Before I knew better, I used to justify my eating disorder behaviors with a misunderstanding of Catholic Church teaching.
Not by anyone’s own fault, I was, unfortunately, misguided to believe that the body was bad and the spirit was good. This notion of spirit=good, body=bad is not uncommon. It is found in Puritanical theology. Since our country was pretty much founded by Puritan Protestants, I guess its no wonder these beliefs are still lingering around.
For me, personally, I separated the physical from the invisible realities of the human person. I thought that the true human being was trapped inside the body like a prisoner. And, it was my understanding that in order to find your true self, one must “die to one’s self” or kill off the body. My impression was, because of original sin, the body became the enemy, and one must constantly fight the inclinations of the body in order to merit eternal life.
I misinterpreted the meaning of the Scripture verse, “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” I thought that the “flesh” was synonymous with the physical body and “weak” was synonymous with hopelessly flawed. I thought that, in order to please God, one must exercise control the body because, left to its own devices, would run amok.
At the time, considering my understanding, my eating disorder made complete sense. I used my eating disorder habits to exercise control over this “evil body” that I thought I had. I was trying to free my trapped soul that laid dormant underneath.
In adoration the other day, it occurred to me just how much the body matters, just how important it really is.
God became Man – He became flesh and bones…and blood, and organs, and a heart, and hair, and nails, and so on. He took upon Himself a real, physical, human body and walked the earth. If the body did not have significance, then it would not have been necessary for God to assume a human body.
Also, Jesus comes to us every day in the Eucharist. He comes to us in under the appearance of bread and wine, yet it is truly His body, blood, soul, and divinity. Jesus commands us to consume His Body and Blood (Matt 26:26). We receive Him into our body -- through our mouths, down our throats, and digest Him in our stomachs. Then His Body becomes part of our body. Why would God, the creator of all, do this? Because He thinks the body is very good!
When the Lord God made the universe, He made the sun, the stars, the land, the sea, and the animals, and He said they were good. When He made man and woman, He said they were very good (Gen 1:26-31).
Another thought, why would the Lord raise up our bodies on the last day, if our bodies were not that important – if they were evil, and a hindrance to our eternal life. No, our bodies have value and worth beyond what we can even imagine.
This Puritanical understanding of the body is not a correct understanding of Catholic teaching on the subject. The body is not something to be controlled like an animal in a cage. No, the body is a gift. It is a beautiful gift from God the Father to be used for good.
The body and the soul are very intricately connected. The body is a sacrament. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that a sacrament is an outward, physical sign of an inward, invisible reality. The body is an outward manifestation of the reality of our souls. They work together. You can see this phenomenon in holy people such as Mother Teresa of Calcutta. When she was alive, and in photographs as well, you could see her inner holiness radiating out through her body. She used the gift of her body to do good and to bring the light of Christ to the world.
Because of original sin, we have an inclination toward sin, or concupiscence. This fallen human nature is not just the soul or just the body. It’s in the whole person. When Jesus use the phrase “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” (Matt 26:41), he is talking about concupiscence. He is not saying that the body is inherently bad. He is saying that we are inclined to do what is contrary to the will of God. The body is not the enemy – sin is the enemy, or more accurately, the devil is the enemy. When St. Paul says “in order to follow Christ, one must die to oneself”, he is saying that you must learn to die to your passions, your sins, pride, lust, etc.
Yes, we all have tendencies to do evil things or things we don’t want to do. That doesn’t make us inherently bad. For, God stamped in our very being the desire to do good. We all have a longing to do what is right. Deep down in our hearts, we all have a yearning for love. We know because of this “incompleteness” that we are destined for something greater.
Yes, one has to die in order to get to Heaven. And for a temporary period of time, we will be separated from our bodies. However, on the last day, (as we profess in the Creed) our souls will be once again joined to our bodies.
Reflecting on these realities helps me to find further eating disorder recovery. By truly believing that the body is good, I will treat myself with more dignity, I will take care of my body and it’s needs, and I will not physically or verbal abuse my body.
Instead of fighting it, I will thank God for the gift of my body. I thank Him for my working arms and legs, for my hands to type this post, for my eyes to see this beautiful sunrise, and for so much more.
Whether or not you’ve struggled with an eating disorder, I think everyone in our world struggles to keep a positive body image.
If you are having a difficult time see the goodness and beauty in your own body, take some time to thank God. Go over each part of your body and find something positive to say about it. At the end of it, you will sit taller, walk straighter, smile more genuine, and laugh more authentically. And ultimately, you will find that, contrary to cultural belief, your body is perfect and beautiful just the way it is.
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