How the Spiritual Exercises Rebooted My Health

by Paul Gallagher

One of my fondest memories of growing up in a single parent household with seven siblings is my mother’s early morning preparations on Thanksgiving Day. My bedroom was off the kitchen, and the smell of sautéing onions and celery filled the whole house. We had the largest turkey my mom could buy, which overflowed with her wonderful stuffing. Later that afternoon, we ate until there was nothing left, rolling away from the table full to the brim.

Almost all of us could eat with reckless abandon, never gaining any weight. I didn’t give much thought to how much I was eating until I spent several weeks one summer with my grandparents. Since there wasn’t much to do at their inner-city house, I ended up becoming a couch potato, eating all the treats my grandmother made me. Being the youngest of seven, it was rare that treats weren’t shared, so I relished every cookie put before me. By the end of that summer, I gained quite a bit of weight. It all came off once school started, but something changed that summer. I started craving certain foods. Easy to deal with when I was young, but tough to handle as an adult.

Fast forward 30 years, and I still had those cravings. I ate what I wanted when I wanted. Like many middle-aged folks, I packed on pounds thanks to poor eating habits and lack of exercise. About four years ago, I was diagnosed with a few health-related chronic diseases that are at almost epidemic proportions today.

Luckily for me, just before what my former pastor called a “come to Jesus” meeting with my doctor, I began the 19th Annotation of St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises. With the help of the woman leading me through the Exercises, my relationship with God began to improve. I was focused, praying every day, seeing God all around me, and striving for holiness. Although I wasn’t feeling especially well physically, I was doing great spiritually.

At one of my first sessions with Nancy, she told me St. Ignatius had wisely included some rules about eating in the Exercises. She encouraged me to take better care of myself, recognizing my body as the temple of the Holy Spirit and worthy of reverence and care. What was interesting about this connection between eating and spirituality is that for those of us who consider themselves faithful Christians, one of the areas we allow ourselves to overindulge is with food. We justify it like this: Well, we don’t fall victim to this or that vice, so what’s wrong with another slice of cake?

St. Ignatius reminds us in the Spiritual Exercises that we need to detach ourselves from those things that may have taken on addictive qualities in our lives. For me, it was food. With my director’s help, I slowly started correcting some of my food imbalances. She challenged me to become less focused on food and more focused on God’s loving presence in my life.

Within a week, I had begun exercising every day and had radically changed my diet. Ignatius’s own experience with food landed him at death’s door due to his unhealthy fasting. So eating a good, moderate, and well-balanced diet was central to my ultimate success. Ignatius wrote that we should eat for proper nourishment, but challenged us not to overemphasize the foods we eat. If we eat too much at one meal, we shouldn’t leave the table without thinking about our need to eat less at the next meal. What a tough challenge for us as we move into the holiday season, right?

When I finished the Exercises several months later, I was 65 pounds lighter and had reversed my health issues. I felt better than I ever thought I could—physically, spiritually, and emotionally. It was an amazing time of grace. Once the Exercises were over, I quickly went back to my “normal” life, and years later, some of my old habits have crept back.

Recently, however, I’ve turned back to St. Ignatius’ Rules for Eating. I’m back to exercising every day, and I’ve returned to the diet that worked so well in the past. Most importantly, I’m concentrating on my daily prayer, so I can continue strengthening my relationship with God.

The holidays can be a time of great difficulty for those who struggle with their weight. Every party or family gathering has tempting treats we know we shouldn’t eat, but we often surrender to overindulgence. St. Ignatius would ask us to go into these events with a plan so we can eat and enjoy ourselves, but avoid overdoing it. If we do overindulge, we shouldn’t beat ourselves up, but make a firm decision to cut back at our next meal.

Why should we do all this? So we can praise, revere, and serve God to the best of our ability. Taking care of ourselves allows us to fully live our lives, all done for the greater glory of God.

 Paul Gallagher

Paul Gallagher

Paul Gallagher has been the DRE at St. John Catholic Church in Westminster, MD, for over 10 years. In addition to his administrative responsibilities, he teaches a wonderful group of fourth graders.

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Prayers of Thanksgiving

The Art of Teaching

Just as Paul’s spiritual director helped him draw closer to God, this 30-minute activity will invite children to pray for a person who helped them better understand Jesus.

  1. Provide children with colored and white paper, coloring materials, scissors, glue, and stencils of a dove.
  2. Explain to the children that the colored piece of paper will be the background. They will then trace and cut out a dove from the white paper and paste it on top of the colored paper to make a card.
  3. Ask the children to write somewhere on their doves: Thank you for Sharing Jesus with Me.
  4. Give the children time to decorate their cards. When the cards are completed, invite volunteers to share who they are thanking and why.
  5. Encourage the children to share their cards with the people they are thanking.
  6. Conclude by saying: Remember this week how lucky we are to have people who shared Jesus and his story with us.