If a person wants to get in shape, they have to eat well and exercise—which of the two, according to most trainers, is more important? Eating well. There are lots of people who go to the gym but they don’t eat sensibly, and that’s why they can’t build muscle and lose weight.
[Watch Fr. Justin’s homily delivery here.]
The same principle works spiritually: If a person wants to become more mature and holier, they have to eat well spiritually, and exercise, which means exercising virtue.
A big reason why many people can’t stop swearing, struggle with pornography, are slothful, and lose their temper so easily, even though they’re trying, is because of lack of nourishment: they read spiritually empty books and don’t receive the Eucharist often enough.
May I be more specific? I don’t want to hurt anyone, but I do want to challenge. If people in your life don’t admire you, or, for the men, the women in your life don’t find you attractive, because you lack courage, you’re shy or indecisive, and you can’t take charge, try to improve what you take in spiritually. The same goes for men and women who are impatient, weak in faith, or always struggling with the same problems. If you were to read God’s Word, receive the Eucharist more often, and practice virtue, you would change.
I’ve entitled this homily Get Up and Eat, taken from the words of the angel in the First Reading. The Church chose this First Reading, about Elijah’s need for physical food, to match the Gospel, about our need for spiritual food, the Eucharist. The Church is teaching us today the principle that your spiritual life is like your physical life. The soul needs food, exercise, and rest, just like the body. For example, cardiovascular fitness is essential to all fitness, just as the most important virtue is love (the heart). The way to get spiritually stronger is by increasing intensity: just as when we add weight to exercise equipment. Similarly, just as there’s physical pain when we exercise, so there’s spiritual pain when we grow in holiness and mission; and those who push past the pain grow!
The First Reading begins: “Elijah went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: ‘It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors’” (1 Kg 19:4). Elijah had just overcome the false prophets of Baal, and now Queen Jezebel wants him dead. He flees into the desert and is so overwhelmed that he wants to die.
“Then Elijah lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an Angel touched him and said to him, ‘Get up and eat.’ He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again” (19:5-6). Just recognize this truth: The angel has to prod him to eat. There are times when we may not feel like eating because we feel down or we’re sick, but we need to.
How do we feel about the people in our life who prod us to do what’s good? Who in your life prods you spiritually? Sometimes we resent or get irritated by them. But they’re actually angels.
“The Angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, ‘Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.’ Elijah got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mountain of God” (19:7-8). ‘Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you’—this is what Jesus is saying to us today. Eat the Eucharist, otherwise the journey towards eternal life will be too much for you. To reach perfection, to reach the seventh mansion of the interior life, we need the Eucharist.
Jesus says in the Gospel, “This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die… And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (Jn 6:50-51). As Catholics, following the words of Jesus, the New Testament, and 2,000 years of what the saints have taught, we believe the Eucharist is really, truly, and substantially the Body of Jesus. It’s not chemically changed at all, but, using philosophical categories, we recognize that its substance or identity has changed. I’ve given lots of explanations on this point.
But the question is: How does eating the Eucharist help us grow morally and spiritually? It’s by giving us building blocks. If we work out, but don’t eat enough protein, then our muscles don’t have the building blocks to grow. It’s like going to a construction site, giving the blueprint to the workers, but not giving them any materials with which to build. To grow spiritually, love is the building block, so you need to receive more love in order to practice virtue, and the Eucharist is love itself.
When we try to do what’s morally right, our wills are trying to choose what’s good. For example, let’s say you’re late for Mass(!), through your own fault. When you meet me, you’re tempted to say, “Sorry I was late, Fr. Justin, but traffic was so bad.” In your head, you want to tell the truth, but you’re afraid I’ll get angry with you; the truth will be embarrassing; however, you know that if you lie to me, our relationship will be damaged. So your will is struggling which to choose.
But, for someone who has been receiving the Eucharist daily, their will is accustomed to coming into contact with love, and so they have the building blocks to choose what is loving. They say to themselves, “I made a mistake. I’ll confess it. I’m going to work on it. I’m not afraid of what Fr. Justin will think. And I’m not going to lie. I’m going to take responsibility for my actions.”
So, here are seven truths to consider:
1) Don’t delay Confession unnecessarily. I think we’ve reached the point where we have so much respect for the Eucharist that we won’t receive Jesus unless we’re truly ready—that is amazing! That is a sign of beautiful hearts and God’s grace! However, if we ever delay receiving Communion because we’re putting off Confession through our own choice, then we need to take respect for Jesus to the next level: not simply abstain from Communion, but get to Confession.
2) If we can’t receive the Eucharist, perhaps because we’re not Catholic or we have some situations in our life that we need to work on, then read the Bible daily. Jesus tells us, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4). God’s Word also gives us building blocks to grow spiritually.
3) The Eucharist is a superfood, because it’s Jesus Himself. Following the truth can lead to extremely virtuous people (think of Jordan Peterson, the great Canadian psychologist, for example, who tries to act according to the truth), and faithfully praying with God’s Word can produce martyrs (the Anglican martyrs of Uganda, who died for Jesus between 1885-87), but ordinarily God feeds us through the Eucharist. Few people in history have reached the moral and spiritual perfection and purity of heart of St. Mother Teresa, who ate this superfood daily for decades.
4) The Eucharist doesn’t have an automatic effect on virtue. Some people have said to me, “Father, my mom goes to Mass every day, but she’s so critical.” That’s because her spiritual exercise is terrible. She eats well, but doesn’t work out well.
5) Give the Eucharist time. Does eating well for one month transform your body? Getting in shape takes at least three months of daily consistency to see results, and long-term spiritual results come from staying on a spiritual diet every day for at least a year. Give the Eucharist time.
6) The gift of the Eucharist is one reason why I wish everyone would come to know and love Jesus, and would choose to become Catholic. It’s the fulfillment of their hopes and dreams to be with God. It’s the nourishment He wants to give them, if they would but choose to receive Him!
7) Have realistic expectations of the Eucharist. Most of the time, we feel nothing when we receive It. Don’t expect consolation when you receive the Eucharist. Jesus told us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread,” not our daily steak. When we eat healthy food, it doesn’t always taste good, and it doesn’t make exercise easy. So don’t expect that it’s going to be easy to love your family after coming home from Mass. You’ve got the building blocks, but you still have to work.
I love fitness, but I love spiritual fitness more. That’s why my time in prayer is always at least double my time exercising.
“This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not [spiritually] die… And the bread that I will give… is my flesh.” All people who follow these words of Jesus, and practice His commandment of love, overcome their spiritual problems! Get up and eat!