I was a rather plump child in elementary and high schools, awkward in this mass of flesh and organs called my body. I endured relentless teasing about my obvious un-sporty physical shape. Having only a few friends, being picked last on sports teams in Phys. Ed. and never wearing trendy clothes resulted in physical, social and emotional shyness and withdrawal. It was thanks to generous parental affection and care, and some very positive, enjoyable social experiences in the ballroom dance community and formative youth events in church circles, that the scars of these demeaning treatments remained surprisingly minimal.
It was not until I met my husband Jim that I entered a more comprehensive and intentional exploration of the connections between the physical and the spiritual. I was drawn to Jim’s profoundly earthy spirituality, deeply rooted in prairie soil and in working the land with nature’s gifts instead of industrial manipulation. I learnt quickly about the socio-political implications of such a connection when lived out radically and publicly.
We were not comfortable in adopting unquestioned middle class, materialistic values in our self-identity and lifestyle, nor did we think of farming as agribusiness. The rebel in us both pushed us into counter-cultural choices, so as not to enslave ourselves. The prison of modern living looked more suffocating than the time-consuming and labour-intensive activities of hauling water from the lake, growing and preserving our own food, and chopping wood for cooking and heating – all very earthy, bodily activities. We gardened organically and sold vegetables at the local farmer’s market. I learned all about preserving our winter supply of food and about baking bread in the wood stove, things that were not part of my upbringing. Taking charge of our own health through lifestyle choices paid off in more ways than economically. We shared a deep underlying freedom and a sense of creative accomplishment at knowing that we did not “need” the electrical gadgets and ready-made foods of a fast-paced consumer society. Our home became a nest with rich, wholesome food for body and soul in which grew three beautiful children which God entrusted to us. I never felt so alive in my body as in those years of hauling water, chopping wood, making fire, growing and preserving food.
With a husband committed to the land, who refrained from manipulating its fertility and polluting it with chemicals, it was evident that we would adopt the same approach to our combined human fertility. Roman Catholic Church teaching regarding family planning fitted with our choice, but this was not our primary motivating force, and the validity of that teaching became clear only over time.
Incidentally, three Ottawa doctors were recently in the news because they are refusing to prescribe the pill because of medical concerns. The doctors are asking: is pregnancy a sign of illness or health? They point to the negative effects of hormonal contraceptives as listed with the product information: increased risk of cardiovascular disease, headaches, breast tenderness, breakthrough bleeding, decreased libido and mood swings.They contend that pregnancy is a sign that a woman’s reproductive system is working as it should. So why, they ask, should they assign medication carrying such health risks to someone who is in fact healthy? (Prairie Messenger, Feb. 12, 2014)
Even without being completely swayed by the contraceptive culture, I was embarrassingly ignorant about the inner workings of my reproductive system until I learned to observe my body symptoms with the help of Natural Family Planning (NFP). Curiosity replaced embarrassment as I became greatly intrigued with the realization that so much of my bodily functions occur completely without my interference or knowledge. I developed a sense of awe as I grew into an intimate relationship with my body through observing the signs of its cycles. I regarded my fertility as a gift to cherish and work with, rather than a liability and a burden to manipulate artificially or to get rid of. Already back in 1977, in her small book entitled Women`s Challenge: Ministry in the Flesh Sr. Timothy Prokes, SSND, echoed both these insights:
For a woman who is attuned to her basic rhythms, the menstrual cycle is not an infirmity or “curse” but a gift, enabling her to participate in the vital intercourse of daily life with greater understanding. (p. 31, Prokes, 1977)
Living in harmony with our natural body rhythms reaped its own rewards. With every conception I joyfully claimed my bodily role as co-creating with God a beautiful new human being. The challenge to discipline our sexual activity according to our combined fertility — wishing to achieve or to avoid pregnancy — brought deep, long-lasting experiences of mutual respect, commitment and maturing marital love, forcing us to communicate and collaborate as we shared the times of sexual avail-ability and the times of abstinence. In turn, developing communication skills and fostering mutual respect of our bodies regarding family planning helped to weather relational storms over the years. The relational demands of Natural Family Planning deepened our personal and couple development: demands in the areas of communication, self-esteem, self and mutual respect and freedom, confidence in our ability to learn and grow. Besides, our choice for a chemical-free method of family planning mirrored the non-chemical, organic, approach to working the land. Jim always said: “I don’t believe in putting chemicals on the land; why would we chemical our bodies to render them infertile?” We experienced a growing into one’s body as mystery and as the place of God’s own Holy Spirit: “Surely you know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is in you and is a gift from God. You are no longer your own. God paid a great price for you. So use your body to honour God” (1 Cor. 6:19-20).
It is of vital importance to realize that emotions and unresolved issues get stored in our bodies, and if left un-transformed can play havoc with our physical health. Equally important is the fact that our health is further jeopardized by sedentary lifestyles, material comforts and poor eating habits – all ironically encouraged by a money-hungry, industry-driven consumer culture, making us blindly drift away from the responsibility to care for our God-given bodies because God’s Holy Spirit dwells there.
I am still on the plump side, downright fat according to fashion standards and dieting plans. But such standards have little bearing on my self-image anymore. Besides, my solid physique is a desirable one in many developing countries as it represents wealth and abundance. I make sincere efforts to keep my spiritual and emotional health firmly connected to my physical health. I`d like to think of my solid body build as reflecting a solid spiritual build, and the extra fat helps me tolerate more cold than Jim can who is downright skinny. I have been the same body weight for over 20 years and even now with a less labour-intensive lifestyle, remain physically active. The Dutch genes still make me prefer the bicycle to go grocery shopping!
Every day I am grateful to feel at home in this body which has enjoyed an amazingly steady green light for overall health and fitness even though some aging signs are beginning to appear. From intimate involvements with others, I also know that not everyone is gifted with the kind of health I have taken for granted but no longer dare to. I am truly fearfully and wonderfully made, praising God that I can honour this gift of my body through healthy living. I pray for the grace to live my remaining, and possibly declining, days in the same gratitude that flooded my being as I wrote this reflection.
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