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A [choose one: a) genie b) fairy c) angel d) pink unicorn] suddenly appears right in front of you and asks, “If you could be anything, what would you be?” I imagine most people would choose a word like “rich” or “powerful,” or more specific words like “a pro football player” or “a rock star.” Who on earth would pick a word like “holy”?

Holiness gets a bum rap, mostly because few of us understand it. Holiness doesn’t separate a person from others; it draws people together. Holiness doesn’t demand complete self-abandonment. Holiness empowers total self-integration. To be holy is to be whole.

Imagine being wholly yourself — using all of your gifts to their fullest extent, allowing your personality to fully bloom, pursuing your passions utterly. That’s all part of being holy. Holy people aren’t partial people; they are the complete package. They know themselves, yet push themselves to always be more. When you meet a holy person — and so few of us do — you know it.

But holy people also embrace their holey-ness, that is, their brokenness. They know where they are lacking in physical and spiritual gifts. What they can work on, they do. But what cannot be changed, what is innately “holey” in them, they know to nurture. They love themselves, warts and all, as God loves them…and they extend the same love to other “holey” people. And let’s face it — we’re all holey.

If you’d asked me, back when I was a kid, what being holy looked like, you would have got a rather bland picture: Someone looking terribly serious, saintly and silent. I no longer think that. To be truly holy, one must constantly reach for action verbs — words like share, give, work, labor, protect, bless, and love. In other words, holiness is hard work. That may be the reason so few of us bother with it.

I am blessed to know a few truly holy people. They are the kind of people you want to be around. They seem at peace. They are attuned to others but don’t neglect themselves. People naturally gravitate toward them. And with good reason. Holy people are remembered, even centuries after their lives, not because they were dull do-gooders, but because they were vibrantly alive — vibrantly themselves.

Holiness is worth pursuing. Tell that to the next pink unicorn you meet.

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Do you suffer from lightheadedness? Ringing in the ears? Do you sweat excessively? Do you have unexplained pain in your feet? How about difficulty concentrating? It’s enough to turn anyone into a hypochondriac.

I’m talking about a form I have to complete every time I see my doctor — that is, every six months. On it is an extensive list of symptoms; I circle the ones that seem to apply to me. As always, I struggle with honesty. Well, yes, my back does hurt. But does it hurt hurt? Do I want to open that can of worms, or should I just try not to sleep on my back so much?

It’s rather like examining the current state of one’s soul — as a person is wont to do during Lent. (Am I following through with my Lenten promises? How can I improve?) It also reminds me of the sacrament of Reconciliation. Before I can confess my sins, I have to make a list of them. And it seems like the same old sins keep appearing on this list, just as I continue to report the same health symptoms to my doctor. “Being short-tempered” is my “continuing asthma.” “Selfishness” is right up there with “osteoporosis.” I might as well bring a form into the confessional with me.

What happens when a symptom becomes a chronic health problem? Well, you fight it, of course, with a program of prescriptions and wellness techniques: exercise, healthy eating, etc. But what should you do when the chronic problem is a sin — the same one, time and again?

It is all very well and good to promise you won’t do it again — something I do, and have done for years. And every time I really mean it. And then, halfway home from church, some small annoyance starts my skin tingling, like a form of eczema, and I snap. Or judge someone’s appearance or actions. Or fall prey to depression. And suddenly, it’s déjà vu all over.

Maybe it’s time to look at underlying causes. Is that cough a cold or tuberculosis? Am I being selfish because I don’t feel loved enough or because I am greedy and childish? Do I lose my temper because others don’t live up to my expectations (and why should they?) or because there is something about my life that needs radical change? These are the questions I should be asking, investigating, and diagnosing.

What’s on your list? What symptoms keep popping up to plague your spiritual life? And what can you do about them to effect systemic change? Consider Lent your yearly check-up. And then get to work.

Eight years ago, a mystery disease caused me to drop weight rapidly. Trip after trip to the doctor, test after test, revealed nothing. I got down to 116 pounds on a six-foot-tall frame, a weight I hadn’t been since my wedding day. (And yes, I was too thin then.) But what surprised me most about this period were the reactions of those around me. “You look so good!” everyone said. “You look healthy!” Only my wise sister-in-law refused to be fooled. “You’re too thin,” she told me, and those words made me want to cry. She saw me. She saw how sick I was, how worried. It felt redemptive.

When the body is sick, the soul often follows. After all, if you hate your body, how can your soul be at peace? It is the rare saint indeed whose soul flourishes at the expense of her body — like St. Rose of Lima who disfigured her face with lye so as to be unattractive to anyone but God. Or St. Alphonsa, who stepped into a fire so as to ruin her feet…and her chances at marriage.

But most of us aren’t Rose or Alphonsa. If our body is hurting, mentally or physically, it can be hard for our souls to be well. The opposite is true, too. A soul in unrest can be mirrored in the frailties of our bodies. Body and soul are connected.

My friend Robyn suffered in silence from bulimia for almost 20 years before she sought help. Then, and only then, was her soul able to heal. Today she writes uplifting, nurturing prose for others who might be trapped in the same condition. Her soul has healed as her body has healed, and now she passes on healing to others.

