Life is Fragile
by Fr. Jack McArdle
"Life is fragile; handle with prayer." Three months elapsed since I wrote that last chapter. I celebrated my 70th birthday in hospital! I had been so 'busy' for the previous few months that my heart told me "Either you stop, or I stop!" I had no choice but to pull into a pit-stop, and to give the body a chance to cope with its human limitations. This was a worthwhile experience for me. While I would much prefer to burn out than rust out, I know that I must be prudent and sensible in how I use the body.
If I accept that I am a spiritual being in a physical dimension, then, of course, I must give priority to the spiritual. This must never be done at the expense of the physical. The body is a Temple of the Spirit, a tabernacle, a monstrance, that must be treated with reverence and respect. "God said 'Let us make man/woman in our image, to our likeness'…..So God created man in his image; in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them…'(Gen. 1:26-27). Strictly speaking, the body is not ME. I am living in the body. There will come a time when the body will no longer be habitable, and I will have to change residence and go to live elsewhere. Because the body is God's gift, it must be treated with respect, and with care. I can shorten the life of the body by the way I treat it.
Like most other things in life, the treatment of the body can swing from one extreme to the other. On the one hand, the body is idolised for its beauty, and the attention and influence such beauty can bring. With the rapid advance of plastic surgery, and implantation, it can become difficult to discern how much of the body is original, and part of God's creation. On the other hand, with drug abuse of every kind, the body can break down, and assume the qualities of old age long before the years have accumulated. Once again, like most things in life, there is a happy medium. Too much of anything is not good.
An earlier form of spirituality tended to see the body as evil, in need of being disciplined, and subjected to submission. It was almost implied that suffering of the body brought blessings to the soul. In those days, one felt as if made of two parts-a soul and a body. They were quite independent of each other, in so far as they had different sources and different destinations. Our bodies we got from our parents, while our souls came directly from God. Our bodies would end up 'a-moulding in the grave', while our souls would 'go marching on', return to God for a detailed check-up, and await the verdict on how my life was spent.
I would no longer accept or proclaim this dichotomy. I think of the soul and body as being eternally entangled, each capable of contributing enormously to the human and eternal welfare of the individual, and, at the end of time, the body, which is mortal, will be transformed, and given an eternal quality, enabling it to exist in a whole new environment. "The body is sown in decomposition; it will be raised never more to die. It is sown in humiliation, and it will be raised in Glory. They buried it in weakness, but the resurrection shall be with power. When buried it is a natural body, but it will be raised a spiritual body. For there shall be a spiritual body, as there is at present a living body." (1 Cor. 15:43-44).
I consider that it is a responsibility we all have as to how we treat the body. As with most things, there's a happy medium. Many of our human ills (sickness) are self-inflicted. Enough alcohol, nicotine, and self-indulgent living, and we cannot blame God if our health is not good. Our minds, spirits, and general well-being, are much enhanced when functioning within a healthy body. A healthy mind in a healthy body. The body is mortal, of course, and, there will come a time when it will break down, and come to a halt. In the meantime, however, it is only common sense that I should give it a fair chance; that I should respect this Temple in which God now dwells. At the time of writing, there is no end to the debates and discussions on obesity, lung and liver cancer, and various forms of heart attacks, or heart failures. I honestly believe that I should take responsibility for my own personal contribution to the state of my physical being, be that good or bad.
One area that helps to highlight the important role the body plays in our well-being is the use of the body in prayer. This involves much more than kneeling, standing, or bowing. My inner spirit can express itself in physical ways. As Christians, we can learn a lot about this from other world religions. As I watch the Hindu sitting in the lotus position, back upright, eyes closed, hands laid open; or the Muslim, facing Mecca, and prostrating and bowing, I can see clearly that the body can be involved very directly in prayer. Jesus raised his eyes to heaven, and he lay prostrate on the ground.(Mk. 14:35). His body was very much involved in his final 'YES' to the Father on Calvary. Just as a hand can be used to strike, Jesus used his hands to heal and to feed the hungry. He used his voice to teach and to confirm. When he chose to give himself to us, he did so in the form of food and drink, which is received through the body. This must surely highlight the fact that the body is sacred. All kinds of abuse of the body, whether that be physical or sexual abuse, is sacrilegious. It is only when we become aware of the sacredness of the body that we can hope to have any proper level of moral conduct, or ethical values. Because we are rational beings, and can distinguish right from wrong, we are more than mere animal.
