Every new year seems to bring out the best in us. We look ourselves squarely in the mirror and decide what needs work. Maybe we need to lose a few pounds, or gain some self-control. Maybe we recognize a need to pare down our belongings or our outside-the-home commitments, or our time spent on social media. Maybe we want to pray more or give more. Even if we don’t make any formal “resolutions,” usually somewhere in the back of our minds are plans to do better, feel better, be better.
But, as many people are probably already learning only a few days into this new year, thinking and doing are two very different things. The doing part can be hard, which is why so many people give up on their plans before they have a chance to see any results. So what’s the secret to achieving and maintaining physical, mental and spiritual health? It turns out the biggest factor in this equation may be the one thing most overlooked: connection. It’s very likely that any attempt to fix or improve one part of yourself will stall if you’re not also including the other parts of yourself as well.
Translation please? Body, mind and spirit are connected, and what happens in one area of your life will surely affect other areas of your life. So if you want to get in shape — physically, mentally or spiritually — you’re going to have to take on all three elements at once. I know. It sounds scary and overwhelming, but it’s not. In fact, when you approach your life from this “holistic” place, this awareness that you must bring all of you to the table (or gym or pew), you have a much better chance of achieving the “success” that is typically so elusive.
Reclaiming our efforts
|Fr. Thomas Ryan
“We have to cease separating the various aspects of our lives and come to the recognition that, for example, if it’s good for my body, it’s good for my soul; and if it’s good for my soul, it’s good for my body. There’s just one ‘me’ that it all comes back to: the enfleshed spirit that I am,” said Father Thomas Ryan, director of the Paulist North American Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in Washington, D.C., and author of 14 books, among them Reclaiming the Body in Christian Spirituality
(Paulist Press, $16.95).
“Have you ever noticed how all the criteria Jesus offers in the 25th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel for who gets into heaven and who doesn’t are directly related to caring for each other’s bodily well-being?” he asked. “Our catechism calls them, not by accident, ‘corporal’ (from the Latin, corpus, or bodily) works of mercy: feeding the hungry and giving drink to the thirsty, visiting the sick and clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless and burying the dead. So there’s no basis here for mentally separating the ‘physical’ from the ‘spiritual.’”
So what does that mean for you and your effort to lose 10 pounds or build muscle in the coming year? A lot. It means if you try to tackle those purely physical goals without also looking at other areas that may need attention, the whole effort might implode. Of course, it’s not your fault that this body-mind-spirit connection doesn’t come naturally. For a long time Catholics have seen the body as an obstacle to spiritual growth, a negative we have to deal with for a while in order to get to our heavenly reward. People like Father Ryan, however, have turned that idea on its head and returned it to its scriptural roots.
He said that for Catholics in particular, the body plays a critical role.
“We Christians like to call our faith ‘incarnational,’ that is to say, enfleshed. And, given the event we commemorated Dec. 25 — the enfleshment of God in a historical person, Jesus of Nazareth — ours is an incarnational faith. There is no other religion in the world that claims God has done this, and that claim has some serious implications for our living,” he said. “From here on out, we are saying, God is identified with and discovered within this bodiliness, this fleshiness, this materiality, this sensuality, this worldliness, this passion. In the Incarnation, God took the world as part of God’s own self.”
But, Father Ryan added, where the body is concerned, Christians haven’t really “walked their talk” by viewing the body as something apart and even opposed to spiritual growth.
“Rather than feeling gifted by our bodies, we try to weasel our way out. We have resisted the radical nature of our own ‘good news,’” he told Our Sunday Visitor. “We have been gifted with these bodies because this is where God dwells. All flesh is holy. It is in these bodies that we will work out our salvation.”
A holistic workout
So, how do we work out our salvation while also working out our abs and glutes? That’s really up to your personal preferences, although Peggy Bowes, author of The Rosary Workout">“The Rosary Workout”
(Bezalel, $19.99) and co-author of “Tending the Temple” (Bezalel, $19.99), has some specific strategies for pumping up your physical, mental and spiritual muscles. As with any exercise program, she warns that starting small is your best bet.
