh with envy and work to painstakingly squelch your urge to covet, Father isn’t off to bask in the luxury of carefree relaxation in Cabo. On the contrary, he is probably working harder than he ever has, seminary studies included. You see, our beloved priest is currently facing his own personal struggle with food head on by participating in a health management boot camp of sorts.
The bulletin announcement about his impending absence, written by Father himself, explained that, during a recent medical check-up, the doctor was coming up with all sorts of excuses for some pretty significant health concerns. In his attempts to be kind and “sensitive” to Father’s feelings, the M.D. failed to address the proverbial elephant in the room, which was that his patient’s dangerous weight was the likely cause for – or, at the very least, exacerbating – his various ailments.
After reading the message, I was so proud of our priest: proud of him for confronting his demons; proud of him for being courageous enough to share his struggles with us; proud of him for knowing that these struggles, once overcome, would help him to better attend to his vocation.
I also felt a teensy bit convicted by his forthrightness, to be honest. Okay. I felt a huge, wheelbarrow-sized conviction that smacked me in the middle of my forehead. You see, God has been talking to me about my own health for some time now. While pregnant with and nursing my children over the past several years, I had slowly but surely given myself permission to not monitor my food intake. “Oh, I’m eating for two,” I’d say, rationalizing the extra helping of dessert or bread or whatever. I wasn’t really thinking of the baby’s – or my own – real needs. I was thinking of my stomach – of how good it felt in the moment to eat three or more scoops of ice cream or some other less-than-healthful food substance on a regular basis.
Only, it wasn’t really feeling good anymore. Small allowances and minor indulgences quickly became regular habits, and these habits became cravings – especially for sweets. I’d overeat, then hate myself for doing it, then eat to make myself feel better, only to start the cycle all over again. Being a “food zombie” wasn’t bringing me any lasting happiness, and it definitely wasn’t glorifying God. I truly had become a sugar junkie – an addict – someone who would impatiently wait for my next cookie, scoop of ice cream, or candy bar to get a sugar “fix.”
Not too long ago, I had a medical scare and two procedures that forced me to miss about a month of my “regular” life. Mercifully, I was able to recognize these incidences as a gift from God – a clear sign to change my unhealthy ways. I needed a better diet and more exercise. And so, I tried for a while to “do better” (perhaps a month or two), but inevitably, I slipped back to my old bad habits and probably caused my guardian angel to give himself an open-palmed slap to the forehead while rolling his eyes to China. I felt like, no matter what I tried, I just could not make any lasting adjustments of my own free will. As St. Paul lamented to the Romans, I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do – I was doing what I hate!
Thankfully, I saw Father’s commitment to changing his life as an opportunity for transformation in my own. I reasoned that, if our priest could make some heroically virtuous adjustments regarding his health, then so could I. To my husband’s overwhelming delight (he’s been on my case for years), I decided to (gasp!) give up sugar as a sign of solidarity with and support for our priest. I needed my sacrifice to mean something, and I adopted Father’s struggle as my own personal cause for solidarity.
“Great timing,” an acquaintance sneered, when I mentioned my plans. “Do you understand you’ll be going through several holidays and other festive occasions? This will mean no cake, pie, ice cream, or other sugary desserts!” She looked at me like I was crazy. She laughed as she added, “Let me remember you the way you were,” implying that there was no way I’d be happy (or any fun to be around) without chocolate. Grrr. If there’s one thing God knows about my stubborn self, it’s that I’m about 500% more likely to do something if someone tells me I can’t. I steeled my resolve, dug in my heels, and ripped off the proverbial sugar Band-Aid that very day.
So, practically, speaking, what does my sacrifice look like? “No sugar” means just that: no dessert, no sugary snacks, no soda, no sugary coffee drinks (ACK!), no added sugar in anything, etc. Every time I think of sugar, desire sugar, am around or in close proximity of sugar, I pray for Father’s success in his endeavor to win back his health. I also pray that with each small “no,” I tell myself, God will help me detach from a relationship with food that, truly, had become disordered. I pray that my sacrifice will lead to virtue – namely, prudence and self-control – for both Father and me.
And, how’s it going so far? Well, it’s been 36 days – over a month’s time – since I began this journey. I wish I could attest that saying “no” to sugar has become easier. It honestly hasn’t – yet. I wish I could also say that I have lost 20 pounds – I have not. I wish I could tell you when Father will get back so I can have sugar again (truth). I CAN say, however, that I think I have more energy now to chase my kids around, which is a huge blessing. And I think my complexion might have improved. I’ll take it. But, more importantly, I genuinely know that, with God’s help and by His grace, I am empowered to use my small sacrifices to help another. And I truly have faith that I CAN overcome anythingthrough Christ who strengthens me – even sugar. Pass the carrots.
