Why I’m giving up chocolate for Lent

I was inspired, ironically, by a post listing 19 things to give up for Lent that aren’t chocolate. unknown-2The list includes fear, envy, doubt, pride and worry. Now, I would love to give up worrying, and not just for Lent. These nineteen habits of the heart (which is what they mainly are) should be the target of our asceticism; that is, whatever it is we give up for Lent, it ought to be with a view to strengthening ourselves for the daily struggle against the attitudes that lead us into sin and away from God.

Don’t get me wrong: I love to do a Big Thing for Lent. One year I wrote a devotional, reflecting each day on the Mass readings and pairing them with a saying from the desert fathers and mothers. Another year, I tried to give up losing my temper with the children, with some success. And once I tried to work out deep-seated resentment and unforgiveness, taking Lent as a time for a kind of spring-cleaning of the soul. That wasn’t my most successful Lent ever.

What I have found, actually, especially thanks to a helpful priest and the book he recommended, Spiritual Combat Revisitedis that the opportunities for small acts of self-denial are ever-present, and usually sufficient to my needs for ascetic exercise. Letting go of impatience as I wait in a long line at the supermarket, for example; or resisting the impulse to snap at one of the children, as s/he does that thing for the seventeenth time, having been told sixteen times to stop, please. There is no shortage in my life of opportunities to put another’s needs before my own. unknown-3

So why give up anything at all? One might say (and not unjustifiably) that the Church offers an ascetic programme of sorts for Lent: days of fasting and abstinence, extended hours for confession (and an obligation to go), and the liturgical fast from the Gloria and from all alleluias. Isn’t that sufficient? Perhaps. Giving up something more is a way of taking Lent to heart, of keeping the season in mind more consistently. I put more effort in, and my observance of the season deepens.

Chocolate does seem like the most boring possible thing to give up for Lent. I mean, couldn’t I find something more inventive, something more impressive? Everyone gives up chocolate for Lent. But does that make it any less effective for me? I think not. Remember Naaman, who suffered from leprosy? Elisha sent him to wash seven times in the Jordan, and Naaman had a tantrum. He expected something different, something more fitting for a person of his rank and distinction, perhaps. Luckily, one of Naaman’s servants kept his head, and suggested that ‘if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it?’ Well, then, why not do this small thing. And Naaman does, and is healed.
Giving up something for Lent is like that: it isn’t about thinking up something cool to take on, or something huge to give up. It’s about humility. As Christ humbled himself and suffered for us–in both very cruel and very ordinary ways–so we take this opportunity to grow in humility and expose ourselves to suffering. So I am giving up chocolate for Lent, as are a number of other people in the parish. I admit that this is enough for me; I hope that it will keep me mindful of other small opportunities for self-denial in my daily life, during Lent and all the days that follow.

On the Trinity and the newspaper

Yesterday was the feast of the Most Holy Trinity. How did I mark it? I wrote my usual piece for the church bulletin at St Cuthbert’s and I led the children’s liturgy–a lot less ‘usual’ and a whole lot more nerve-wracking. More on that later. Late in the afternoon, after the rain dashed our hopes of a walk to the park, I caved to the 12-year-old’s plea for ‘another James Bond movie.’

UnknownIt may have been watching Goldfinger that made me alert to the three articles in one newspaper (the New York Times) this morning, all touching on the situation of women in the contemporary Western world. I was slightly shocked by the behaviour of our favourite spy towards women–obviously it has been a while since I watched the Sean Connery films. Fortunately, two of the articles today suggest that the reason I find his behaviour inappropriate is that things have changed for women, not only in the US, but also, finally, in France. Denis Baupin was forced to resign from his post as the Assembly’s vice-president because of his persistent sexual harassment of female colleagues. Big firms in the US have come a long way on these issues, but the less obvious discrimination against women continues: the pay gap and the obstacles to advancement on Wall Street. Unfortunately, the vehicle for changing the rules about sexual conduct may not be much use to women in addressing the other structural issues, as firms make arbitration the rule and prohibit employees from being involved in class-action lawsuits.

23BOOKZEISLER1-master180The article about women on Wall Street makes Jennifer Senior’s review of We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement, by Andi Zeisler, all the more pertinent. Zeisler denunciates the cheapening of feminism, arguing that ‘feminist’ has lost its meaning and its power. Now any woman can be a feminist, and the only goals she has to embrace are ‘to seize [her] power and tap into [her] inner warrior.’ I won’t rehearse Jennifer Senior’s good work here: her review is worth reading. In short, the difficulty with the book is that the real issues, to which Zeisler often refers, get very, very short shrift. And why? Because, perhaps, the boring issues like the wage gap, especially as it affects workers in the lower tax brackets, don’t sell books.

My interest in this trinity of articles in this morning’s New York Times doesn’t require all the details from each of the articles. Some of us women have benefited enormously from those who resisted the James Bond approach to relations between the sexes; some of us have found our way into spheres of work and influence that would never have been open to us 30 or 40 years ago. I know I am one of those women. I worry because the playing field onto which I have emerged, somewhat uncertainly, still operates by a set of rules that haven’t changed too much since women weren’t allowed to play. This affects me deeply, as a caregiver and someone who believes strongly that there are more important things in the world than career advancement. But it affects many, many more women who have to play by those rules in order to survive, and women who cannot play by those rules, and so are excluded.

