In almost all of the developed world obesity is a growing crisis. People—adults and, most alarmingly, children too—are getting fatter and becoming considerably less healthy. It’s a huge problem, pun intended, but strangely enough the causes of the epidemic we find ourselves is are all too well known, and stupidly simple. Highly processed food and a movement away from eating honest, down-to-earth meals as a family unit can be linked directly to our current crisis. A culture that values accomplishments, running around, and productivity over nutrition and slowing down has got us exactly what we deserve.
Instead of taking the time to cook a meal together and eat genuine food made from ingredients we can pronounce, touch, and see, we rush around filling our schedules with unnecessary and unimportant things, grabbing meals to go or snacking way too much.
We could, if we truly applied ourselves, eat a lot better. Prioritize things differently. Get in shape.
And, spiritually, it’s just the same.
In our busy lives it’s often those simple spiritual practices—which should be our daily touchstones—which get crowded out when the appointments and activities pile up. It’s daily prayer, it’s keeping our eyes open to how God wants to lead us, it’s stretching out a helping hand to our neighbours.
It’s these things which are pushed to the fringes when we get busy.
In the same way that when eating well goes out the window we become less healthy, when our spiritual discipline begins to slacken we become less holy.
Thankfully, the Catholic Church knows exactly what we need. And the metaphor of eating well, exercise, and physical health is nearly perfect because what the Church prescribes for our spiritual health is just the same.
Eat well and exercise—by going to Sunday Mass.
I recently had the privilege of sitting down and talking to Dr. Denis McNamara. Dr. McNamara is one of the hosts of the brilliant Liturgy Guys podcast and, for most of his academic career, taught that the Liturgical Institute. An organization which counts Bishop Robert Barron as one of its founding members.
Dr. McNamara describes the Mass as just that: exercise.
To understand what he means, you need to understand, first of all, what the Mass is. We unpack this in depth in our conversation but, in brief, Dr. McNamara urges us to think about Mass as a kind of exercise that helps us to get “ready” to understand heavenly things.
The Cathecism of the Catholic Church describes the Eucharist as the “center” and “the most intense expression” of our Catholic faith. Elsewhere it’s called the “source and summit.” This is hardly hyperbole because what is happening in the Mass, while theologically and spiritually deep, is also startlingly simple.
From the moment we enter a Catholic Church, says McNamara, we are seeing a kind of “image” of heaven—and this is intentionally so. From there as we begin to participate in the Mass we are seeing, on earth, a mirror or an image of how the saints are worshipping God in Heaven. In fact, we are joined in a kind of mystical time-and-space bending way, to that very same worship and it comes, McNamara explains, from the Book of Revelation.
We are, in a Catholic Mass, acting out how we best understand the worship in Heaven in order to help to prepare ourselves to be there one day.
After all, says Dr. McNamara, it’s one thing to see Michael Jordan accomplish an impossible-to-believe free throw and another thing entirely to practice, day after day, so that we can perform that free throw as well.
We sing, in Mass, the Holy, Holy, Holy so that when we get to Heaven, by the grace of God, we will know the tune.
And, here, it’s quite clear to see why the Catholic Church says we must go to Mass every Sunday. Because, like a good exercise and eating regime if we don’t follow it closely we aren’t going to reap the same rewards. If I exercise once a month I will get stronger at a much slower rate than if I exercise once a week or once a day.
The same applies to my spiritual health, too.
In her wisdom the Catholic Church encourages us to go to Mass at least once a week not because the Pope and bishops are seeking to enforce ridiculous, baseless, and draconian rules on the Catholic faithful but because, hey, they know what’s best for our spiritual health.
Exactly what is happening when we prayer along with the priest, when we kneel, when we sing, and when we receive Communion is hidden in the mystery of the sacrament but we know this much, because Jesus told us, that it is for our good to make us more like God.
In theological terms, says Dr. McNamara, we call this deification—making us more like Christ—and this is the ultimate goal of the Christian life. This is what God created us for; this is what he intended. The Mass, then, is the exercise we need to perform, with the graces received in the sacraments, to help get us there.
It is profound, and it is simple and in the same way that the solution to the obesity epidemic in the West is easily discerned, the solution to our spiritual malaise is pretty obvious too.
And, like the advice of good and reasonable doctors this world over, the advice of the Church is startlingly simple. Eat well and exercise. Go to Mass, not because we have to and ought to go, but because it’s truly the best exercise and the best meal for our spiritual selves that we can come by.
Listen to Dr. McNamara talk about the Mass here or below,