I want to tell you about a book I am reading, The Catholic Table, by Emily Stimpson Chapman. This book is fortifying me in an interesting way right now. I have really loathed my body this year. It is rare for me to mention that out loud. Typically I don’t talk about my body or my appearance because I don’t want to draw any attention to the things I dislike about myself – especially the things that I feel I have so little control over. But I am saying it out loud, or in print, because this book is quite providential for me. I was reflecting this morning on how much this book is a very tangible answer to a very sincere prayer.
Nine years ago, I endured a high risk pregnancy which triggered a neurological crisis. For the next six years my body was at war with itself. During that time, God walked with me through my trouble. More than that, He used it to help heal me spiritually. While my body plagued me with pain, fear, anxiety, and turmoil, my spirit was learning to trust, to seek balance, to be grateful for the small victories, and to unite my suffering with Christ’s. God wasted none of my pain. He used all of it to soften my edges, realign my priorities, and reorder my affections.
The effects of medication, pain, atrophy, survival mode weight gain, and probably genetics took their toll, and I am now substantially overweight according to any medical standard. More importantly, now that the volume on my neurological pain is turned way down, I can feel all of the things that remain: sore joints from carrying around too much weight, places where my skin chafes, and clothes that never fit right and are perpetually uncomfortable.
But I am working on it. I am doing “all of the things.” Eating well, hydrating, exercising, resting, taking Vitamin D, etc. All. Of. The. Things. And yet… my weight won’t budge. It won’t go away, my clothes won’t fit better, I am not more comfortable. It is physically uncomfortable to be in my body. And I am feeling defeated.
I am struggling to know what to do with my body. But, the Lord has been working with me to understand what the body is for, what good He has already done with my body, and the good that He will do with it. As I walk and pray, God is reminding me of the real progress we have made. The pain that I was in five years ago was crippling. Now, the pain is an irritation. I have so much more vitality today than I did a few years ago.
On another level, God is reminding me of how His provision is working to grow me in virtue. There are sins that I am quite susceptible to. Having the weight I have keeps me humble and keeps me away from those sins. If I were to lose the weight easily through diet and exercise, it would be tempting for me to think that I did this for myself. I think God may be using this journey to show me how weak I am and how much I need His perfect provision.
I have been wrestling these ideas out all summer and into the fall. But, I confess, I was still operating and thinking in the negative. I was vainly trying to control my body. To beat it into submission. To rush the process. To despair at my ability to heal myself. I prayed, passionately, for God to show me how to be at peace with my body. How not to hate that which He so lovingly made for me.
“I came to love my body because it could love, because it could serve, because it could worship. I came to love my body because it was me. To do anything less was to reject the image of God.”
The Catholic Table is turning all of this on its head for me. In this friendly but philosophical book, Chapman is working out what feasting and fasting are for. Not just how they look, not just what their scriptural or traditional value is, but what their theological impact is. Since Christ, the king of the universe, who is also the Bread of Life and the Lamb of God, thirsted on the cross, we should not be surprised that we, in our humanity, would hunger and thirst spiritually and physically for relationship with our Lord.
“I still feel that way. In some ways, my forty-one-year-old body is easier to love than my twenty-five-year-old body. It has loved more and served more in the intervening years. It has also suffered more. That makes it easier to feel more tenderness and compassion towards it. I am more grateful, not less, for what it can do now. This body has served me well.”
In her early adult years, Chapman had a disordered relationship with food. In this book, she talks about her struggles with food, anorexia, and the Church’s teachings on feasting and fasting. When I read about her delighting in her older, more well rounded body, a little hope awakened in me. I rested on that quote for a couple of days. I began to view my own battles a bit differently. I realized that if I rightly order my thinking about my body, I will think of it first as a temple for the Holy Spirit. Then, I will think of how a temple must be maintained in order to serve the people. I will give myself permission to ignore the world’s standards for my weight and, instead, focus on God’s plan for my health. Instead of trying to get 10,000 steps because it is a worthy goal, I will focus on delighting in my exercise because the ability to be active is a gift to be cherished.
I am very much a work in progress. But as I move into a busy liturgical season, I am looking forward to connecting with the Church’s recommendations for feasting and fasting with a new sense of purpose. Instead of bemoaning my challenges, I want to celebrate the victories, and praise God in His daily bread. Even if that provision is a longer season of clothes that don’t fit right. I trust that He is teaching me, leading me, and bringing me into greater holiness. Jesus, I trust in you. Totus Tuus!
*My review of The Catholic Table is coming soon.