Have you ever been convinced that you were in the depths of spiritual desolation–feeling heavy and dry and alone–and then you had a really good night’s sleep or an especially refreshing nap only to realize that… nevermind, that wasn’t desolation, you were just sleep deprived?
Or have you ever had a good confession and an experience of God’s closeness at Mass–and then found it really easy to avoid eating the doughnuts at fellowship?
Maybe you went for a long walk and suddenly spiritual truths about God’s love for you and his nearness seeped into your heart in a new way.
What do all of these experiences have in common?
They all highlight just how integrated our bodies and souls really are. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 365:
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.”
This is one of those truths of Catholicism that everyone kind of knows… but that doesn’t always get translated into how we live our everyday lives. Sure, we’re aware that we’re both body and soul–but that doesn’t stop us from trying to completely compartmentalize the two and live as if what we do with our bodies has no bearing on our spiritual lives (and vice versa).
In this article, I want to outline why it’s so important for Catholics to embrace the reality that our bodies and souls are already integrated (because let’s face it, embracing reality is always a good strategy), then I’ll point out some common errors we might slip into if we don’t have a solid understanding of what that integration means. Finally, I’ll give some really practical applications for how you can supercharge both your spiritual and physical health.
So let’s dive in!
Why is the integration of spiritual and physical health so important for Catholics?
It is the only way to live a fully thriving and abundant life
Jesus said that he came to give us life, and give it abundantly (John 10:10). Unfortunately, that is just not the experience of life that most of us have.
We tend to limp along, merely surviving each day, without ever really reaching our full potential.
Usually this happens because we’re treating our bodies and souls as though they were completely separate (which, as we know, is false). And you can only get so far when you’re neglecting one part of your “single nature”.
Imagine an Olympic athlete who is at the absolute top of her game physically. She eats exceptionally well, exercises and recovers like the champ she is, sleeps 8-10 uninterrupted hours a night–-but who has no relationship with God and who is living a morally bankrupt life.
This person may feel all of the neurochemical benefits of taking exceptional care of her body–but she can’t possibly experience the deeper levels of joy that spring from a life lived with Christ. Nothing can fill the existential chasm–that “God-shaped hole” in her soul, and she will not reach the “abundant life” that Christ wants to offer her.
Now imagine a devout Catholic mom who attends Mass every Sunday and Holy Day, goes to confession regularly, and tries to have daily prayer time. She’s doing everything she can to take care of her soul—but… she tends to get dinner from the drive-thru more often than not, relies on her nightly goblet of wine to unwind, hasn’t exercised in weeks, and tends to revenge procrastinate bed time (“revenge procrastination” is staying up too late at bedtime to have some “me time” when you feel like it’s the only time you get all day. It’s a real thing.).
Despite feeling some of the consolations that God wants to give her, this woman is trying to run the race with a load of rocks on her back. She will feel unhappy and unfulfilled because she is not living in accordance with how God has designed her body to work.
We simply can’t ignore our biochemistry! Though God is 100% capable of overriding the normal ways our bodies are designed–by him–to function (miracles, after all, do happen) the truth is that most of the time, he doesn’t. Most often, he allows the laws of nature that he wrote to play out the way he set them up to.
So if you sabotage the serotonin receptors in your brain through your lifestyle choices, God isn’t likely to step in miraculously to make you feel happy anyway.
But imagine a third woman. This woman loves God with all of her heart, soul, mind, and her strength. She combines her love for Jesus with taking really good care of her body, recognizing that her body is the first gift God gave her and that she is merely its steward.
This woman gets all of the physical benefits and happiness that come with balanced neurochemicals, but she also has the deeper spiritual joys that help her weather the inevitable storms of life with unshakable peace. This is the thriving and abundant life that we were all created for. Until we fully integrate the two aspects of our one nature, we will never reach our highest potential.
When one suffers they both do
St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that, “Man cannot live without joy; so when he is deprived of true spiritual joy, it is necessary that he turn to carnal pleasures.”
When our spiritual health is poor, we tend to turn to “low and earthly comforts” (as St. Ignatius of Loyola called them) or “carnal pleasures” that are bad for our physical health too. This could be junk food, alcohol, binge watching TV, or any other not-so-good thing that we turn to for comfort when we’re feeling crummy.
And vice versa, when our physical health is poor, we tend to not have enough energy to do the good we know we should be doing, we can’t think clearly (which makes it harder to pray), we’re irritable, and we tend to focus only on our own discomfort rather than helping others. When we aren’t taking good care of our bodies, it becomes much more difficult to love God and neighbor as we’re called to.
Catholics have a unique worldview that permeates every aspect of our lives
While we can certainly try to compartmentalize our lives into little pockets that remain separate from one another, the one aspect that should seep into and influence everything else is our faith. If every hair on your head really is numbered (and Jesus tells us that it is) then God is very interested in every aspect of your life–including how you care for the body that he gave you.
