“Be humble towards God and gentle with your neighbor. Judge and accuse no one but yourself, and ever excuse others. Speak of God always to praise and glorify Him, speak of your neighbor only with respect – do not speak of yourself at all, either well or ill.”
~ St. Margaret Mary Alacoque
Did you know that the origin of the word “humility” comes from the Latin word for earth? As in dirt. Ground. Humilis… humilitas… to be close to the ground. To know one’s place. To be firmly rooted in a reality of self. In preparation for a blog post that I was intending to write, I stumbled upon the above quote by St. Margaret Mary Alacoque, the patroness of my childhood parish. After reading her words, I abandoned my mental outlines. Do I know the truth about my weaknesses and appreciate the source and limitations of my strengths? Do I possess a healthy understanding of my nothingness? Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It would seem that those questions are better meditated upon in private. Thus, instead of my typical soul-searching post, I leave you to reflect on her advice for yourself. Before I go, so that we all might have a little something to smile about today, here is one final pearl of wisdom.
“Humility is like underwear; essential, but indecent if it shows.”
“What are you doing for Lent this year?” my pastor queried the few dozen of us who turned out for the earliest service on the morning of Ash Wednesday before the start of another typical work day. It was a rhetorical question. He promptly continued, “If you’re like me, perhaps people asking you that a lot. The answer I give is… ‘Not very much!’” My ears perked, and I leaned slightly forward on the hard, wooden pew. “We don’t do anything,” he emphasized. “It is God who does the work, when we return to that still, quiet place in our hearts.” His message was one of simplicity, surrender, and trust. In under five minutes, he reminded me that my weaknesses and imperfections were inherently human. If I wasn’t a sinner, then I wouldn’t need a savior. Though the standard of avoiding all evils and performing every possible good was set forth for me, I was realistically called to do my best, to quickly admit my faults and my mistakes, and to leave the rest to Him. It was probably the message that I most needed to hear.
In the days before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the Christian Lenten season, I didn’t give much serious consideration to the changes that might be helpful in my life. On Tuesday evening, I was journaling about the busyness of my schedule and my longing for a more peaceful, less demanding existence. “I already know that I am good at self-denial,” I wrote. “I know very well how to punish and restrict myself.” I chewed slightly on the inside of my cheek, deep in thought. “Is self-flagellation really what Lent is about?” I wondered.
As a person in recovery from an eating disorder, my medical history precludes me from the requirement to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. If the purpose of Lent is to refocus on what matters the most, then refraining from this hyper-attention to food is actually therapeutic in my particular case. Instead, I find it helpful to reduce other less-than-healthy attachments. Last year, fasting from television provided me with more time for quiet reflection and contemplative meditation. Unplugging the TV eliminated a portion of the daily background noise, reduced my distractions, and minimized my exposure to those overt and subtle cultural messages appearing in entertainment, news, and advertising, with their negative conscious and subconscious effects. Yet, when Lent ended, all the shows that I missed were waiting for me on my DVR, and whatever gains I made in the cultivation of stillness slipped away. With the arrival of another intentional season of austerity, I welcomed the opportunity to abstain from television again and optimistically looked forward to growing more comfortable with both the quiet itself and all the difficult thoughts and emotions residing just under the surface of my occupied mind.
Thus decided, I confronted a confusing tangle of additional questions about the optimal Lenten practice. Should I also give up listening to Podcasts? At times, those could be a distraction, and I often used them to drown out the thoughts that sprang from fatigue when I was feeling overwhelmed. Someone raised the idea of fasting from sleep. Fortunately, I quickly dismissed this exercise as counter-productive to my own mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical health. Why would I intentionally adopt a habit that would make it more difficult for me to make wise-minded decisions and to treat other people with compassion? “On the contrary,” I thought, “if I want to be a better person, I ought to commit to getting regular sleep!” Perhaps, I would benefit from letting go of all the things left unfinished at the end of the day in order to prioritize sleep. In that way, I would be forced to accept my own limitations, and I would (hopefully) increase in balance of mind, body, and spirit.
