When it comes to our bodies, Catholics are not dualists or Puritans. We don’t think that the flesh is, in itself, sinful or problematic. However, we do know that the desires of the body have become, through the fall, disordered. They are no longer consistently subordinated to reason and, consequently, these desires can appear in exaggerated form or assert themselves disproportionately.
Thomas Merton once commented that the needs of the body–food, drink, sleep, and sex–are like insistent children that demand to have their way. Just as children have to be disciplined lest they come to dominate the household, so the desires of the flesh have to be curtailed lest they come to monopolize all of our energies. Merton said that we fast from time to time precisely to allow the deeper spiritual hungers to surface and be satisfied. The use of bodily discipline is thus a vivid reminder to oneself that the pleasure of the body is not one’s determining and ultimate good.
This is not unique to Catholicism. Stop and consider for a moment the activities that go on every day in the typical gym. People labor away on stationary bikes, elliptical machines, and treadmills; they sweat their way through pull-ups, push-ups, and deadlifts. In all sorts of ways, they discipline their bodies so as to overcome the natural tendency toward laziness and self-indulgence. More to it, these same people most likely deny themselves all sorts of pleasurable foods, resisting cravings.
All of this punishment is in service of a healthier body. Why can’t we apply similar techniques to produce healthier minds and spirits?
Today, discipline your body in some small way. Maybe give up snacking between meals, only drink room-temperature water, or pray an entire rosary while walking. These simple bodily disciplines will undoubtedly strengthen your soul.
“The use of bodily discipline is vivid reminder to oneself that the pleasure of the body is not one’s determining and ultimate good.”
– Father Robert Barron