A version of this article originally appeared on RealCatholicMom.com about six years ago. The author believes it is time to exercise this sort of sacrificial solidarity yet again.
Since becoming a father I can’t even count the number of times I have heard variations of “Oh, you’ll see, just wait. Once you have kids all of that (exercise, holy hour, reading, blogging, etc.) goes out the window. You won’t have time for that any more.”
Actually, it started before Evie came along. It started before we got pregnant. It started before we got married even. “Once you’re married everything changes. You don’t have time for staying in shape. You won’t have time for reading. You won’t have time to do holy hours, volunteer, etc.”
Perhaps it is a flaw in my personality, but such sayings irritate me. They irritate me in the way it ground my gears as a kid when people would say with a condescending nod, “Oh, just you wait. You’ll see once you get out in the real world. You can’t really be knight, or an explorer. Childish dreams, how cute!” Or when grownups shook their heads and said, “Just you wait until you are older, you won’t run around so much, you’ll settle down.”
The implication being that growing up, or what passes for maturity in our society, involves mediocrity, the loss of ideals, and a truce with comfort, convenience and ease of life. Eventually, you will lose the boundless energy of youth, settle down to a nine-to-five grind, and unwind with a beer at the end of the day just like the rest of us.
Sometimes I wonder if grownups say things like that specifically to discourage children (which ought to be classified as a form of child abuse) or simply to console themselves for having lost their youthful drive.
Whatever the reason, it irritates me. My instinct is always to fire back, “Oh really? Why is that?”
There have been three staples of my life up until now, three practices that have bound it together and provided the rhythm and structure of my day, and shaped the life of body, mind and spirit. These practices are prayer, reading and exercising. People say, “Oh, well, say goodbye to that physique, now that you (are engaged/married/have kids). Get ready for middle-aged spread, because you won’t have time for working out.”
But isn’t the truth that we really do have the time for it? I mean, just because I am married, is the day now less than 24 hours long? Do fathers have only 22 hours in a day?
The truth is that we get fat and out of shape, or we get spiritually slack in our prayers, or we let our minds rot, not because we don’t have the time to pray, read and exercise. We have the time, and we choose to use it for other things.
Do you have time to sit down and watch a football game? Then you have time to work out, you are just using it to watch football. Do you have time to watch the news in the morning? Then you have time to pray, you are just not using it for that. Does it take you thirty minutes of hitting the snooze button to get out of bed? Learn to get up right away, and there you have thirty minutes for exercise or prayer time. Do you have games on your phone that you play at odd moments throughout the day? Delete them and replace them with a kindle app. The world’s great books are at your fingertips, you are just using the time to play “Angry Birds” instead. Do you have time to listen to “The Men’s Room” or other early morning talk shows on your way to work? Well then, you have plenty of time for the Divine Office, or the Rosary, you are just choosing to use it for something else. Are you getting up in the middle of the night to feed an infant? Get up with a Rosary or devotional book.
Even when the children get older, why should that mean you get no time for these things? Pray with the kids and teach them to pray. My parish priest would go so far as to say that if you are not making family prayer part of your daily routine, that is spiritual abuse!
Read to them. Instead of sitting them down in front of the TV in the evening, sit down with them and read them a book. What a great excuse to revisit all the classics that meant so much to you as a kid.
Instead of coming home from work and trying to veg out in front of the TV, go out in the yard and run around in circles, yelling at the top of your lungs. The kids will love it and you will feel better.
My point with all of this is that we, as a society, sell ourselves short. We are addicted to mediocrity, and we lack the vision to question the status quo. We take it for granted that once you are married you automatically put on 15 lbs, without questioning whether that might be because we have gotten lazy in our leisure habits, or less temperate in what we eat. We assume that we have to be in touch with the news, without pausing to question whether such a steady diet of negative stories of terrible things we are powerless to change is really all that valuable in the long run. We have less free time, so we spend it playing video games or catching up on TV shows, instead of using it to refill our spiritual, mental and physical tanks. Video games and sitcoms are easier.
This is not the path to Sainthood. The way to Sainthood never runs by the way of mediocrity. The saints were those who asked, “Why not?” Why can’t I get up at 4:00 AM to pray? Where does this unquestioned certainty that I won’t be able to do it come from? Have I ever tried it? Have I ever prayed for the grace to be able to do it?
