This time, a passage on the culinary excesses of clerics in Spice and Wolf struck me. It was not remarkable for bringing out how much priests love fine dining. The joke runs that one thing modern bishops and the apostles have in common is never turning down a meal. Instead, I was surprised by the following allusion: “There was one famous Church doctor nicknamed ‘The Angel Physician,’ whose belly was so round and stuck out so far that his place at table has a special cutout just so that he could fit,” (Vol. 14, p. 75). The story repeated here is all too true and refers to St. Thomas Aquinas, the “Angelic Doctor.” Still, St. Thomas’s size was no blemish on his sanctity: he is one of the two greatest theologians of all time (St. Augustine is the other), and he frequently had visions of Christ. In the most famous vision, Our Lord asks St. Thomas what he would have as a reward for his writings. The saint replied: “Thyself.”
Still, fat itself has never been in style–even though modern day obesity rates are all too high. To take the Church’s perspective, the classic saint is the ascetic emaciated with fasting and other forms of mortifying the flesh. The world has a different sort of “ascetic,” if you will: the person who combines an athletic build with a healthy diet. Some moderns strike one as fanatical in their pursuit of health. This attitude has even seeped into clerical circles, where one would think people would be less concerned with it. Friends at the seminary tell me that their three hundred pound professors are telling them to lose weight!
Yet, I have to wonder at all this concern about health. G. K. Chesterton commented once that only sick or unhealthy people cared about health and that they only cared about health so that they could be carefree once they had regained health. In modern times, we have healthy people concerned about their health and who can never stop being concerned about their health. Why? Does one want to live a long life and enjoy the delights of the world as much as possible? Does one play sports? Do you want to be fit in case our country becomes involved in another major war? Health is an intrinsic good, but I can’t see it as an ultimate good.
Back to the subject of priests. Does being physically fit entitle them to any special praise? No, because their profession is to be concerned with the salvation and the health of souls–not bodies! No one admires a priest for being strong or skinny. Some physically fit priests are even subject to vanity. (For example, one such fit priest raised the ire of his parishioners by gardening without a shirt and in his exercise shorts. His physique was not appreciated by the congregation!) Spiritual and intellectual goods rank far above the goods of the body. Those who dedicate themselves to these goods may become as rotund as St. Thomas Aquinas, but they help develop those things which are highest in man.
One’s body conforms to one’s way of life and profession. Surely, there is an ideal for the human body, but one might ideally spend the time it would take to build this ideal body doing other things instead. In the case of a parish priest in particular, he does more good sampling and praising his elderly parishioners’ cakes and cookies than by pumping iron. One never knows when greatness of body is tied to greatness of soul.