Things have changed. Things haven’t changed nearly enough. Unfortunately, as long as we are ruled as a culture (and here I am thinking of culture both in the US and the UK) by the need for comfort and stability, and driven by the desire for luxury and entertainment, nothing will change very much. The problem feminists face is a part of the bigger problem we face in the world: sin. Sexual harassment can be fought; women can win, because sexual harassment doesn’t really increase the profit margin. (Note that one broker mentioned in the article about women’s struggles on  Wall Street was promoted, despite having such a bad record on sexual harassment that he wasn’t allowed to have a female administrative assistant: he must have been really profitable.) But equal pay, family leave, and improved wages for those earning the least are difficult, costly.

It all seems pretty dismal: I guess that’s why books addressing poverty and discrimination in specific and concrete detail, don’t sell. Whatever sort of oppression we might be fighting, the odds are against us. The wisest thing I’ve ever found in Judith Butler’s writings (not to be a feminist name-dropper) is the observation that real change comes when we are able to resist the urge to fight back when we have been hurt. (See her Frames of War; I reviewed it for Modern Theology a while back.) I think I have heard that somewhere before. Fighting back seems like the only way to get anywhere; it is refreshing to find someone whose work has shaped critical gender theory for more than twenty years saying something different.

TrinityNow, maybe you’re wondering what the Trinity and the whole business of feminism have in common. No, I am not going to go in the direction of feminist theology. Yesterday, in that terrifying experience of trying to say something to children about the Trinity, a beautiful thing happened. There we were, talking about the Glory be, and listening to the gospel (John 16:12-15), and trying to make sense of it all (without actually using the word Trinity, which seemed extraneous), and the children somehow managed it. Why don’t we hear ‘Son’ in the gospel, we wondered. Because Jesus is the Son, and he’s speaking, offered one of the children. We wondered how God was present with us now. ‘In our hearts,’ offered another child; and ‘by the Spirit,’ said a third. But the best of all was in their free drawing time. One of the girls came up to show me her drawing afterward. Below the text of the Glory be, she had drawn a circle with a series of arrows to indicate the circle’s direction. ‘Because it continues,’ she explained.

So it does: this business of God’s involvement with our world, with all it suffers from the sin of men and women, continues. Because we women and men have that same Spirit living us, the Spirit of him who raised Christ from the dead; and so we stay in the game, despite the odds, offering our suffering as a part of the struggle.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Note: yesterday, in other years, would have been the memorial of St Rita of Cascia, who might make an excellent patroness for Catholic feminism, insofar as there is such a thing…

 

 

 

being human, part 2: on suicide

Humans are indeed created in the image of God. In us, God has planted the desire for eternity, and for true happiness–in other words, for God. The difficulty is that sin misdirects our desire and fools us into thinking that other things will satisfy us. Most of the stuff we see around us every day reinforces this false belief. Things cannot make us happy, no matter what the advertisements say.

We are also deceived in our self-image. That is, we are mistaken about who we are and what makes us good. The good that we are, and the good that we do comes from the Good itself: God. God created us in his image so that we might reflect it to one another and respect it in one another. This means, however, that we belong not only to ourselves, but to God and to our neighbors. So we are not meant to take our own lives in the same way that we are not meant to take the lives of others: they do not belong to us, to do with what we will.

But there is more. Choosing to live for the sake of bearing God’s image, when I am not sure I bear it clearly enough for anyone to make it out…is just not appealing. That’s when I think I ought to carry on because of the stuff that I do. If I am not around for my kids, for example, who will be? On a better day, I might even think about the theological work that I do. I should stick around; I might eventually do some good, when the dark fog lifts.

Wrong–for two reasons. First, the lifting of the dark fog is only ever temporary. Depression is a little bit like the weather. The sun may shine, but the rain is bound to return eventually. Second, and way more importantly, the good I might do, whether for my kids or for the world, is not what makes me significant. I tend to think that the meaning of my life is somehow bound up with what I can accomplish. (Nothing against accomplishments, here! They’re good.) It’s not true. God hasn’t put us in the world to do stuff, as if there were stuff he couldn’t get done on his own. The essential feature of human life is its relationship to God: to be loved by God, and to learn to love in return. That’s it.

Suicide might seem like the solution to the weary, grey, and lifeless burden of depression. After all, even if it does go away, the fog will return. Whatever happens after suicide, I’m guessing depression (as it’s related to  our way of being in the world in this life) isn’t going to be part of it. It’s hard to endure depression because it hurts, it slows me down, it makes me feel as if nothing I have done or will do justifies my existence on this planet. But what if my existence on this planet is already justified by God? What if I don’t have to do anything? What if God is like that teacher in Florida who compliments his students every day–if only I would come forward and listen?