What would happen if I had the faith of a little child?
I am not for a moment saying that recreation is a waste of time. Recreation is a gift of God, and there is such a sacred quality about play (at its best) that I would consider it a duty before God. Nor am I here to tell anyone what a proper balance of work and play is, or how to choose their recreations. I am only pointing out that it is not quite accurate to say we don’t have time for reading and exercise (prayer is a non-negotiable). It is more accurate to say that we have used the time for other things. Whether those things are more important is between each individual and God.
I sometimes think, however, that in our society most of our choices of recreation do more to enhance our weariness than to refresh and re-create or bodies, minds and souls. We have been taught that we are delicate creatures who must protect ourselves from discomfort, suffering and weariness at all costs, but have we ever really tried to live? I say “I can’t go for a walk because my back hurts.” But maybe my back hurts because I spend my days sitting at a computer and never go for a walk. Maybe sparing myself the discomfort of working out is the direct cause of my ill health and bad attitude later on? It’s a thought, anyway.
It is very appropriate, I think, that I received my diagnosis of wheat and milk allergies during Lent, three years ago. After all, I was already in a mode of Lenten sacrifice, and it felt good and natural to cut out these foods from my life and stick to a very basic diet. Also, I had been very sick and was relieved to find a way to start feeling better. The only difference was that instead of giving up gluten and dairy for Lent, I was giving them up forever. Easter came and went, and I still couldn’t eat any Cadbury eggs or dinner rolls. I tried not to think too much about what I would miss in the long term—that I’d never again enjoy gelato or my favorite pizza—and instead focused on one day at a time. There were still foods I could delight in, like avocados and peanut butter and Chipotle burrito bowls. It was a big lifestyle shift, but it got a little bit easier the more I got the hang of it.
Initially, when I started to see that I could go without some of my favorite foods, I realized that there are so many things in this world that we become so attached to, so many “needs” that aren’t really needs at all. This, of course, is why people give things up for Lent: to detach from the things of this world that are tying us down and holding our attention away from God, to offer a small sacrifice in light of God’s ultimate sacrifice. Before my diagnosis, I would never have dreamed I could live without bread. But of course I can. Any of us could, if we really wanted or needed to; it’s surprising how much we can live without. And honestly, I should consider myself lucky: lucky to have plenty of gluten-free, dairy-free food options, lucky to have found the root of my sickness and to start feeling better.
The one thing I didn’t anticipate was the full extent of my emotional attachments to favorite foods. Not only did I love bagels and Oreo milkshakes, I identified as a lover of bagels and Oreo milkshakes. I realized the extent to which food becomes a part of our identity, how we define ourselves: our regional, cultural, and individual tastes represented in our favorite meals. What Philly-born Jersey girl doesn’t eat bagels, soft pretzels, cheesesteaks, and pizza? What Irish girl refuses a buttered scone? What person who has ever lived in the Eternal City doesn’t long for a cone of Giolitti or a plate of good Roman carbonara? Me, apparently. I was willing to do whatever it took to change my diet and cleanse my body of allergens, but I wasn’t yet fully comfortable being the person I must become: the kind of person who brings salads for lunch, who shops at Whole Foods, who double-checks every ingredient label and asks twenty questions of the waiter at a restaurant. I was more of a SpaghettiOs girl than a salads and vegetables girl, and my cooking skills were laughable. I never had a problem with that before, but now I had to change. I had to speak up at restaurants and tell waiters very clearly about my allergies; I had to send entrees back to the kitchen after realizing that they contained cheese. As someone who is very shy and mild-mannered, this put me totally out of my element, and I had to learn to be less embarrassed about speaking up.
What I began to learn is that my “sense of self” really didn’t matter in the way I thought it did. Lent is a dying of the self to make room for new life in God, and giving up my favorite foods was very much a Lenten process for me. We have tendencies to latch onto certain characteristics of ourselves—likes and dislikes, the traits that we think make us “unique” or “special” and seem inextricably part of who we are, but aren’t really what’s important. The truth is, these arbitrary preferences are part of how we experience the world, but they don’t ultimately matter in how God sees us. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying and appreciating the good things around us, but we need to remember that in the end, they are only things, and there are much greater spiritual riches to be tasted. Sometimes God asks us to put aside certain things—things that are good in and of themselves—so that we don’t become fixated on them, so that He can help us to stretch and grow beyond our own self-imposed definitions and limitations, beyond our comfort zone.
