Lately, I have been reflecting on discipline as an important element of discipleship. What does the word discipline mean to you? Commitment, application, diligence, resolve, zeal, conscientiousness; these are all synonyms of the word discipline. Discipline and its synonyms imply a persistence, a willingness to do something difficult over and over in order to achieve a goal or to serve some purpose. Am I a dedicated disciple of Jesus Christ who is willing to discipline myself, physically and spiritually, body and soul, to be the best version of myself? Am I committed to using that self for the glory of Christ’s work on earth?
More often than not, the secular fitness industry attempts to convince people to be concerned with disciplining their bodies for aesthetic reasons. You should eat right, exercise, and get enough sleep so that your body conforms to a certain standard of beauty. The implication is that people who conform to this standard of beauty feel better about themselves, are admired more by other people and are more successful in life—but what if we cared about the health of our bodies because it was also bound up in the health of our souls?
Scripture teaches us that the human body is made in the image of God, which the Catechism explains that “it is a human body precisely because it is animated by a spiritual soul” (CCC 364). This means that our bodies are not just our bodies: they are ensouled. That doesn’t mean that the body is just a container for the soul. Rather, “the unity of soul and body is so profound that one has to consider the soul to be the ‘form’ of the body: i.e., it is because of its spiritual soul that the body made of matter becomes a living, human body; spirit and matter, in man, are not two natures united, but rather their union forms a single nature” (my emphasis, CCC 365). The soul and the body are uniquely bound. The “form” of the soul organizes and determines the “matter” of the body—just as a collection of wooden planks can be organized by the form of “ship” or “house”.
Thinking about all of this within the context of healthy living, understanding our human nature as the union of body and soul can help us to recognize the spiritual importance of caring for our material bodies. What if we took a walk, fueled our body with proper nutrition, or went to the gym because we knew that it would keep us more energized, focused, and alert to fulfilling God’s work on earth? The bodies that we have been given are a gift from God, and much like the rest of creation, it is our task to faithfully steward them.
One way that we can live as faithful stewards of our bodies is to invite God into our daily choices. We can pray for the strength to take care of our bodies and when it feels like making a healthy choice is too difficult, we can offer up the sacrifice for someone else. The next time you are debating on whether to spend some time focusing on improving your bodily health, make the decision to offer the sacrifice of your time and energy for a specific intention. The intention can be for a family member, an acquaintance, a close friend, or perhaps a special intention that you are struggling with. “Offering it up” for another person is a form of “intercessory prayer,” which “leads us to pray as Jesus did” to God the father on behalf of others (CCC 2634). Offering the pain and suffering of bodily discomforts is a good way to continually remind yourself that your body is intimately connected to your spirit.
Using your body for prayer is not a new idea in the Church. As Catholics, our worship and our sacraments are very sensorial. We cross ourselves, we kneel at the most important parts of Mass like the Consecration, and we use sacramentals like incense and holy water to orient ourselves in prayer to God. We should ask ourselves whether we are using our bodies properly during the spiritual activities of our week. Do we allow ourselves to be fully present and attentive at Mass by folding our hands in prayer and using our eyes to gaze upon the consecrated Body and Blood of Christ? When we genuflect or make the Sign of the Cross, do we muddle through the motions or do we execute each movement deliberately and with reverence? When we prepare ourselves for scriptural reflection or meditation, are we aware of the physical ways that we can help our bodies and brains to relax and focus so that we can bring all of our attention and faculties to Christ?
Why should we be concerned with this idea of body AND soul? Our body and soul were designed as one; when we forget one for the other we are not living fully in service to our Lord. Let us use our bodies and souls in action and deed as one instrument for the Glory of God.
Question for Reflection: How can I make my prayer more reverent by using my body? Who are they people in my life for whom I can offer up physical discomfort?