Here’s what I have learned: self-respect is much, much more difficult than self-hatred. Hating yourself is easy: the whole world displays for us what we ought to be and do. And we fail. (At least I do–maybe some folks don’t.) So the natural response is to think, ‘I really ought to try harder. I could do better, couldn’t I?’ Then, when trying harder doesn’t do it, and I’m exhausted from the effort, I think, ‘Well, maybe I am just not good enough.’ Enter self-loathing. Self-respect, on the other hand, has to refuse the comparison. Self-respect has to be satisfied with what is truly my best effort and not reject it because it doesn’t produce the hoped-for results.

Maybe it’s good news, then, that self-hatred is sin. Not because now we can condemn it in one another–heavens, no! It’s good news because seeing this self-hating orientation as misdirection, as a turning away from God as well as an attack on self (an inward turning!), puts it in the light of grace. That doesn’t make it go away, but it does make fighting it part of the good fight of faith.

Deo gratias.

 

 

Thinking about Genesis 3 & 4

Over at thinking coram Deo, I reflected a bit on the first Mass reading, and beyond it. I reproduce it here, in case anyone’s interested.

Genesis 4: 1-8 (RSV)

Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, saying, “I have gotten[a] a man with the help of the Lord.” And again, she bore his brother Abel. Now Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground. In the course of time Cain brought to the Lord an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel brought of the firstlings of his flock and of their fat portions. And the Lord had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is couching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

Cain said to Abel his brother, “Let us go out to the field.”[b] And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.

*           *         *

This is going to be a bit wide of the mark, I fear–not really a commentary on the verses at hand. But the thing has been pressing on me for some time, and this passage from Genesis 4 (which continues for another 7 verses in the first reading for today) calls it immediately to mind. That is, we don’t usually interpret this tragic episode in relation to what precedes it in Genesis 3. Yes, it’s the beginning of sin, and it’s amazing how quickly a little stolen fruit leads to fratricide. But it also–I believe–should be read in light of Genesis 3: 16. 

To the woman he said,
“I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing;
    in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
    and he shall rule over you.”

My thinking about this one verse began several years ago on Christmas Eve. I was listening to the Advent Lessons & Carols service broadcast from King’s College, Cambridge, and noticed that in the reading of Genesis 3, this verse was omitted. Maybe it was just a mistake on the part of the reader, though I doubt it. At the time, I wondered. Surely it can’t have been left out because it is Not Nice. Maybe it was something to do with the institution of patriarchy–maybe we don’t want to think about the imbalance of power that generally obtains in relationships between men and women (which seems to have been confirmed over the weekend, if what I’ve heard about the newly-released film is true). 

Whatever the reason for the elision of verse 16 that year, I am glad for it. Although I never did come up with a satisfactory guess about the rationale for leaving it out, I did begin to think in a new way about the first part of the curse–the business about childbearing. Yes, it hurts. I can testify to that, having had four children (even had one without the epidural). But I don’t think that’s what this part of the verse is about. In the first place, the emotional pain of  pregnancy loss seems to me to be greater than the physical pain of labor. And then there are the things that go wrong: congenital defects of the heart or other organs, genetic disorders, infant deaths. About pregnancy loss or the death of an infant, I have no first-hand experience. But I know what it’s like to have something big go wrong–or, better, to have something very small go awry (one little extra chromosome) with global effects. The pain of childbearing is increased in a fallen world: things go wrong. 

Not for a few years did I realize (probably only as my children grew) that there was still more pain to be had in the bearing of children. Not only do they give us pain as they come into the world, they continue to cause pain (as well as joy, of course) as they grow and change. Not all of the heartbreak involved in raising children is quite as dramatic as the story of Cain and Abel. But there it is. Genesis doesn’t say much about how Eve’s birth experience is. We do,  however, hear about this tragedy. Having two sons myself, I can’t imagine anything much worse than one of them murdering the other in cold blood. The pain of childbearing is increased in a fallen world: we go wrong, and badly wrong.

For a while, I wanted to write a book about the pain of childbearing, broadened to include stories of pregnancy loss and more. The trouble was that there wasn’t really an “up” side to it. I’m looking again at a verse that’s not particularly encouraging to begin with, and saying, but really, it’s much worse than that. Hardly the makings of a best-seller, there. 

As always, though, there is much more to it than this thin slice of the story tells us. There are small hints in Genesis 3 and 4 that God will make it right: “the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skin, and he clothed them” (3: 21). And Eve has another son, Seth, whom she regards as being given to her by God (4: 25), and the writer notes that “At that time [people] began to call on the name of the Lord” (4:26).  In the midst of the pain, it is difficult to see how even this (whatever particular this is so vexing or agonizing) cannot fall outside of the delightful arrangement that is the work of the Wisdom of God (Wisdom 8: 1). Yet there is nothing, not even this terrible outworking of the curse, that can escape the truth: “in Him all things hold together.” All things. Most days I fall very short of believing that. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. 

Deo gratias.

Friday of the fourth week of Lent

The psalm for today is Psalm33[34], and I single out verse 18: 'The Lord is near to the brokenhearted; he saves all those who are crushed in spirit.' I suspect, and I say in the post, that there is also a preferential option for the brokenhearted. God pays attention to the tears shed in anguish and sorrow.
 
Thanks for reading!