And the truth is that Catholics should be radically different from “the world” in how we think and act. While it’s really common in health and wellness spheres to talk about how “the universe” has got your back or to ask “the universe” for what you need, or to thank “the universe” for your blessings–-as Catholics we know that’s bogus. It isn’t “the universe” who’s doing all that–it’s a personal God who knows and loves you intimately.
We also know that we weren’t created for this world and that we will remain strangers and sojourners here until our time is up. So while I love health and wellness, Catholics have to recognize that it is just not the most important thing in life. In fact, if you lose weight, have more energy, and improve every aspect of your health, but you remain far from God–then you’ve failed.
Which leads me to the common pitfalls that you’ll want to avoid…
The common health and wellness pitfalls to avoid
Making an idol of our health and wellness
Sometimes we can get so wrapped up in the pursuit of health (or weight loss, or any other goal related to our bodies) that we can obsess over it at the expense of every other thing in our lives. We have to be careful to remember that our love for God and neighbor comes first.
If you find yourself thinking more about how many macros were in your breakfast while you’re trying to listen to the Homily at Mass, it might be time to reconsider your priorities!
Attributing all of our anxiety, sadness, depression etc. to spiritual causes
This is especially common with very devout Catholics. We tend to think that all of our negative feelings stem from not praying enough, or being in a time of desolation, or somehow not being “good” enough. While you should certainly examine your conscience, go to regular confession, and try to remain in a state of grace, sometimes the reason you’re feeling so bad has nothing to do with the state of your soul.
Like I mentioned above, God won’t usually override our biochemistry to make us feel happy when our lifestyle choices are dragging us down. So while you certainly can–and should–pray to feel better, don’t forget to also get some sleep, exercise, and eat healthy food. You’d be amazed how grace works with nature to help you feel better faster!
New-age philosophy in our pursuit of health
It seems like the new-age has a real corner on the health and wellness world and it can be really easy to pick up some erroneous ideas if you’re consuming secular content about trying to get healthy.
From an overemphasis on “the universe”, manifesting, chakras, vibrational energies, and healing crystals to any number of wonky new-age practices (okay, to be fair, some of these are ancient “Eastern” practices) the idea that there is some secret esoteric knowledge or practice out there that is going to magically transform your health can be appealing–albeit insidious.
Fortunately, good science and good religion never contradict one another. I recommend learning all you can about how God created your body to work–if that helps motivate you to make positive changes–but feel free to have a liberal eye-roll and disregard any new-agey weirdness that you’ll likely come across.
(By the way, here is the deep esoteric knowledge that will transform your health: go to bed on time, eat more vegetables, drink water, and go outside for a walk. Shhhh…don’t tell anyone!)
Okay, so you know why integrating your spiritual and physical health is important and even what misconceptions to avoid… now it’s time to get practical!
Practical applications for integrating spiritual and physical health
Exercise the virtue of prudence when deciding your healthy habits
God gave us an intellect and a will for a reason and he expects us to use them! What is best for your body? What can you possibly do to improve your health? Decide and make a prudent plan.
Exercise the virtues of fortitude and temperance when living your healthy habits
God willing, your life will be a long time (hopefully longer if you’re taking good care of yourself!) So “getting healthy” is not a sprint… it’s a lifelong marathon. Which means that it’s going to take both fortitude and temperance to keep going for the long haul. Fortunately, St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that “Happiness is the reward for virtue.”
Offer your “sacrifices” as an act of love for God
This is similar to how you might make sacrifices during Lent or when fasting. For example, “I love ice cream. But I love God more, and I know that avoiding sugar is a way to be a good steward of this gift of my body that he has given me.”
Pray for the strength you need to keep your resolve and avoid temptations
You will certainly be tempted to give up on your healthy habits. But remember that Jesus promises that if we ask, we will receive. Ask for the strength you need when you need it.
Use your newfound energy and clarity to do the work God has created you to do
Getting healthy is just the starting line! God has created you for some definite purpose. Once you’re not slowed down by mediocre health, what are you going to do with your increased energy and vitality? Try asking, “Lord, what are you calling me to do?” Prepare to be amazed, inspired, and more radiantly joyful than you’ve ever been before.
It is my sincere hope that this article will inspire you to think differently about how you approach your physical health through the lens of Catholic spirituality. I’d love to hear from you–be sure to comment below with your experiences!
Jessica Castillo is a wife, mom, former Army Officer, integrative nutrition health coach, and the founder of A Thriving Catholic, where she offers authentically Catholic coaching to help women reach their highest potential—and start living the thriving and abundant lives they were made for.
Jessica is passionate about helping Catholic women get healthy so they can break free from exhaustion, overwhelm, and day-to-day survival, and start living lives brimming with energy, purpose, and joy.
Her mission is to help busy Catholics develop the high-impact habits of body, mind, and soul that will give them the energy and vitality they need to do the important work that God has created them for—and by doing the work we were made to do, we become the saints we were created to be.
Get started on your journey to better health today with 4-weeks of FREE family-friendly meal plans, recipes, and print-and-go shopping lists here: https://jessicacastillo.kartra.com/page/mealplans