As a family physician, I’m concerned about people’s health. My medical training has taught me about restoring and maintaining physical and mental wellness. As a Catholic Christian, I have also come to appreciate the spiritual dimension of living. Today’s blog is the first of a five-part series on integrating the body and soul. Here’s the line-up:
Part 1: (Some) Theology of the body
Part 2: Faith and natural healing
Part 3: Holistic medicine
Part 4: Miraculous healing
Part 5: Integrating the spiritual and physical
What is the soul?
The soul is the “innermost aspect of man, that which is of greatest value in him, that by which he is most especially in God’s image: ‘soul’ signifies the spiritual principle in man.” The soul is immortal and does not perish with the body at physical death, with which it will be reunited at the final Resurrection. CCC 363
Isn’t the soul what’s really important? Why should a Christian care about his or her body?
Because the state of our soul at physical death, and not of the body, determines our eternal destiny, one could say the soul is more important. The Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes1 adds this:
Man judges rightly that by his intellect he surpasses the material universe, for he shares in the light of the divine mind. GS 15
But we would be mistaken to take the value of the soul as cause to downgrade the body’s worth. From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
The human body shares in the dignity of the ‘image of God’: it is a human body precisely because it is animated by a spiritual soul, and it is the whole person that is intended to become, in the body of Christ, a temple of the Spirit. CCC 364
…and again, from Gaudium et Spes.
Man, though made body and soul, is a unit. Man may not despise his bodily life. Rather he is obliged to regard his body as good and to hold it in honor since God has created it and will raise it up on the last day. GS 14
Isn’t our body our own? Don’t we have the right to do what we want with it?
God created us free to choose between good or evil. But our actions are not without consequences. Because of the unity of the body and soul, what we do in the material world has spiritual implications. By willfully acting in sin, we break our friendship with God and dishonor what God made as holy. The Corinthian church had a big problem in this area, leading Paul to write:
Everything is lawful for me, but I will not let myself be dominated by anything. “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food,” but God will do away with both the one and the other. The body, however, is not for immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord is for the body. Avoid immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside his body, but the immoral person sins against his own body. Do you not know your body is a temple of the holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been purchased at a price. Therefore, glorify God in your body.
I Corinthians 6:12b-13; 18-20 NAB
If the body is so important, why did some of the saints treat their body so poorly?
Saints like Francis of Assisi or Catherine of Siena were pretty tough on their bodies. They had such great devotion to God that they wanted nothing to block them from doing His will and giving Him glory. Knowing the weakness of their physical nature and how it could be a source of temptation, they sought to overcome anything in their body that might come between them and God. They wanted to love Him with their whole mind, body, and soul. As a result, they subjected themselves to physical hardships and severe fasting. While it’s unlikely God will call us to model their asceticism, we should try to imitate their intensity of devotion.
Why do Christians fast and abstain from certain food or drink? Aren’t these forms of self-abuse?
The practice of fasting (withholding food) and abstinence (abstaining from particular food, drink, or behaviors) are acts of self-denial and interior penance. Both Scripture and by the Church Fathers recommend them to us. The Fathers felt that giving in to a desire for pleasure in one area would awaken desires in other areas as well. One of the strongest of the natural appetites is for food. Denying oneself through fasting is a way of seeking purification and offering oneself to God. Their practice, however, should not be done in a way that causes us physical harm.
So, what is the right balance between caring for one’s body and soul?
Honor God both materially and spiritually. Love God with your whole heart, mind, and soul. Ordering your body and soul toward God will bring healing to both. I’ll have more on this later.
1 Second Vatican Council, “Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” Gaudium et Spes,” (Vatican: The Holy See, December 7, 1965), http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_const_19651207_gaudium-et-spes_en.html.