Editor’s Note: Do you enjoy these articles on Clergy Wellness? Would you be willing to be a writer? Sue Magrath is eager to consider potential writers for future columns. While submissions should touch on the topic of clergy wellness, writers from a lay perspective are welcome as well. New perspectives, including those reflecting different cultural experiences, are encouraged! Email Sue (SueMagrath@msn.com) with your ideas!

By Sue Magrath | Sacred Mountain Ministries

Sometimes I think that most of us live from the neck up.

We go about our daily lives, frantically trying to accomplish everything on the to-do list, with zero awareness of our bodies. When we are too busy, we ignore hunger and satiety signals, minor aches and pains, tension, and all the other signals our body sends out in an attempt to grab our attention. We fail to actually inhabit our bodies! We neglect our physical needs and symptoms and then act surprised when our bodies break down on us.

Clergy life is particularly hard on the body. In her book, Mad Church Disease, Ann Jackson reports that sixty-nine percent of clergy are overweight, and eighty-three percent acknowledge unhealthy eating habits.[1] Our own clergy wellness survey results indicated that a third of you have fair or poor eating habits and almost half reported over-eating due to job-related stress.

Clergy gulp down fast food on the run, skip meals entirely, and struggle to find time for fitness. Poor dietary habits compromise the immune system and exacerbate stress. I think we take better care of our cars than we do our bodies! Barbara Brown Taylor opines that “we would rather lock up our bodies than listen to what they have to say.”[2] Even worse, we forget that they are sacred vessels.

But far from viewing our bodies as sacred, we either view our bodies with disgust, or at best, indifference. What would it be like if we could actually love our bodies, appreciate what they can do and accept them as they are?

Hildegard of Bingen wrote centuries ago, “The soul loves the body,” and John O’Donohue says “The body is a sacrament . . . a visible sign of invisible grace.”[3] In An Altar in the World, Barbara Brown Taylor vows that “it is time to do a better job of wearing my skin with gratitude instead of loathing” and goes on to remind us that “everyspiritual practice begins with the body.”[4]

But how do we begin to befriend our bodies, for which we have held such ambivalence for so long? In The Path Less Traveled by Scott Peck, he shares a definition of love that may be helpful. He says that love is not about what the other person can do for you or how that person makes you feel. Genuine (agape) love is about wanting what is best for the other. If we apply this to our bodies, then wouldn’t acceptance of our body be a good start on the way to loving it?

Now, this doesn’t mean that you accept your body to the point that you choose not to change your habits even when your health is jeopardized. That wouldn’t be loving at all. But all of us have a certain shape, regardless of whether or not we are overweight. We have to accept the genetics that determine our shape, the parts we wish were smaller or larger or something other than what they are.

In addition to acceptance, loving your body means giving it healthy foods, exercise, adequate rest and play. Love is paying attention to your body, listening to its needs and giving it what is necessary for its health and vitality. Your body is the only vehicle you have to move through this world, so it’s a good idea to be kind to it!

I’m not big on advice, because everyone’s body is different, and what works for me might not work for you. However, here are some general thoughts that provide the leeway for individual needs:

  • Get in touch with your body. In an attitude of mindfulness, listen to what it’s telling you. Tune in to the ease or tension in your body. Notice the aches and pains, your level of fatigue, etc. Ask your body what it needs.
  • Go see your doctor! Get a baseline for your current level of health. Discuss potential changes in your dietary habits. Talk about appropriate forms of exercise for what shape your body is in now.
  • Reframe the idea of “going on a diet” to “practicing healthier dietary habits.” Think lifestyle, not self-torture! Be gentle with yourself.
  • Get moving! Start slowly, still listening to what your body is capable of, then increasing your activity as your body gets stronger. It doesn’t really matter what kind of fitness activity you engage in, but that you do it consistently. The options are endless—yoga, walking, bicycling, weight training, running, or swimming, just to name a few.
  • Plan ahead. Anticipate your body’s need for nourishment when you have a long day of meetings and visitations with no time to stop for a meal. Keep convenient and healthy foods in your car.
  • Pay attention to your body’s hunger and satiety signals. This will prompt you to eat when you are hungry and before you are starving, and also to stop when you are satisfied.
  • Avoid emotional or stress eating. If you feel the urge to eat when you are not hungry, ask yourself why. Then address that issue directly rather than using food to avoid the difficult emotions.
  • Consider ways in which to engage your body in spiritual practice. This will help remind you that your body is holy. Remember that you are fearfully and wonderfully made.

Sue Magrath is a spiritual director and retreat leader living in the Seven Rivers District. She also coordinates efforts such as the Clergy Wellness Corner to support the health of spiritual leaders in the Pacific Northwest.

[1] Jackson, Mad Church Disease, cited in Gauger & Christie, Clergy Stress and Depression, 2013.
[2] Taylor, Altars in the World, p. 41.
[3] O’Donohue, Anam Cara, p. 47.
[4] Taylor, ibid., pp. 38, 40.

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