When I was in high school—long, long ago—I had a youth pastor who warned us that the spiritual life wouldn’t always be easy. Sometimes we wouldn’t have the enthusiasm we had as teenagers. As a young, newly-committed Christian, I heard his warning, but I didn’t really listen. I thought I would always be on a spiritual “high.”
Ah, the naivety of youth.
Anyone who has been a disciple of Christ for any real length of time knows that the spiritual life can be hard. Having a life of prayer, regularly reading the Bible or other spiritual works, dying to self to serve others: these things don’t come naturally to most of us. Although we might experience bursts of spiritual enthusiasm from time to time, remaining motivated to maintain and improve our spiritual health is challenging. Many factors can influence our spiritual life: psychological factors, external influences, and the effects of Original Sin are a few that come to mind. But there’s one factor that I think is often overlooked, although it can have a great impact on our spiritual health:
The Body/Soul Duet
It’s a fundamental Christian teaching that the human person consists of body and soul. Like the animals, we have a body that occupies space, eats, sleeps, and engages in various activities in this physical world. Like the angels, we are also spirit: we have a soul that is eternal, cannot be seen, and can communicate with the spiritual world, including with the creator of the universe. It’s common among Christians to see these two parts of the human person as almost completely separate. What impacts the body has no impact on the soul, and what lifts up (or brings down) the soul doesn’t have any effect on the body.
But this is not the case. We are a composite of body and soul—what impacts one aspect of our selves will impact the other. This is something I have come to realize from experience.
I’ve had nagging health issues over the past decade. Nothing too serious, but enough to impact my daily life. One particular problem has been related to energy and digestive issues. For years I was plagued by lethargy, “brain fog,” and stomach problems. Doctors had no conclusive answers for me.
During this time it was hard for me to be active or to do much more than the bare minimum I needed to support myself and my family. It was also difficult for me to keep up with my spiritual life. I had little desire to spend time in prayer, I didn’t read spiritual books, and I had no energy to serve others. I chided myself internally for this, considering it a spiritual weakness on my part. But I never really connected my overall physical lethargy with my spiritual lethargy. Like most people, I kept a clear wall between these two parts of my being.
Over time I came to discover that my eating habits were the culprit of my health issues. I was pre-diabetic and my body had a hard time processing carbohydrates. So I put myself on a different diet and began intermittent fasting. I noticed the physical difference almost immediately: I now had energy, my brain fog was lifted, and my digestive issues disappeared. Needless to say, I was ecstatic.
Physical Energy Leads to Spiritual Energy
But I noticed something else. With the regaining of my physical energy, I had also regained my spiritual energy. I had the energy to get up early and spend time in prayer. I had the mental clarity to read spiritual works and contemplate their insights. I began again to look to serve others, instead of just budgeting my energy to make sure I could maintain my own existence. My physical improvement was directly connected to spiritual improvement.
Although it was a surprise for me, this phenomenon really shouldn’t have been. In fact, St. Benedict, the founder of Western monasticism, understood it centuries ago. The rule of life he created for his monks is a wonderful blend of spiritual and physical advice. Unlike some monks before him, Benedict urged moderation in all things, including in physical endeavors. His monks didn’t overeat, but neither did they observe overly-rigorous fasts (at least, by the standards of their times). He also advocated for a balanced life: the monks were to spend their day in equal parts silent prayer and contemplation, corporate worship, and physical labor. They were to have a strict schedule to ensure that both their physical bodies and their spirits remained healthy. It’s no surprise, then, that so many monks were not only holy, but also had long lifespans in a time before modern medicine.
Improving Your Physical and Spiritual Health
“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God? You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” (1 Cor 6:19-20)
All Christians should seek ways to improve their spiritual health. They should want to grow in their intimacy with Christ and desire to be more and more like him. But in order to do this, a Christian must also take care of his or her physical health. Here are a few recommendations:
Eat Well. The modern diet is awful for our bodies. Too many people are like I was: pre-diabetic, low-energy, with brain fog and digestive issues. Diet is the main culprit in a lot of these cases. Do what you can to improve your own diet. Do some research and consider a low-carbohydrate diet like the Keto diet.
Exercise. You don’t need to be a marathon runner or a bodybuilder. But many of us spent most of our days sitting at a desk, and such a lifestyle causes all kinds of health problems. So spend at least 15-30 minutes a day getting some physical exercise.
Live a Scheduled Lifestyle. Make a schedule for your daily routine. Be sure to allocate time for prayer—preferably an hour a day. Get up early, and go to bed early. Like the monks of old, such a lifestyle will improve your physical health, which in turn will ramp up your spiritual health.
Minimize Screen Time. Modern life includes hours spent daily in front of screens: computer screens, TV screens, mobile screens. This constant screen time keeps us from physical activity and can easily lead to the sin of sloth. Plan times in your daily routine without screens—time spent for both physical and spiritual activity.
Intermittent Fasting. The religions of the world have advocated fasting for millennia. In fact, it’s one of the few activities that all religions agree is spiritually beneficial. Now scientific research has shown that fasting—specifically intermittent fasting, where a person fasts for 16-20 hours daily—is highly beneficial to the body as well. Incorporate intermittent fasting into your routine, and discover its physical and spiritual benefits.
God has made us physical and spiritual beings. We are not simply animals, nor are we angels. These two aspects of our selves are intimately connected, so if you want to have spiritual health, be sure to also work on your physical health.