Saturday, February 09, 2013

What to Do about Lent?

In recent weeks I've been corresponding with an American friend about so-called spiritual practices. This has become a vexed area for a number of reasons. The first has to do with Matt. 6:1-7, which is the passage about praying and fasting in secret, and not letting your right hand know what your left does when giving alms. Add to this Eckhart's saying that 'if you are doing something special you are not seeking God' and matters become very complex.
Another area of difficulty is the fact that traditional practices such as fasting in themselves have become problematic. It is almost impossible to escape the media assault on our relationship with food, and the corporate assault through advertising that encourages self-hatred so that we will buy yet another useless 'remedy'. Obesity, anorexia, contamination of supermarket food, genetically altered grain that compels us to eat more, gourmet cooking programmes, visual and olifactory temptations of endless combinations of salt, sugar and fat—food has become an obsession to match those of sex and money, and deliberately so, because when people begin to realise that there is far more to life and to the human person than food, sex, and money, the corporations shudder and increase the onslaught on our senses. Their intent is to limit our sense of what it means to be human to that of pornography: they want us to be eating, consuming, rutting robots, the men slightly menacing perfect hulks; the women size zero tarts with inflatable chests.
Let's look at the second set of problems first. Some people automatically give up booze during Lent, whether they are religious or not. It follows on their often failed attempts to have a dry January—which, the medical world tells us, is hardly enough time to let a damaged liver recover. The sad fact is that if giving up booze for a month or six weeks is that much of a problem, then the person needs to check into rehab. Alcoholism is not signalled by being falling-down drunk: as anyone in AA can tell you, some of the most insidious cases of alcoholism are those known as dry drunks, and making it through January or Lent with gritted teeth is no guarantee that one is not an alcoholic.
Lent is a time to take a hard, clear look at our selves. Rather than token 'give up' -isms, better, perhaps, to identify areas in our lives where we are addicted. Forget any sort of fasting to do with food: it's just too dangerous an area these days, no matter how much one might think he or she is free from hangups. In any event many of us will probably find that we are far more addicted to phone and internet use.
Nothing dehumanises us faster than technology. Much more salutary a practice then, perhaps, to confine oneself to checking email and news twice a day, and to read a book during the time that otherwise would have been wasted online or playing video games—not a book on an e-reader, but a tangible book with pages and print. There is more to this exercise than slowing down, although that is certainly an important element.
Another area that may bear looking at, and one that is a direct consequence of backing off from the media, is empathy, appropriate feeling. It may be painful to do, but it is possible to regard relationships and encounters with others with a vigilant, but non-judgemental eye, in order to see if feelings have become numbed, if one is regarding and treating people as if they were machines, or puppets, or functionaries. Contrarywise, if a person is over-sensitive and has permeable boundaries—whether or not that is something they can change, which often they can't—another kind of vigilance may be useful, one that takes refuge in a still centre so that what often feels like buffeting and assault can be absorbed and neutralised, without in any way shutting down.
There is so much in our society that is abusive to the body that Lent seems like an especially good time to get acquainted with it again. We stress it, we feed it junk food, we overwhelm it with violent films; perhaps we push it beyond its capacity in forms of extreme competitive exercise, or by doing no exercise at all. This is not so much having a body as treating it like a machine; and like machines, though it is not a machine, it will break down if you don't maintain it—and more, cherish it.
So perhaps take an afternoon a week to get to know your body. Treat yourself to a massage; walk in a botanical garden or a wild place; make bread; garden; eat organic, simple, well-prepared food, perhaps sharing a quietly festive meal with a friend now and then. We can practice mindfulness of the body by learning by stages to sit in whatever posture is most comfortable, but preferably in a straight chair, perfectly motionless and utterly relaxed for thirty minutes. This is much more difficult than it sounds. It may take months to reach the 15 minute or 20 minute level. But if a person manages to do thirty minutes only once in his or her life, it is a resource he or she will always be able to draw on.
None of these practices are about competition with oneself or others, nor does the success-fail mentality apply. When the desert hermits said 'The purpose of our ascesis is to fail' they meant that we need to learn our limits and stop obsessing and judging our selves if we don't fulfil the stereotypes we force on our selves. They know that it is only by opening to grace that any exercise can reach fruition—of which more in a moment.
 Practices such as these are about giving alms to our poor bodies, and thereby to others through the well-being that care engenders. They are about self-knowledge in various guises, not with an eye to judgement, but rather knowing in the deepest sense, beyond language. And this, I think, is what the passage from Matthew is about, which I cited at the beginning of this post. 
Not only can these exercises all be done without anyone else knowing about them, they also can be done only if the right hand does not know what the left is doing, otherwise known as the paradox of intention, which I have discussed at length elsewhere in this blog; as Marvin Shaw puts it, giving up the goal so that one may have an opportunity, create a space of opportunity—i.e. for grace to enter—of reaching it (no guarantees!). In other words, every time we use the paradox of intention, we are exercising faith and we are helping to re-centre our selves in deep mind.
So, for example, if you are doing the exercise to sit still, you might intend it before you go to bed and/or when you first wake up, and then forget about it until the actual time comes to sit down—at which time it may seem more natural, part of a hidden flow. If you are going to eat simply and well, you might intend your purchases before you go to the market—again, perhaps the night before—and then forget about it, trusting that you will be moved to walk by the junk food to the organic section. If you are going to make bread, or garden, it is the same: the night before intend the activity and the space of time you are going to give to it, perhaps even imagine yourself preparing the yeast or putting on your boots and gardening gloves, and then forget about it; and when the time arrives, it may seem the only appropriate engagement for that particular moment.
It sounds like a game: it is a game, a form of divine play. Lent is a time of preparation for Easter joy, for the new and transfigured creation. We do not come to that new life by abusing the body that is the temple of the Holy Spirit who effects this transfiguration. Sometime during Lent, stand naked before a mirror, and wonder with joy at your body in all its uniqueness: size, shape, smell, touch, its hidden places and those we present to the world: it is made of star-stuff and imbued with the divine.
Happy Lent!


Blogger happy pearl said...

Thank you so much for this. I find it really helpful.

8:41 pm, February 09, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for this post.

11:42 pm, February 09, 2013  
Blogger changeinthewind said...

To "do something special" is a definition. Like words on a page are symbols rather than experience.

One might simply do.

Then even Lent is "gone" and there is no necessity to be observed or otherwise. To be considered sacred or otherwise.

10:28 pm, February 10, 2013  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think doing something for Lent is fine as long as the intention is towards God. Most of us are just beginners with all this anyway.

8:27 pm, February 12, 2013  
Anonymous James D. Jenkins said...

May I ask whether you are the same Maggie Ross who wrote 'The Gasteropod'? I operate a small press putting together a series of neglected British fiction from the 20th century and was interested in contacting the author of that novel. Many thanks, and apologies if I've come to the wrong place.

8:50 pm, February 13, 2013  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Dear Mr Jenkins,

Afraid I am not that Maggie Ross, though I have been intending to read her book one of these days! So sorry. I don't write fiction, though I certainly have enough material for a whole series of monastic whodunnits!

I see your press is in Kansas City. I was born there (Missouri side)


9:10 pm, February 13, 2013  

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