In losing my favorite foods, I lost the ability to re-taste the memories embedded within them. And this is the hardest part for me: to know that I will never again taste regular yellow cake with chocolate icing and be transported to all my childhood birthday parties once again, that I will not again consume the Sant’Eustachio chocolate-covered espresso beans that sustained me during my European travels, that even if I were to go back to my college dining hall, I wouldn’t be able to get the same old yogurt-and-granola mix that I used to eat every night as I laughed with my friends at dinner. Because I am so drawn to memories, this is especially difficult.
One of my favorite prayers begins, “Lord Jesus Christ, take all my freedom, my memory, my understanding, and my will.” When I first started to say this prayer, I used to wonder why memory was included in the list—it seemed a little out of place. Freedom, understanding, and will—sure, these were great things to submit to God, but why memory? What does it even mean to offer one’s memory, and why would it be important? I reasoned that my memory was part of myself and I wanted to offer my whole self to God, but I didn’t fully understand why it was included in the list.
Now I’m beginning to understand a little better. When I offer Jesus my memory, I am handing over the lens through which I perceive the events of my life and asking Him to replace it with His own view. I am giving Him something to which I am very closely attached, something I cling to out of the desire to know my own story. I am recognizing the fallibility of my own memory and the perfection of His; I am recognizing that He, as the One who transcends time, is the ultimate Memory-Keeper, the ultimate Storyteller. So instead of living in the past and instead of resenting the need to undergo these sacrifices, I can trust in Him to tell my story, and He will shed light on the path ahead of me.
I grew up in a home where meals were important affairs because food was more than mere fuel. It was a ministry for my mother who believed little else could make someone feel as welcome, loved, or nurtured as a good meal.
I never thought my family odd until I became aware of the secular world’s view of food: where fast and convenient meals take precedence over nourishing food, and where food serves to get rid of the uncomfortable “hungry” feeling, rather than as a way to build up the body of man and Christ.
The idea that food could play a deeper role than a purely physical one is lost on the world, except those poor girls double-dating with Ben and Jerry after a break-up. The world understands an emotional component to eating, but only when it comes out in an unhealthy manner.
In essence, food has become for the general public something simultaneously taken too seriously on one end (“I can’t eat a brownie. I had one this month already. I’ll get fat.”) and not seriously enough on the other (“Whatever. Let’s just go through the drive-thru.”).
Neither of those approaches is healthy or Catholic. There is a
real ministry in food and the potential for Christ to work
intimately in, through, and with food in ways you would never
In fact, Christ is all about food, as we know that Christ’s most
important work happened, and continues to happen, in the
form of bread and wine.
His first miracle occurred at the Wedding Feast at Cana, where He made alcoholic drink.
Now, we all know that alcohol isn’t exactly the kale of the beverage world. Why would Christ supply something that is actively bad for man? Because God did not create food merely to fuel us physically, but to support us in the many facets of our own lives.
As the importance of wine at the wedding feast was not about the physical benefits but rather the emotional and spiritual, Christ’s supply of wine points to these different roles of food and encourages us to embrace them.
Furthermore, Christ ministered to the crowds with food. He multiplied the loaves and fishes, dined with tax collectors and prostitutes, called to Zacchaeus that he would “dine with him tonight,” and urged the family of the girl brought back to life to give her something to eat.
The vast majority of Christ’s interactions with people have to do with food. He creates community over food. He even called fishermen, who were doing what? Collecting fish to be sold for food.
What’s more, all of this wining and dining culminated in the last supper – the meal which instituted the Eucharist and our faith.
All of salvation is continued through Christ’s ministering to the body of His bride – us, the Church – in bread and wine, which becomes our “spiritual food and drink” at the Mass. Catholics believe that by eating this bread and drinking this cup, we may come to eternal life. The act of nourishing our souls does more than give our souls energy for that day. It actively goes into the very center of our souls and transforms us from the inside out, making us more like Christ with each partaking of His blessed body.
Christ is all about food.
Food is His gift to humanity by which He nourishes the magnum opus of His creation, His living, breathing, temple of the Holy Spirit: mankind. If Christ takes food this seriously, then we too ought give food the respect it is due.
If food is the means by which Christ reaches out to sinners and gathers His Church, then we too must see food as a ministry.
It is a ministry that we do for ourselves. In ministering to our bodies through wholesome, healthy food, we are giving ourselves the nourishment necessary to carry Christ’s joy to the world.
