catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 15 :: 2006.07.28 — 2006.09.08


What I learned during Lent

This past Lent, I gave up coffee and sweets, in lieu of a better alternative.  The priest at the Episcopal church I attended in college said the Lenten sacrifice should be more meaningful than doing without something we shouldn’t be using anyway; instead, we should think of Lent as the opportunity to take something on, in identification with Christ taking up the burden of the cross and making his long way to Calvary.  I made a few half-hearted stabs at coming up with something meaningful, but before long I decided even that was too much for me and just settled for giving up coffee and sweets.

Adding to the spiritual lethargy was what I failed to give up: since I’d given up coffee instead of caffeine, I’d be free to start my days with a couple of mugs of tea, and as I regularly drink half-caf coffee, I calculated my net caffeine consumption would actually increase.  Similarly, I reasoned I’d be well within the limits of my Lenten commitment if I supplemented the sabbatical from my nightly appointment with cookies with other snacks—nuts, dried fruits, peanut butter crackers—and I laid in a store of those.  I felt so conscious of my failure to dive into the true meaning of Lent, in fact, that I determined to forego my traditional practice of taking a vacation from Lent on Sundays, justified in church history by the belief that Sunday should be a day of celebration, not deprivation.  I’d be making a nominal sacrifice, but at least my approach to my half-hearted commitment would be strict.

A week into my Lenten experience, I started feeling—it’s hard to describe—different than I usually do.  I was going to bed too late and getting up too early, I thought, but getting more sleep didn’t help.  Neither did exercising more, or being more faithful about taking my vitamins.  No matter what I did, I felt drained, like the battery you know is going to cut out on you the next time you use your laptop/phone/camera.  This isn’t normal for me.  I’ve come to expect myself to be able to face anything, to draw on reserves of energy and good humor and common sense, to rise up to confront a crisis with clarity and zest.  And yet during Lent all of that felt like it had burned off—I woke up in the morning feeling powerless and unhappy, and I’d sit in a chair like a consumptive in a nineteenth century novel, trying to convince myself that once I got up and started moving, the sense of pointlessness, the feeling that most of the air had leaked out of my balloon, would just fall away.      

It wasn’t hard to see what all this added up to: what I’d always thought was my natural state was actually chemically induced, while this Lenten torpor was the real me, the remnant of self that was left when you took away the boost of sugar and caffeine.  On one level I was able to see the humor in it—the person who’d studiedly avoided addictive substances all his life gives up something commonplace and realizes he’s going through a kind of detox—but on another level I felt a quiet despair.  I wanted to be the person I’d always thought I was.  I wanted—I want—to keep on eating and drinking the way I always have, with no thought for the consequences to my body and soul.  I’d known that I made stupid, unrealistic choices when it came to eating, but Lent 2006 forced me to consider that this was, at heart, a spiritual matter: I’d allowed myself the illusion that my feelings and reactions reflected my values, when in all likelihood they were based on nothing more than diet and body chemistry.  If sugar and coffee gives me a sense of optimism and tranquility, what’s the difference between snacking on a handful of Oreos and ingesting a slice or two of that mushroom that’s been found to mimic the sensations of a religious experience?

I don’t mean to trivialize addiction by comparing my sweet tooth to somebody’s life-rending struggle with alcohol or crystal meth.  My friends who are recovering from addictions fill me with awe.  They are, as far as I can tell, without vanity or pretense: they’ll tell you what they’ve been driven by and what they’ve done and never try to make themselves look good.  If most of us had been through what they have, we’d still be addicted: the moments that woke them up would have passed us by, and we’d continue to trust our own abilities to think or lie or bribe or will ourselves out of our addictions, all of which would inevitably trap us even more securely.  In at least one respect, recovering from addiction resembles the Christian life: at some point, we have to realize that we can’t be our own saviors.  We’re the problem; the solution involves surrender.  Ultimately, all I learned during Lent, despite myself, is that there’s less to me than I thought.

On Easter Sunday, I brewed a strong pot of Sumatran coffee and ate candy, most of which was shaped like eggs: Reese’s peanut butter eggs, with a thicker peanut butter layer than the non-holiday version, so that part of the pleasure of eating them is sinking your teeth through the smooth chocolate robe and into the more solid, resistant center; Cadbury mini eggs, crackly sugar shells yielding a smooth milk chocolate that, underneath the surface sweetness, actually has a dark bite; and Cadbury caramel eggs, where the chocolate, as fine as it is, merely plays the foil to the caramel, smooth and gooey and tasting of cream.  The coffee tasted earthy and forceful and clean; it cut through the sweetness of the candy, clearing away the cloying residue before I took the next bite.  It was a pleasure to eat, and I felt grateful for each flavor and texture.  And yet at the same time I was mindful of the impact, more aware than I’d been before about the connection between the pleasures of food and the impact of the chemicals that make up those foods on my body and spirit, about the gap between how I feel and who I really am.  In the end, as I had anticipated, giving up coffee and sweets wasn’t that hard—the difficult part, which I didn’t anticipate, is shouldering what I learned during Lent about my love of ease and my capacity for self deception, day by day, and making choices, even the ones that strike me as small, that square with what I say I believe.

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