That brings me to today’s salient message: If you are hurting, body or soul, reach out to someone. Don’t hide in silence. Don’t be ashamed. And even if no one in your life hears you, God always will. Don’t give up — even if your physical condition cannot be improved, at least you have an outlet, a listening ear who cares. Even that — just that — can work miracles in soul-health.

As for me, whatever it was that was troubling me eight years ago quit troubling me. I’m now overweight, and just as unhappy with my body as ever. I know this weighs (no pun intended) on my soul. So I am focusing my light within. Hopefully, as my soul strengthens, my body will, too…or at least I won’t mind so much if it doesn’t.

I saw a new doctor last week, and while I was being poked, prodded, and otherwise probed, it dawned on me: We regularly have a professional check out our physical well being, but seldom (if ever) do we inquire into the health of our souls. But how does one go about doing a soul-check? Here are a few ideas. Please feel free to contribute your own!

  1. Examination: How is your conscience feeling? Any lingering guilt? Are there issues, addictions, emotions you’d like to put out of your life? Who help you with these problems? Perhaps a member of the clergy or a psychologist would be of benefit. Or maybe you just need a good listener to bounce ideas off of. Maybe you can find someone who struggles in a similar way and make a deal to work on yourselves together. There is strength in numbers, after all!
  2. Resuscitation: Is there someone whose forgiveness you badly need? Contact them immediately! Is there someone who you need to forgive? Do so, whether in the quiet of your heart or in person. Let go of past hurts. Breathe out the bad and breathe in a new start.
  3. Everyday Health Practices: What can you do to give your soul greater sustenance? Maybe you could set up a time for quiet prayer or meditation. Perhaps reading a good spiritual book (the Bible, for instance) every day, when you first wake up in the morning or before bed at night, would be a way to bring energy to the day or closure before rest. I appreciate the hour I spend in our church’s chapel every week. I read, pray the rosary, recite prayers. Sometimes I just listen to my own heart. It’s a peaceful practice, and couldn’t we all use more peace in our lives?
  4. Setting up a Problem List: My doctor created a list of my major health issues, including allergies, asthma and osteoporosis. Where are your weak points: Charity, mercy, forgiveness? Are you open-hearted, embracing of others who differ from you? Do you judge or condemn others? These are all problems of the spirit. Don’t dwell on them; just make a list and start to work on the places you fall short. Awareness is the key. You can’t fix what you don’t acknowledge.
  5. Give Yourself a Gold Star: Don’t just concentrate on your failings. Pat yourself on the back for the things you get right. I am a big fan of water; I seldom drink anything else. Good for me! What are your particular talents? What in your spiritual life comes easily to you? These things are important. God made you as you are, with your particular strengths, to serve good in the world. Knowing your talents can help you identify ways to do this most effectively.

The health of our souls is every bit as important as that of our bodies. But we often ignore our sick souls; they don’t cause us to limp or cough. They don’t itch or ache. All the more reason for us to check in our spiritual selves from time to time! An undiagnosed disease can kill you. An undiagnosed soul-problem can wreak havoc, too — mentally and physical, socially and personally.

We are both body and spirit. Let’s remember to take care of both.

 

On our weekly radio show (www.blogtalkradio.com/prayables), my friend Alice and I discussed daily spiritual practices, using Jasper Fforde’s very funny book “The Woman Who Died A Lot” as a model. In the book, a single faith has gone global, uniting everyone. Among their faith practices are a set of “Bastions;” the church recommends each person practice four a day. Among them are “Pause and Consider” and “Moment of Levity.” Taking time to think and to laugh — pretty sound advice for healthy living, whether you’re a person of faith or not.

What are your daily faith rituals? What keeps your spirit in tip-top shape? It’s an intriguing consideration. Alice’s offering was “Breathe.” That is, pay attention to your breathing, allow yourself to consider the wonder of it, slow down, be in tune with your body…all these things. It’s a practice that those who do yoga know well. This “slowing down” time offers a good opportunity for prayer and reflection, too.

My ideas for good faith practices were: prayer, silence, time alone, time together (accompanied, as Alice rightly pointed out, by human touch, essential especially for children and the elderly), a moment of appreciation, an instance of forgiveness and a period of “giving over” — divesting yourself of whatever plagues you, be it anxiety, depression, anger, envy, whatever it is that’s getting in the way of you being freely you.

I came up with these practices as part of the show we were doing. It was only after the show that it struck me: Why wasn’t I actually doing these things? Why not add these supplements, as part of a good faith diet, so to speak? Funny how revelation can sneak up on a person. It had never occurred to me that there might be tenets just as conducive to my faith life as exercise, good food and sleep are to my physical life. Tenets beyond what is prescribed by my church or by scripture — tenets that are personal, that I need in order to tackle the bigger things.

So now I’m all in. I’m making a list of things that keep my spirit happy and healthy, and I’m bound and determined to indulge in them daily. Furthermore, I’m advising you to do the same. Make a list of good faith practices, things that bring you joy, center your being, and help you function as a person of faith. Then take as directed, daily. And feel free to share them. You never know when you might bring healing to someone else, too.

Have a Mary Little Christmas

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