The god of the human body

A while back I worked with a gent whose health took an unexpected turn for the worse. Conventional and unconventional doctors were unable to diagnose him and he could not shake whatever it was. For several years he struggled, slowly becoming a shadow of his former self, his illness rendering him incapable of enjoying the things he used to enjoy and even to continue on working.

Not surprisingly, he was devastated with his deteriorating condition, which was painfully apparent from every conversation I had with him. He was so intensely focused, not so much on his illness and the possible causes, but around the level of fitness that had been achieved before this hit that he would rarely talk of anything else. So when I would ask about where to file paperwork, he would inform me about the number of abdominal crunches he used to be able to do in one sitting.

I felt terrible for him and the health difficulties. It was, and is, crushing to undergo such an uncontrollable life change like this. Keeping in mind that I in no way mean to diminish the difficulty of any suffering that befall any one of us, I began to ponder what an illness of this magnitude means in a Christ-centered perspective.

When we put our young and fit bodies on an altar and worship them as gods, we are utterly broken when that body sags and fails. And fail, it will—even though in the moment of youthful triumph it doesn’t feel like it. (What’s that old adage about the two inescapable things in life…death and taxes?) While we women might have a particular penchant for putting our bodies first (why else would cosmetics be a billion-dollar industry?), guys aren’t above this either. Just take a walk around any gym in the country—they’re chock full of men making love to themselves in their mirrored walls. So when illness or accidents happen and the body loses it’s physical or mental faculties, the intrinsic worth of that person is reduced to the perceived worth of their bodily capabilities.  How many people say to me that they want to be put “out of their misery” the second they lose their physical or mental prowess?  In this day and age, there is no time or space for the elderly, the feeble-minded or the physically disabled—and my co-workers’ obsession with his lost level of fitness underscored the mentality.

In the same vein, we have the god of the local, organic, slow-food, non-GMO, low environmental impact movements. Folks intensely consumed with one or more of these movements, I’ve noticed, tend to harshly criticize those who do not take care of themselves in the same way they do, judging appearances and dismissing the intrinsic value of the human person who doesn’t live up to the organic, non-GMO standard. I have nothing against taking care of one’s body, the temple of the Holy Spirit, with organic food or natural products but the problem is when good health, organic product,s and local foods become the golden calf we worship in the Lord’s stead.

What happens then, when a person’s worth and value to society becomes synonymous with their physical health, so that even the smallest of illnesses makes a person “less of” a person? The Culture of Death you see all around you is Abortion (sex-selective and otherwise), euthanasia, eugenics, fetal testing, and a general and rapid decline in morality and a general and rapid increase in crime. Because if people only matter for what they can do, not for who they are, they become worthless, especially when they can no longer do what society perceives they should—and society’s perception changes with the winds.

This is not what we ascribe to as Catholic Christians.

“If morality requires respect for the life of the human body, it does not make it an absolute value. It rejects the neo-pagan notion that tends to promote the cult of the human body, to sacrifice everything for it’s sake, to idolize physical perfection and success at sports. By it’s selective preference of the strong over the weak, such a conception can lead to a perversion of human relationships” (CCC 2289).

The truth is that every individual has inherent beauty and value, healthy or not, organic-food-eater or not, simply because the individual exists, and because he or she was made by God. In fact, many of the saints were of very ill health, eating nothing but rotten potatoes or subsisting entirely on the Eucharist and they are fine examples for us of extreme saintliness, offering their suffering back to God for others. And it was those very same “others” that looked down upon them, judging them to be the frail, weak, useless dregs of society. (For a good example, check out Blessed Margaret of Castello).

“Human life is sacred because from it’s very beginning it involves the creative action of God and it remains forever in a special relationship with the creator, who is it’s sole end” (CCC 2258).

Okay, I will grant you, it is tricky sometimes to know whether we are simply taking care of ourselves through natural living, exercising, and eating properly, and when we have crossed over the line into bodily idol worship. My husband and I enjoy wheat-free living, eat organic and local whenever we can afford to do so without compromising other important financial obligations, and we buy products that claim to be natural so that we won’t wake up one day with arms growing out of our heads.  It’s what we can reasonably do without disrupting our lives too much. We’ve come to this way of life through some prayer and discernment, which is, in my mind, the best course of action.  While the Lord does care about what you put into and do with your body, for the good of our families, and ourselves we best not idolize it.