There is so much false spirituality around us these days, calling itself goddess-worship or "the way." It is false because too cheaply bought and little understood, but most of all because it does not lend, but rather saps, that energy we need to do our work. So when an example of the real power of healing love comes along (...) it is difficult to use the same words to talk about it because so many of our best and most erotic words have been so cheapened. --Audre Lorde "The Cancer Journals" page 39
Today is Ash Wednesday which marks the beginning of Lent: a 40 day journey of contemplating and resisting (through fasting, for example) those temptations that seek to distract us from the holy and true. This is the third year I've participated in Ash Wednesday and Lent as clergy. Each year I've grown increasingly uncomfortable with the idea of what i'll call "Lent light." Let me explain.
I hear all these people admonishing Christians "not to take something away, but to add something to our lives for 40 days." Like a spiritual practice. Or a new book. More often than not the folks advocating this approach are former Catholics who want to remove the yolk of guilt-driven theology from their lives. Hear me clearly: do that. If adding something instead of taking something away enables you to experience a more generous and loving incarnation of yourself and God, together, all glory to that. Do it, don't think twice.
This add-something-approach to Lent appears to be grounded in the assumption that we can re/center our lives on God by engaging something new and different. I won't deny that there's wisdom in this approach, but it doesn't do the nitty gritty, often painful work, of illuminating the ways our current incarnational practices harm and distract us. You can add yoga during Lent, but if you don't take away that group of friends at the YMCA who keep judging your parenting practices, the sleeping child pose will only provide you so much. In order to illuminate what's currently harming and distracting us, we have to follow a hunch about the stuff that 'may' be a problem and remove it. I call this spiritual detox.
You don't detox by adding; you detox by stopping something. Stopping does some stuff that mere addition cannot do. Stopping illuminates false dependency. Stopping illuminates the often subtle yet totally overwhelming lie of craving. Stopping illuminates how we've cast power into the very things that threaten to extinguish our spirits. Sometimes you've got to feel the extremes of withdrawal to understand the illusionary power of of drugs. Anyone who has been to rehab will get me on this one. And when it comes to Lent, we are called to dive into spiritual detox.
But before I go into more about detox, let me say, in a rather anecdoctal way: there's also something politically subversive about stopping, as opposed to adding, in a culture of non-stop accumulation and hyper-compulsive doing. Read: Lent is for secular minimalists too!
Lent is about spiritual detoxing for the sake of revelation. It's not detox for the sake of sacrifice itself. Hence my discomfort with the other side of "Lent light:" these folks who make Lent about self-punishment practices vis-a-vis the impossible standards of body 'perfection' in our culture. One year in college this girl I knew, who was a cheerleader J-Lo look alike, stopped drinking soda for Lent. When I asked her why, she told me that her sugar intake was too high and it made her feel like crap. When i pressed about "feeling like crap," I discovered that she wasn't talking about the chemical/energetic ups and downs that result from sugar spikes in the bloodstream, but the crappy feelings of knowing that you're drinking something that might, if you're not more disciplined, make you fat one day.
Someone tell me what the fuck that has to do with spiritual revelation?
How has Christianity become so co-opted by mainstream commercialism that Lenten practices lend themselves to disciplines that a) exercise fat-phobia and b) secure projections of hatred onto one's future self? And not to keep grinding the ax but more often than not, these kinds of Lenten disciplines are the ones I hear about: diet and exercise. Nothing wrong with these disciplines in and of themselves, but if there's no spiritual search attending to these removals of apathy or excess food in-take, then the discipline seems rooted in the two headed monsters of capitalism: vanity and self-hate. If we are not blessing our bodies with exercise or eating well, there's something going on with us spiritually. The revelation comes when we stop our current harmful and distracting practices, and ask ourselves--once we've had enough time to detox from them--how/why they've been 'serving' us. What's motivating them? What do they help us avoid? How are we in touch with certain parts of ourselves through them? How do they connect us to others? If you're a person who starts exercising for Lent after years of being sedentary and you discover that exercise makes you feel a kind of physical power you don't know what to do with--that's a spiritual revelation! Or if you start eating differently during Lent and discover that without eating fatty foods that you're angry or exhausted or restless all the time--that's a spiritual revelation! These revelations are just the tip of the ice-berg when it comes to discovery. Lenten disciplines are just that: things that get us to the very beginning, or crack us open just a little bit. Because what follows is the 40 day journey of integrating those revelations into our notions of who we are as individuals, in relationship, in community, and with our God.
So: please don't exercise or eat differently so that you can brag about how many pounds you lost come Easter time. That mocks Jesus because Jesus loves your body just the way it is. Do you? If, on the other hand, you exercise and eat differently during Lent as a way of exploring the Divine Life within your systems of hunger and movement and as a way of exploring how spiritual liberation is connected to body practices of care (especially if you are a womyn or have a marginalized body in our society), then please please please share your testimony come Easter time.
I for one am stopping facebook because I have a suspicion it distracts me from deep reading/writing and I'm adding a 2 hour time for self-chosen reading/writing each day. I'll be charting my journey here. So it begins.
From dust you have come and to dust you shall return. Word. Made. Flesh.