I mentioned earlier that many of us inherited a spirituality that implied that the body was evil, and should be punished, and kept under subjection. While this would be no longer accepted, it is important, though, not to throw out the baby with the bath-water. There is a great need to keep the body in check. Our human appetites for food, drink, sex, and other creature comforts, can become tyrannical, compulsive, and addictive, if not kept in check. While these appetites are normal, healthy, and natural, they can run riot if not controlled, and can reap horrific damage to the whole person, and, quite often, to those around.
Once again, there is a happy medium; all things in moderation. Alcohol, sex, food, money, etc., are not evil in themselves. Whether I use or abuse them decides whether they're sources of good or evil. I am speaking of a healthy balance here. Jesus spoke about praying and fasting in the same breath.(Mt. 6:7,16). The implication seems to be that, by praying, I am nourishing the soul, and by fasting, I am disciplining the body. Prayer and fasting seems to be part and parcel of all world religions. I have friends who fast on Fridays, and/or Wednesdays. This is not necessarily abstaining from all food, but limiting one's intake to bread and water, or some such combination. They can very definitely vouch for the fact that this really strengthens their inner spirits. Most of us have experienced the lack of physical or mental energy when we have over-eaten. The opposite happens when we curtail our intake of food. I heard a doctor say that it's the two-thirds extra we eat, that we don't need, that keeps doctors in business!
The general thrust of this book has been our journey back to the Garden. It is significant that, when we get there, we will not need our bodies any more. What a tragedy to discover that we indulged the body so much that we lost our souls in the process. All of what I am is entrusted to me by God. I own nothing. I will have to answer for how I used what was entrusted to me. My journey back to the Garden can be greatly shortened through neglect of the body, and not taking responsible care of how I live.
It is not the length of one's life that matters as much as the depth at which it is lived. We are called to be fully human and fully alive. I cannot live life to the full without giving proper care and priority to the body. Some people are physically disabled from birth, and have to live their lives within the limits of their ability. Most people are born in full possession of all their bodily faculties. People in the caring professions make excellent use of their physical abilities in the caring of others. This is seen at its best when laid against the background of those who use the body as an instrument of death and destruction in the lives of others. The hand that plants the bomb, the tongue that tells the lie, the heart that nurses the resentment.
To be wholesome (holy?) is to employ ALL that I am in doing good; to make full use of everything God has given me in the service of others. The happiest people on earth are those who give of themselves for the sake of others. When I make myself the centre of my own existence, to the exclusion of others, I am living in solitary confinement, where there is no one else in my life but myself. Selfishness brings a very lonely existence. I have a tongue to speak the kind word, a hand to reach out to others, and ears to share another's burden. I cannot have abundant life unless I involve the body in everything I do. I cannot share abundant life if I have no quality of life myself.
I want to come back to a point I made earlier. In general, it can be said that many people do not pay sufficient attention to their health. Many of the illness they inherit are directly the result of a particular life-style. The body has an extraordinary capacity to heal itself, if given the opportunity. The body is one of the most intricate of God's creation. People of medicine specialise, e.g., cardiac, orthopaedic, neurology, etc., because no one person could possibly be an expert on all components of the body. It is easy to accept that the inner works of a computer are delicate and complex, as is the engine of a supersonic jet. Imagine someone opening a panel on that computer or that engine, and emptying a bucket of sludge into it. That would be shocking to watch, and it would reasonably be expected that the computer or the engine could no longer function properly.
We live in an age where junk food is prevalent, and the body must take ferocious abuse because of the junk that is poured into it. No wonder the body shakes, trembles, sweats, and contorts after being subjected to drugs or to overindulgence of any kind. In my earlier understanding of the Creation story, I believed that Adam and Eve were given perfectly healthy bodies, and, after the Fall, those bodies became subject to disease and decay. I don't know how true this is, but I do know that I myself have a very real personal say in the level of health and well-being that my body enjoys. I don't wish to generalise too much, because I have known people with throat cancer who never smoked, and people with damaged livers and kidneys who never drank alcohol.
The point I am making here is that, in general, each of us must take personal responsibility for our health, and how we take care of the body. I do not believe that this can be isolated from our spiritual life, or our spiritual well-being. Having had several close calls with a damaged heart over the years, I have no hesitation in saying, with hindsight, that all of this could have been avoided. Hindsight, of course, is of no value, apart from the lessons it teaches. I believe it is never too late for God, and a change of the pace and pattern of life can be of great benefit, even when the damage is done. Of course, we will all one day die, but I strongly believe that it is incumbent on me not to hasten the advent of that occasion in any way, and to live life as fully as possible right out to my last breath.
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