It’s hard to read many lives of the saints without suspecting that well-balanced diets and regular dental and medical check-ups were not matters of great moment to them. Many of the saints we venerate most warmly, such as Francis of Assisi, subjected their bodies to severe fasts, nightly vigils, exposure to the elements, and sheer neglect.
We may be tempted to ascribe much of this seeming imprudence to pre-modern ignorance of nutrition or to the knowledge of how little long-ago medicine could do to save or pro-long life. This misses the point. Saints were careless of their health as a simple matter of priorities. They knew well enough what they put their bodies through, but they recognized more pressing moral and spiritual claims. They were careless of health as a soldier in battle is careless — not willing of self-destruction, but risking it as a necessary side-effect of the good they are called to do.
Even this states the matter too clinically, too rationally. These holy men and women felt the need to spend themselves with great urgency on holy business — mastering self, ministering to others, keeping vigil with the Lord — and spared little remorse or sympathy for the body’s complaints.
We have all read details of martyrdoms with mixtures of awe, fascination, and dread. But in some ways it is almost as shocking to contemplate the number of ascetics who suffered from ulcers and other stomach ailments because of years of scanty or ill-chosen diets. Recently I’ve come across several articles on sleep disorders and the effects of prolonged sleep deficits. Yet the sharp curtailment or interruption of sleep is another commonplace of strenuous religious life. Recall the long monastic tradition of recital of the Liturgy of the Hours: a pre-Vatican II Divine Office, which prompted chapel bells to ring for enclosed monks and nuns at set intervals of the day and night, breaking into those cycles of light and deep sleep the researchers tell us we require for our well-being and efficiency.
Our society’s way of approaching life and death reverses the priorities of these men and women in two ways. First, habits that shorten the lifespan or diminish its quality are frowned upon as secular mortal sins. For good or bad, even modern religious people partially succumb to this way of thinking, as religious people are tempted to relapse into the thoughts and practices of society in every age.
Second, secular society frowns on prolonging the lives of poor specimens or those who face great pain or physical impairment. Repeated surveys record the grim rise in the numbers of those voicing support for passive and even active euthanasia. And most of us can call up the corroborating anecdotal evidence of neighbors, family members, fellow church-goers. These people fervently hope to be spared ill-health or protracted disease or humiliating deteriorations in old age — who does not share such a hope? — but they are disposed to take steps to curtail life if their fears are realized
Once, long ago, many Catholics prayed to be spared a sudden death so that they might not meet God unprepared. And some of the less pious might have prayed this prayer the most fervently, knowing how much they needed that extra time to prepare for eternity. Nowadays, whether or not they claim belief in an afterlife and a judgment, most people take as their ideal the sudden heart attack in their sleep.
I haven’t a particle of physical courage, and stories of martyrdom leave me sick with dread and a kind of shame at my own all-too-likely apostasy in such an event. But I do think we should soberly consider the connection between our two reversals of thinking, and take note of the origin and destination of an excessive worship of physical well-being.
A medieval Christian knew that man is made up of body and soul, but he also knew that our resurrected body was going to be quite a different matter from the ailing, aging, importuning thing we drag with us through life. Thus, in quarrels between demands of the body and demands of the soul he knew which side, in theory at least, to come down on.
Further, he believed in the atoning power of suffering when it is united to Christ’s. And this offered-up suffering was of value, made a difference, whether it began involuntarily, as toothache or false imprisonment, or voluntarily, as a fast or a martyrdom.
Finally, these beliefs were not inconsistent, either in theory or in practice, with loving, compassionate efforts to alleviate the suffering of others. Those who were holiest did the most to care for the sick and the poor.
Secular society offers many instances of compassionate service to others, but the fuel for an essentially non-religious dedication to the health of the body lies in the official assumption that this life is all we can count on, and our satisfaction with the sensory experiences it offers is the only reliable measure of its meaning. Acts of heroism still inspire but also increasingly astound us. When we hear of someone dying for his beliefs, part of us wonders why he couldn’t have fudged the issue and lived to outlast his persecutors.
Even cowardly Christians of old knew better, and saints of old practiced what they knew. The same holy men and women who let years be taken off their lives by long hours of work and self-deprivation also never thought of cutting short the often painful and drawn out end of life. As Saint Paul said long ago, “You no longer belong to yourselves; you have been purchased at a great price. So glorify God in your bodies.”
Our lives were not given to us for our own amusement (though there is much to amuse us in this world), but for our sanctification. Suffering, which might well appear useless according to the first point of view, gains significance from the second.