Feast for the Body, Famine for the Soul

Me on our recent vacation.

Two weeks ago, I was blessed to be able to travel with my husband for an early celebration of our 15-year anniversary. It was the first time we’d been away without children on an extended vacation since we were childless.

We had a great time during those four days, shopping the downtown area, eating in gourmet restaurants with friends, and taking long afternoon naps in our hotel room. In addition to our anniversary, we were celebrating the sale of our home back in Virginia, which had taken us two years to unload. It was wonderful to have the freedom to purchase gifts for our children and a few indulgences without the financial anxiety that had plagued us for so long.

We celebrated our last evening by having dinner with friends at a prominent seafood restaurant. The meal was sumptuous and the company great, but at one point I realized I felt a certain emptiness…a spiritual emptiness. I couldn’t figure it out…I was having a great time, without the burden of daily responsibilities, and able to indulge my every desire. Isn’t that what we all strive for–not just to eliminate suffering, but to actually enjoy this life to its fullest? Was I just a malcontent at heart?

Then I knew what was wrong: the longer we’d vacationed, the more tepid my prayer life had become. Since arriving, I had prayed little, never opened my Bible, and given my eternal destiny little thought. I had quickly slipped into spiritual sloth, where God became an occasional thought instead of an intimate and constant friend.

At home, faced with my daily invitation to pick up my Cross and follow Him, I pray intuitively and frequently. I relish grabbing my Bible during those rare free moments between doing laundry and raising kids to recharge with Scripture. I keep religious books laying around, which feed my mind five minutes at a time. When I’m frustrated, exhausted, or discouraged, I call on the Lord to lend me His strength patience, strength, and perseverance. I pray with my children and look forward to going to confession and Mass. My own unique road to heaven, filled as it is with suffering and sacrifices large and small, provides the opportunities (and reminders) I need to stay close to the Lord.

In the movie Molokai: The Story of Father Damien, the priest goes into a house of drunken, licentious leprosy patients to retrieve a young Hawaiian woman who has fallen in with the dissipated crowd. She initially resists returning to her family, saying to Father Damien, “I have the right to the good life.” He replies, “The good life was when you cared for the sick, when you held the children when they were scared.” In other words: a life of service, and not one of self-indulgence, is the key to “the good life.”

I discovered that truth anew on our vacation. Despite all the struggles of living out my vocation as a faithful Catholic wife and mother, it’s those struggles and sacrifices that give true meaning to my life. And that keep me close to God. There’s nothing wrong with taking time to refresh your soul and sometimes, it’s necessary. Even Jesus often went off by himself to pray after meeting the needs of the crowd. It was a great blessing to spend time with my husband and to reconnect with him as my loving partner and not just my coworker in raising our children. It was a blessing to enjoy God’s bounty of good friends, good food, and relaxation. Those temporal gifts allowed me to return home better able to live out my vocation; I’d shed many of the anxieties that had crept into my daily life, stealing my energy and compromising my ability to serve others.

But as is often the case, feasting the body can starve the soul. I was surprised it took so little time for my soul to assert its need for God. Years ago, I read a beautiful conversation between the body and soul by Saint Catherine of Genoa (you can read it here), so I was at least able to recognize the conflict when it occurred in my own life. The trip made me realize that there’s a good reason Jesus warned us about the perils of wealth. Not because wealth per se is evil, but because it so easily enables us to feed the body at the expense of the soul.

I came home from our vocation grateful for the responsibilities of my vocation, because now I know that’s what God uses to keep me close to Him. Help me, Lord, to always remember that “the good life” is rarely found on easy street.

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