“Try praying just one decade of the Rosary. Before you begin, read about that particular mystery in Scripture and Google a work of art that depicts that mystery. Take a few minutes to really study the artwork and take in the detail. The combination of the Word of God and beautiful art can be really helpful in meditation. As you pray, take a short walk outside and enjoy the beauty of God’s creation,” she said. “Allow the repeated Hail Marys of the decade, along with the rhythm of your steps, to clear your mind as you reflect on your Scripture readings and recall the work of art you studied. Listen to the voice of God for any revelation He may choose to give you. You might even pray the decade for a sick relative, a neighbor who has lost his job or the angry woman who cut you off as you drove home from work.”
Bowes told OSV that in her Rosary workout program and in her own exercise routine, a favorite Scripture verse serves as a touchstone: “Glorify God in your body” (1 Cor 6:20).
“When I go out for a run or bike ride or some other form of exercise, I find that I am giving glory to God through the combination of prayer and exercise. I am strengthening my body so that I can better carry out God’s will in my life. The rhythm of my workout clears my mind for meditation,” she said. “Another benefit is that the habit of combining prayer and exercise helps me be better at both. I find that as soon as I start exercising, my mind automatically begins to pray. Likewise, when I pray the Rosary, I have a desire to get up and move. Of course, I occasionally just listen to music or get lost in my thoughts during a workout, and I enjoy praying the Rosary in the quiet of an empty church in front of the Blessed Sacrament, but I have come to enjoy the combination of exercise and prayer so much that it has just become an important part of my life.”
Achieving physical, mental and spiritual health has a lot to do with creating balance in our lives. Our society expects us to multi-task. If you’re not doing four things at once, you probably feel like a bit of a slacker. But health and holiness are not found in the multi-tasking mentality.
It’s important to be willing to step outside the demands of the culture and forge your own path, reflecting on your priorities and creating your own version of what “success” really looks like. Most likely it won’t look like the size zero model on the cover of a magazine, it won’t have the bank account of Donald Trump and it won’t come with a private jet or a personal chef.
But by adjusting your expectations and your perception of what your life “should” look like, you just may find something much better — and healthier — than what society tries to make you admire, desire and crave.
“It almost always has to start with awareness,” said Sister Anne Bryan Smollin, an educator, therapist and author of numerous books, including “God Knows You’re Stressed” (Sorin Books, $13.95). “Look in the mirror and ask yourself what’s important in your life.”
She explained that people need to first take care of themselves because if you’re not caring for yourself, it’s likely you can’t take care of anyone else.
Look at how much time you devote to your family, how you attend to relationships, how you attend to your prayer life.
“It comes down to balance,” Sister Smollin told OSV, noting that even healthy things can become unhealthy if they begin to take over our lives and interfere with our relationships.
Sister Smollin once counseled a woman who went to seven Masses a day. The woman even started going to funerals in order to get to “enough” Masses.
Another woman exercised all the time, to the point where her family was suffering. What started out as a healthy physical practice became unhealthy for other parts of her life.
“It became an obsession. It wasn’t something that enhanced her life because it became a ‘has to.’ Imbalance is very unhealthy,” she explained, adding that giving up candy or fatty food to lose a few pounds is not necessarily as important as creating balance, living in the moment, and focusing on relationships and social connections.
“We are not three people. We are connected — physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually. If we are not taking care of ourselves in one area, the others suffer also,” Sister Smollin added. “We probably should be making New Year’s resolutions every day, not just once a year. How do I truly keep that balance? That’s a daily thing, not something that happens only on Jan. 1.”
Mary DeTurris Poust is the author of six books on Catholic spirituality and the creator of Not Strictly Spiritual. Contact her at www.notstrictlyspiritual.com.