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?
"I will give them a new heart, and put a new spirit within them." -Ezekiel 11:19
I hold my son Leo closely, rocking him back and forth in the quiet of the night. He throws his head back, pushes against me, and babbles to keep himself awake. As his mother, I must be patient and persistent. The fruit of my efforts results in his deep breathing, dangling arms, and heavy eyelids.
Leo is now ten months old—crawling, pulling himself up, climbing. While he still looks to me for assurance and affirmation, he much prefers exploration to stillness. Not wanting to miss a thing about this big world, he wrestles with me as I put him down for naps and at bedtime.
I often think as I sing to Leo and soothe him to sleep: This is how I am with God. I wrestle with him, pushing back, filling my life with distraction. I prefer my will—my way—to his own. I forget to rest in his stillness.
In my graduate program, a professor once shared a particularly beautiful insight that still strikes me today. He said that if two human beings rest long enough on each other’s chests, their hearts sync up and beat in rhythm with one another. As a mother, this insight is especially poignant and beautiful to me—I think of my son’s heart slowing down and mine speeding up to embrace and beat as one. Then I apply this truth to God: have I allowed myself to rest in him? Do our hearts beat as one?
The Gospels tell us that John, the Beloved Disciple, reclined on the chest (kolpos in Greek) of Christ at the Last Supper. Applying my professor’s insight to the Gospel, we can gather from this image that John’s heart beat in time with Christ’s, whose own heart beat perfectly with his Heavenly Father’s.
As Christians, we are all called and invited to become the Beloved Disciple. This is not a privilege for a select few. Resting on the kolpos of Christ and allowing our hearts to beat in time with his gives our lives true meaning and fulfillment. As Pope Francis said, “The Heart of the Good Shepherd tells us that his love is limitless; it is never exhausted and it never gives up. There we see his infinite and boundless self-giving; there we find the source of that faithful and meek love which sets free and makes others free; there we constantly discover anew that Jesus loves us even to the end’ (Jn 13:1), without ever being imposing.”
This intimacy with God, however, does not happen overnight. The Gospel does not say that John rested on the chest of Christ right after Jesus called him to discipleship on the Sea of Galilee. This intimacy was the fruit of years spent in the presence of Jesus. It is the fruit of a deep relationship with him—sitting at his feet, sharing meals, listening to his preaching, witnessing his miracles.
We do not rest on the chest of a stranger. We are called, therefore, to grow in intimacy with God by opening our hearts to his. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “It is the heart that prays. If our heart is far from God, the words of prayer are in vain.” Though Christ opens his heart to all of his children, we are called to build that intimacy with him, as John did, through prayer, stillness, the sacraments, and service.
The famous quote of St. Augustine reminds us that our hearts are restless until they rest in God. And so we will not feel satisfied in this world until we have allowed ourselves to rest in the heart, on the kolpos, of Christ. “God’s heart calls to our hearts, “ Pope Benedict XVI observed in his homily on the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. When we allow ourselves to rest in the heart of Christ, he invites us “to come out of ourselves, to forsake our human certainties, to trust in him and, by following his example, to make ourselves a gift of unbounded love.” Our encounter with the heart of the Good Shepherd, therefore, is what strengthens us to go out in our respective vocations and live as missionary disciples.
May we rest on the kolpos of Christ and experience his perfect charity so that we may become “gifts of unbounded love” to the world. As we deepen our intimacy with God, let us look to John’s childlike trust and ask for his intercession in order to become who we were created to be: beloved disciples.
Questions for Reflection: Do certain things keep you from growing in your relationship with Christ? How might God be calling you to rest in him?
For resources on prayer, please click here.
Growing up, I often balked at the uniqueness of my name. It was different and I could never find novelty license plates on vacation with my name on it. Although I secretly always appreciated being the only Monica in my class, I sometimes longed to have been named Katie or Laura or Emily, much like most of the girls in my class. At one point, I distinctly remembering yelling out in sheer desperation, “I HATE MY NAME!” because I was unable to procure sparkly pencils that said Monica. With time and maturity, though, I learned to really love my name because it was a part of me and because of the connection to Saint Monica, who has become a spiritual role model to me.
As a young student in my parochial grade school, there was never any doubt as to which saint I would dress up as on All Saints Day. I looked forward each year to wearing the long black dress and black head covering that I associated with my patroness, Saint Monica. At the time, all I knew about her was that she was the mother of Saint Augustine and that she prayed for his conversion, which eventually happened.
While we don’t know as much about her as we do about her son, we do know that she was active in her community and Church. She also had a tumultuous relationship with her husband, Patritius, who was a pagan. Throughout their marriage, they struggled with how to raise their children in terms of religion and, it being the 4th century, Monica was unable to have her children baptized as Christians. She probably also didn’t spend much time worrying about finding her name on a pencil.
Monica spent most of her life praying for the conversion of her beloved son, Augustine. As he made poor life decisions, Saint Monica worked even harder to help her son know God as she did. She made it her life goal to see him baptized, which eventually happened in the year 387.
I am grateful to share my name with a strong, faith-filled woman who spent her time devoted to God and to her family. She has provided an example to me how to remain steadfast in your faith despite what is going on around you, both in your personal life and in the greater world. Saint Monica is an excellent example for those who chose married life as a vocation. Not every marriage is perfect, but it is in that imperfection that we require the support of our partner and, more importantly, we require support from God. Saint Monica took her role as a mother very seriously. She prayed for and wanted her children to know the love of God, as she had. And, in the case of her son Augustine, she did whatever it took, including some tough love at times, to help him find his path to Christ.
As we celebrate Saint Monica’s feast day today, let us remember those Saint Monica’s in our life - people guiding our spiritual lives, praying for us along our way, and being there to support us as we discover who we are in the Church, and let us be grateful for the unique aspects of our lives and our personalities that makes us different and special.
Monica Thom Konschnik serves as the Administrator for the Catholic Apostolate Center and the Pallottine Seminary at Green Hill.