With simplicity in mind, I concluded that breaking up with my TV was the best place to start, and I resolved to dedicate my energy to prayerful reflection and contemplation. I further decided that there was something to the idea of caring for my physical needs in order to reduce my reactivity and impulsivity as I carried on through each day. Being honest with myself, I admitted that I was often so busy or preoccupied that I ignored or suppressed my bodily needs until the signals they triggered in my brain clanged so loudly that I absolutely couldn’t postpone pausing for lunch, sipping some water, or breaking for the bathroom any longer. If I treated my body more gently, maybe my mind would follow, and as my thoughts became gentler, I might be more considerate of my body’s needs and limitations. Ultimately, I hoped I would be able to respond more mindfully, compassionately, and wholeheartedly to the surging and fading activity of daily life. Yet, I acknowledged that even my best efforts would inevitably fall short of my idealized notions. And that was ok.
In all my years of Lents, I never meditated on the difference between penitence and punishment. The punishment bit was always the emphasis for me. Even over the past few years, when I was in recovery and able to recognize the fullness of God’s merciful love, I was still stuck in a very literal interpretation of expressing “sorrow for my sins.” I acknowledged that I was forgiven and that there was reason for abundant joy in the superabundance of God’s grace, but I thought that a “season of repentance” was meant to be spent feeling badly for my faults. Then, I stumbled upon another fortuitous message that seemed to be precisely what was most needed to help me along my path. What I realized was that remaining fixated on my previous failings was an obstacle to my mental and spiritual development. If I truly trusted in the infinite capacity of God’s forgiveness, and I fully believed that He willed my ultimate good, how could I also hold that He desired for me to dwell in sadness for wrongs he already pardoned? Remaining in a cheerless gloom didn’t improve my ability to love myself or my neighbors. Could it possibly be OK to be happy during this penitential season? The very notion struck me as counterintuitive, but how could I respond any differently in the face of such an unimaginable gift?
My understanding of myself and my faith is continuing to expand. I am nurturing a refreshed hopefulness as I notice changes over just these few, short days. Wherever this journey continues from here, I am holding onto a point made by a priest on a podcast that I recently listened to (good thing that I didn’t give them up!) … We’re not bad, we’re just broken; and God wants to heal our brokenness. This Lent, I am inviting Him in. Or, at least, I’m going to try. It is a desert time – a time for prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, for self-sacrifice and simplicity. Yet, even in the desert, there is beauty and life.
At some point tomorrow, I will find myself at mass for Ash Wednesday, to mark the beginning of the Lenten season. I am telling myself that I will attend the morning service at 7 am, but being realistic, I know that making it to my office by 8 o’clock on a daily basis is a struggle. Fortunately, there is another service in the evening. I’m looking forward to this Lent with a great deal of eagerness and anticipation. Does that seem strange, especially for someone with an eating disorder? After all, Lent is a penitential season, meaning that it is a season of repentance. We listen to readings about fasting, weeping, and mourning for our sins, about our need to turn to God for mercy, and then we receive a word of caution to guard against hypocrisy, self-aggrandizement, and self-pity. As the ashes are distributed, we hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” (Or, alternatively, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”) Why would I be looking forward to Lent with joy?
To be quite honest, until last year, Lent was a season of perfect misery and torture for me. In case I needed any external reminders of how imperfect, broken, fallen, wicked, miserable, and wretched I was, the Church dedicated 40 days to this theme. Throughout the whole year, I did a well enough job of berating myself and denying my worth and value, convinced there was no hope of ever changing. During Lent, the self-shaming and self-hating escalated astronomically. My unhealthy Lenten metamorphosis was partly due to the disordered core beliefs at the center of my destructive personality and partly due to my untreated depression. It was facilitated by some fundamental misunderstandings and misinterpretations of the philosophy, tradition, and teachings of the Catholic Church. All of these factors intertwined with one another, shaping my view of myself, my life, the world, my faith, and God into some sort of creepy, hall-of-mirrors distortion.
