By Luiz Coelho
Celebrant: The Lord be with you.
People: And also with you.
Celebrant: Lift up your hearts.
People: We lift them up to the Lord.
How many times have you heard those sentences, either said or chanted? I bet many! This short dialogue, which is at the beginning of (most) eucharistic prayers, is also known by its Latin name: sursum corda (which means literally “lift up the hearts”).
But why this concern with hearts? Conventionally, they have always been linked with emotions: fear, love, anger, sadness, joy and so many other feelings that literally make the heart ache, beat faster, or enlarge. Recently, scientists have learned that those emotions actually are much more related to the nervous system than to the heart per se. However, to the common folk (including myself), the heart is still directly linked to feelings.
We cannot ignore, though, that the heart plays a big role in our own state of health. It is regarded as one of the most critical organs in human bodies. Its main function is to pump oxygenated blood throughout the whole body, with a special emphasis on the brain. It is so important to the preservation of life, that after a cardiac arrest, death can occur within a very short period of time. The heart, therefore, is central to human health, and one would logically conclude that lifting it up to the Lord should mean more than emotional and spiritual fitness; it should also include one’s physical fitness as well, as we are presenting our entire selves to God in the Eucharistic offering.
Given that fact, how do we promote the physical wellness of people in our churches? Certainly there has been an emphasis on campaigns which focus on certain epidemic diseases, as well as and relief and development campaigns during times of disaster. But, how much has the Church contributed to the preservation of health for the average pew-sitter? What is the Church doing to promote the best physical state, with a decent quality of life, so that they are able to fully contribute to the building of God's kingdom?
In our case, some has been done, but not enough. As time passes by, we get saddened to see an increased number of brothers and sisters with severe diseases – many of which could have been prevented. Such conditions are often the results of modern life and could affect any of us. As life passes by, and sursum cordae are recited, what have we done to lift up everybody's hearts and provide quality of life to all?
Surely you all have been heard that depression is the “21st Century's disease”. But between well-organized liturgies, with vested choirs and stiff acolytes, how much time has been dedicated to hearing the plea of lonely people who look for someone with whom to share their pain? Budget problems, and the pressure of a fast-paced life have led parishes into an extreme concern with management tactics, often reflected in commissions, reports, meetings, and other activities that resemble a corporation much more than a Church. Such time-consuming events often reduce time for pastoral care to a minimum. Confessions, counseling and simple informal conversations between clergy and parishioners are increasingly rare, and the possibilities of helping lives in need, sometimes even recommending the help of a professional, become impossible.
Our concern with what we eat has somehow changed over the course of the last decades, and signs of change can be seen in parishes. Many now offer gluten-free wafers. It is startling to see, though, that in many cases the parish lunch that follows it does not conform to the same consideration. It is not rare to find that the only eating option is still hyper-caloric, high-cholesterol, sugar-enhanced, non-vegetarian, heart-defeating food. For those who have eating disorders, or even for the ones who have strict diets, taking part in such events is a dreadful temptation, and often an opportunity for “breaking the diet” and getting back to dangerous eating habits.
And what about alcohol? Many of us can be eager to make fun of other Christians whose traditions totally forbid the consumption of alcoholic beverages. However, such a line of thought commonly holds hands with a tacit acceptance of some behaviors that can be – and are – very destructive. As we grow aware of the dangers alcoholism can bring to individuals, families and communities, I wonder how many times we have witnessed the excesses of alcohol consumption, even at church-related parties, and how silent we have been, not willing to accept that many of our brothers and sisters (including clergy) already have all sorts of “drinking problems”, which can dramatically explode in the future, leading to very sad results.
The same can be applied to smoking. While I do not think it is a mortal sin, as some Christians would say, it is for sure extremely dangerous for one's health. My father, who was a chain smoker for more than twenty years, still suffered the effects of it (and eventually died as a result of permanent damage in his lungs) years after having completely left cigarrettes behind. However, how many times have we been blind to the ones around us with similar problems, often regarding them as a natural consequence of life?
Do not get me wrong. I am not advocating any kind of abstinence theology, or the imposition of a strict diet, as some churches do. However, I think that in many situations, we – as a Church – have been silent while people – our own people – suffer from the awful physical and emotional results of diseases and addictions. We can always lend our parish halls to AA or NA meetings, but in many cases, that is not enough. It is necessary for the Church to be a real safe space for those who come to it with all sorts of conditions, and sometimes it is our duty to make sacrifices in order to accommodate them. Such “sacrifices” can cover a wide range of simple practices which can be implemented, in many cases, in a seamless way. Why not consider the possibility of having all parish meals fat and sugar free? Why not start offering gluten, lactose free and vegetarian options as well? Why not offering community based classes on healthy-cooking and nutrition? Why not cease having alcoholic beverages in Church parties whenever recovering alcoholics are present? Why not promoting seminars to youth and adults on the dangerous effects of addictions, and providing space for church people to have anonymous counseling, which in most cases cannot happen with the group that meets at the parish hall? Why not sponsoring walks, sports competitions and even gym activities in our churches? Those are only some examples, and I am sure that you know of much more.
Surely, in many religious communities around the country (and the world) some signs of change are already visible. However, health care is never too much, and much still needs to be done. As the Body of Christ, it is utterly necessary that we work towards keeping as healthy as possible our individual bodies, which will work more efficiently for the building of His Kingdom. This involves caring for ourselves, so that we are able to care for others, and lifting up our hearts, once for all, to a better living standard.
Luiz Coelho, a seminarian from the Diocese of Rio de Janero, spends part of the year in the BFA program at the Savannah College of Art and Design. His Web site includes his art and his blog, Wandering Christian, on which he examines "Christianity in the third millennium, from a progressive, Latin American and Anglican point of view."