What we do to our bodies

For the past two months I’ve been reading and thinking about different figures from church history as I teach a class at Trinity.  Bernard of Clairvaux and Catherine of Sienna are the two figures we’ll consider this coming Sunday and in my preparations I was struck by a common thread of self-destruction and remorse.  Both Bernard and Catherine in their zeal to embrace an ascetic life and have some measure of control over, or freedom from, their bodily existence treated their bodies harshly.  Both “fasted” to the point where their bodies were permanently weakened.  Bernard would stand for hours praying till his feet would swell and in his overly weakened state could barely remain upright.  Catherine wore a hair shirt under her clothing and would flagellate herself three times a day.  In retrospect, both Catherine and Bernard both looked back with some measure of regret for their more extreme ascetic practices.  It is easy to think such self destruction is a little nuts, but as I was reading and reflecting on their lives my throbbing head disagreed.
Another night with too little sleep and abstaining from my morning coffee, were taking their toll.  Bernard and Catherine aren’t that different from us, as we push ourselves towards some ridiculous ideal in which we need no sleep, no refreshment, only caffeine and the will to keep going.  This too can be a form of self-destruction.  I see powerful impulses leading us to destroy our bodies through our appetites, whether it is for work, or food, or pleasure, or appearance.  On the other hand, there is a competing impulse to make the body everything so that through nutrition, exercise, and countless efforts at beautification we somehow become whole.  In God’s story, our bodies are saved from the perils associated with both loving our bodies too much and too little.
As a Christian I don’t have to push my body to the limits because I know that Jesus is the one who will ultimately care for me.  Whether I work till I drop or get a reasonable amount of sleep the outcome rests in his hands.  As a Christian bodily pleasure can be enjoyed, but I know there is something better so I’m not compelled by my cravings.  As a Christian, I know God’s love rests on me despite my ugliness (sin) and therefore I don’t have to be beautiful or stunning to have worth.  As a Christian, I don’t have to make my body a temple through my efforts, because God has already made my body his temple by the presence of the Holy Spirit.  This all makes sense on paper but it is hard to resist the impulses to destroy or exalt the body.

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