Until last year, Lent was my God-imposed diet. As I was growing up, my family made the same Lenten sacrifices every year. No eating between meals, no chocolate, and no meat on Fridays. The reason that it followed so closely after Christmas was as much about making up for eating too many peanut butter blossoms and toffee crunch squares as it was about reorienting toward God. The Church only required fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The Catholic definition of a fast was more lenient than one might expect, and allowed for two small meals and one larger meal during the course of the day. The idea was not to restrict food in an unhealthy way, but to introduce a little inconvenience into life for a short time so as to remember that one does not live on bread alone.* Abstinence from meat was called for on Ash Wednesday and each Friday of the season. These “minimal” obligations were too lax for my parents, though, who thought the Church was going soft. To demonstrate real faith required daily fasting. By the time we ate dinner at 7:30 or 8 o’clock at night, I would be starving, especially once I was in high school and was playing varsity tennis in the afternoons. Those nights were when I engaged in some of my earliest binges. Yet, the rules were absolute. When I moved out on my own, I became even more rigid and strict with myself, believing that this proved my worthiness and faithfulness. With each passing year, the anxiety, desperation, and shame that I felt as I fell short of my goals again and again deepened. As I intensified my self-deprivation, my mental health tanked. The last two or three years before my eating disorder was diagnosed and treated were the worst. By Easter, invariably, I was binging out of control and praying for death to bring an end to my suffering.
There was no single “Aha!” moment when it suddenly dawned on me that Lent was a spiritual gift. As I plugged away at my practice of cognitive and dialectical behavioral therapy skills, my self-view began to slowly, ever so slightly, shift. Inch by hesitant, halting inch, my core beliefs started to change. My relationship with God radically altered. The instant that I finally understood, deep in my heart, that I could be loved and forgiven by God in my flawed and imperfect state, before I fixed anything about myself, was a defining moment in the course of my eating disorder recovery. I became curious about the real traditions and teachings of the faith in which I was raised. I started to read voraciously. C. S. Lewis, Rev. Robert Barron, and Mother Teresa. I started asking questions of actual Biblical scholars. It turned out that just about everything I thought I knew was wrong. A humbling universe of love, mystery, wonder, forgiveness, mercy, and beauty opened before me. It was a place in which it was safe to be uncertain. In fact, uncertainty was a requirement. It was a place where imperfection was the expectation. I wanted more.
What I am learning about Lent is that it is a time for centering. It is, indeed, a time for penitence, but not in my old way of understanding. It is a summons to remember our flaws and to realize that we are not able to overcome them on our own. We are asked to turn our shortcomings over to our merciful God, trusting that he forgives us completely and is always helping us to do better. It is a reminder that we are not supposed to be perfect or self-sufficient EVER. The focus of Lent is prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, but the definitions of these concepts are not necessarily what you find when you flip through a copy Merriam-Webster’s. The Lenten “fast” is an invitation to let go of those worldly habits or material goods that distract a person from a life devoted to God. A life devoted to God is a life devoted to LOVE, because LOVE is what God IS. Thus, we are reminded to LOVE, not only God, but each other and… wait for it… ourselves. For six short weeks, we are asked to let go of something that diminishes our capacity to known God and to love, or something that distracts us from praying and from loving. This Lent, rather than altering my eating (fasting is not required or recommended for people with medical needs, and my ED recovery is the priority), I am giving up television. Call it an experiment. I am hoping that I will free up some time for those practices that enliven and enrich my soul, like writing, reading, and just sitting quietly in contemplation. Oh, contemplation. The stillness and silence. It’s hard for me to slow down, and for 40 days, I will be receiving focused reminders about the importance of pausing for quiet reflection. Finally, almsgiving. There is no connection quite like the one forged through a true act of loving service. Pope Francis declared 2016 the Jubilee Year of Mercy. In this year of mercy, I want to open my heart to others and stretch myself to be vulnerable and generous, while exploring boundary-setting, which is an ongoing challenge for me.
So, there’s the plan. Set my heart on God, my center. Search him out wherever I can. Examine the parts of my life that lead me away from him. Work on acknowledging that yes, I am imperfect, just like everyone else. Practice receiving God’s perfect love and accepting his tender mercy… meaning I must forgive myself, too. Be open to offering love freely, however, wherever, and whenever I am called.
A brief note…
* Even though I am medically exempted from fasting, I still struggle to come to terms with the rationalizations and justifications used to endorse this spiritual practice. If you are reading this and are interested in why the church promotes fasting, you can learn more about it here. Fasting is NOT recommended for anyone with a medical condition that would be impacted by keeping a fast, which includes anyone who struggles with disordered eating.