Saturday, February 16, 2013

Giving up Asceticism for Lent

So, this Lent I made a commitment to seek out and open myself more fully to joy. This may seem counterintuitive at first: Lent is, after all, a penitential season, a time when Christians examine their consciences and repent of those destructive habits of thought and action that injure their relationships with the world and with the Divine (or, in shorthand, "sins"). Historically, this has meant taking up disciplines of fasting and prayer and availing oneself of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Giving something up for Lent is popular, too: chocolate, or reality TV, or alcohol. Catholics give up meat on Fridays, which isn't an option for me as I'm completely vegetarian already; my parents, who are Orthodox, adhere to a strict fast for the duration of Lent, which means they're essentially vegans for forty days. I went into Ash Wednesday pondering what I might give up this year: smoking, which I've attempted to little effect five years running? Go vegan, like my parents? Fast completely on Fridays?

On Ash Wednesday, the priest at my church gave one of the best, most relevant Ash Wednesday homilies I've ever heard (it must be difficult, after all, to have to write a new, fresh sermon on essentially the same topic year after year). One sentence in particular stood out for me: "God doesn't particularly care whether you give up chocolate or trash TV...those things in themselves aren't sinful. It's how you use or abuse them that is." And so began pondering the nature of self-denial, and how even ascetic acts, undertaken for the wrong reasons, can be avenues for wilfulness and pride rather than ways of getting closer to the Divine. I'm guilty of this. I've joked to friends at times about "giving up asceticism for Lent," and the idea has seemed so ridiculous that everyone's laughed and I've gone about my business, feeling a little guilty because I know that, for me, so many of the things that seem like self-denial are actually (futile) attempts at wresting the controls from the Universe. Because obviously I'm a much better, more experienced driver. Para ejemplo:

Back in college, when I was seriously anorexic, Lent was one of my favorite seasons of the Church. Not because I enjoyed the purple vestments or the endless services of Holy Week, but because I had permission--no, a mandate--to fast to my heart's content. It wasn't pathology; it was religious expression. I wasn't starving myself, I was purging my evil, fleshly body of its sins (n.b, if you're playing 'defense mechanism bingo' at home, you can cross off "rationalization"). For me, giving up eating, or eating particular things, wasn't "giving up" anything (and certainly not giving up control to the Divine); far from a sacrifice, it was another painful, grasping attempt at imposing my own will--which, I'm given to understand, is NOT the point of Christianity, and not the point of Lent in particular.

I'm no longer in and out of the hospital every six months, but self-denial and self-control, especially as they relate to food--comment se dit?--they remain...issues. As in, having too much of both and being painfully inflexible. And so, as I listened to that sermon on Wednesday, I made up my mind not to give anything up for Lent, but rather to take on the discipline of finding joy in the everyday. Not mere pleasure, mind you--which is so often shallow, and fleeting--but real, authentic joy that nourishes me and others and opens that connection to Divinity. I'm starting to work through what the difference is between pleasure and joy, and I'm pleased to report that in the past few days I have found a number of joyful moments--some quiet and meditative, some raucous and full of laughter. I'll be trying to keep this blog up to date over Lent, and I'll write about my experiences. Coming next: How are pleasure and joy different? Why do people talk about 'guilty pleasures' but not 'guilty joys'? Neither is bad, per se, but one seems more meaningful...what pleasures am I willing to give up to make room for more joys in my life? What about you?

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