It is a ministry that we do for others. Food brings people together. Meals ought to take precedence, with proper settings, serving dishes, and time to enhance the experience of community over food.
If food creates community, then it should be celebrated. Meals are universal. Everyone must eat, and so we ought to celebrate the genuine community that comes from eating. As St. Francis of Assisi once cried in joy: “It is my wish that on a day such as this even the walls should be smeared with meat so they may feast with us!” If such joy is worth feeding walls over, then surely the joy of the Christian life is worth more than a McDouble from the dollar menu.
Food ought to taste good. Everything that is good points us back to the One who is Goodness. It should taste good naturally: by working with the flavors Christ gives us, we come to know His creative mind just a bit more.
Food ought to be enjoyed. By slowing down and enjoying our meals, we become aware of the goodness of God who provides us with sustenance.
Finally, food must stir in us thankfulness. We must pray fervently and with intense gratitude before consuming anything. Every morsel we touch is a reaffirmation of Christ’s overwhelming love for us, a reminder that we are in His caring hands. For, “the birds of the air neither sow nor reap … and yet your Heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:26).
Consider making food your friend again. Make time each week to make a good meal. Set the table. Take the time to dine well. Do not rush your meal, allow it to make present the joy God takes in and the love He has for His creation.
Our bodies are complex, intricate mysterious things. They are not outer shells or machines that come with a user’s manual. There is a lot going on that we understand, and probably even more going on that we don’t understand.
This really hit home for me with breastfeeding. A forewarning of “it’s not intuitive” turned into a process of millions of questions that didn’t have an easy answer. Instead, the answers varied from woman to woman, baby to baby, etc. How long should the baby feed? How long from each breast? When is it best to switch sides? When should feeding positions be varied? Many other mothers shared with me the difficulties they had had, from nipple soreness to infections.
Just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it isn’t natural. In fact, it’s extremely natural and there are countless benefits. You have to get to know your body. It’s hard work and takes a toll on the woman’s body, but more often than not, things that are good for you are hard work.
This leads us to Natural Family Planning (NFP). If getting to know about breasts and baby’s hunger and how they work together is difficult, getting to know about a woman’s fertility and how it works with a man’s is even more so. It’s difficult because of the aforementioned issue of complexity. A woman’s fertility follows certain patterns that we can learn to recognize, but it varies with psychological factors, illness, age, etc. There are a lot of nuances and details to remember that take a while to learn. The stage I’m in now, after pregnancy, seems to be the most difficult. You have to watch for your ovulation like a hawk, as it isn’t preceded by menstruation. Signs can be deceiving.
Your cervix feels like a nose when you’re infertile and like your lips when you’re fertile, our doctor explained to us. Yet how long does it take to go from “nose-like” to “lip-like”? You have to get to know your body, our doctor told us. If you’ve ever tried to “get to know your body”, you’ll know this is easier said than done. NFP takes practice, to get to know the theory and especially to apply it to yourself. It takes some discipline and some effort, just like eating well and exercising, and just like breastfeeding. It’s natural, but not intuitive. Our bodies take some getting to know and this is a constant, lifelong process.
NFP also takes a lot of guts. Dealing with any life or death issue takes guts, but being “open to life” is not as easy as it sounds. Teetering on the edge of “to bring or not new life into the world” crashes directly into all our priorities and goals in life. NFP is scary because you are not as “in control” as with contraception. A little mistake and oops, you have a baby. Big deal. It takes a world view completely different to that of our current western mind-set to deal with this teetering on the edge. The Catholic worldview works well with this method, in which God is almighty and totally in control. We should trust Him with our lives instead of failing at trying to control them because He truly knows best. It works well with a “natural/ecological” worldview in which the body is beautiful and it isn’t necessary to pump it with hormones or plastic. It works well with worldviews of other cultures, in which a baby is a blessing and not a limit to your freedom or your lifestyle.
“You can go explore the world, go on holiday, you can have a villa in the countryside, you can be carefree. It might be better — more comfortable — to have a dog, two cats, and the love goes to the two cats and the dog. Is this true or not? Have you seen it? Then, in the end this marriage comes to old age in solitude, with the bitterness of loneliness.“ –Pope Francis
So why would you practice Natural Family Planning if it’s complex, takes work and goes against our society’s mind-set? Because the “easy way” is only easy in the short-term. NFP is complex because our bodies are complex, but the benefits are extraordinary and, more importantly, the knowledge of your body (=you) is priceless.
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