Monday, January 10, 2011

A spiritual lesson from a re-reformed party girl

When teaching about practicing the spiritual disciplines, one of which is fasting, I always feel it necessary to point out that such practice can easily lead to a kind of non-clinical neurosis. A week or so into the New Year, as our resolutions start to fade, seems like a good time to write about not overburdening ourselves with good intentions. An article by British journalist Laura Topham about her decision to quit drinking on New Year’s 2008, illustrates my point well. Prior to her quitting drinking Topham was a hard-partying young woman who wrote a column on single life in London. According to her own reckoning, on an average night out she consumed "several glasses of wine, a couple of cocktails, a few gin and tonics and sometimes shots of Jagermeister." A quiet evening meant she only drank "half a bottle of wine."

For the whole year of 2007 she knew she had to do something about how much she was drinking as she was starting to experience the skin of her face throbbing after drinking, ever worse hangovers and a weakened immune system that often required her stay in bed sick. At one point, her doctor diagnosed her with tonsillitis and informed her that she would either have to stop drinking or have her tonsils removed and without hesitation she opted for the tonsillectomy. The trouble was that because of her alcohol consumption she was never in the physical shape she needed to be in order to have the surgery. As a result, on New Year’s 2008, she started what was intended to be a detox lasting a few weeks, meaning that she was going to stop drinking long enough to get it all out of her system and then resume consumption on a more moderate scale. Two weeks turned into six months and then into two years.

During her years of not drinking she experienced three things: being socially ostracized, negative peer pressure not only to drink, but to drink to excess and a lot of negative internal pressure. It is the last of these that demonstrates my point because the first two are no reasons either to start or resume drinking. Because she came to view alcohol consumption as such a negative thing, whenever she gave in and had a drink, a single glass of wine or a gin and tonic, which she imbibed because of peer pressure, she describes hating herself the next day. "In hindsight," she recalls, getting to the crux of the matter, her self-directed anger was not about having a drink, "but about being weak." Her self-berating after having a drink resulted in her feeling "like a failure for a week, for a month – for as long as it took till a prolonged period of teetotalism prevailed." Eventually, she simply stopped going out so as not to "be exposed to alcohol."

Commenting on her behavior, a psychologist observed that when "we embark on controlling behavior, that obsession becomes stronger and stronger so life becomes less balanced," which results in the obsession growing. As a result "[a]nxiety increases and the obsession gets so big" and you "become set on perfection." In other words, it ceases to be about the initial problem.

Of course, I am not glorifying alcohol use, or encouraging anyone to drink, least of all those who are alcoholics, meaning people who, once they start drinking, are unable to stop and/or control how much they consume. I am merely using Ms. Topham’s experience to dramatically demonstrate the point with which I began the post. In fact, during the period she did not drink she vigorously researched "the affects of alcohol and read up on untimely deaths from liver cirrhosis." She informed herself about the other health risks posed by alcohol usage, including "lost brain cells, premature ageing, increased cancer risk," etc. Indeed, she "came to consider booze as a dangerous toxin and addictive drug," which it is for many and for anyone who drinks to excess.


The tie in with the spiritual discipline of fasting, about which I alluded to in my post last Tuesday, or even the spiritual discipline of prayer, comes with making the practice of these disciplines ends in themselves and not means to the end of opening yourself up to God. By making our practice of the spiritual disciplines ends- -in- themselves, I refer to a subtle turn that happens (the danger of which constitutes the most eloquent argument of the need we have for a spiritual director), which results in thinking that we make ourselves perfect by doing these things. A good example is a renewed determination to pray or to read Scripture every day, the kind of resolution we make around the New Year. Let’s say that you successfully practice lectio divina with the daily Gospel reading for the first five days in a row, then, on day six, for whatever reason, you don’t do it. Your response to this is a good gauge about your attitude towards why you are practicing lectio every day. The reasonable thing to do would just be to say "I’ll pick it up again tomorrow" and not give it another thought until tomorrow when the time you have set aside rolls around. After all, you have not committed a sin, either mortal or venial! But what very often occurs is we think "Well, I’ve blown it" and we just let it go, meaning we stop, we’re done, we can’t do it perfectly and so we won’t do it all, we’ve let both our self and God down.

Fasting in the Eastern Christian manner, with which Western Christians were formerly more in sync, is a good discipline to develop a sense of spiritual balance precisely because it is so challenging, especially for Christians living in today’s West. It is because fasting in this way is so demanding that you are likely "fail" at some point in your efforts, especially during the prolonged Nativity Fast (the Eastern Christian version of Advent) and the Lenten fast. The traditional Christian discipline of fasting, which consists mostly of not eating as much and abstaining from certain foods, usually meat of any kind and animal products, as well as alcohol, is best described as tee totaling veganism, can easily become what Eamon Duffy described "as nothing more than the dead hand of the past," something we do because we must even though we really don’t understand why. What concerns me more are those who, like me, know the whys and wherefores of practicing these disciplines and freely endeavor to incorporate them into our lives.

So, how we learn to practice these disciplines is very important. The website of the Byzantine Catholic parish of Our Lady of Fatima in San Francisco, which is an outstanding resource on these matters, begins the pages dedicated to fasting by reminding us that "[t]he least important (but most visible) aspect of this fasting is a change in the quantity and quality of food: we eat one meal a day, with no animal products" before going on to state that "[t]he object of fasting is not simply self-discipline, it is that turning of the soul to God, the re-shaping of the will, that the Greeks call Metanoia (usually translated into English as 'repentance'). If one's health allows one to observe the fast with regard to food, one should feel the need to do the best that one can, but all should fast of the spirit. In the words of St. John Chrysostom the fast is of no advantage to us unless it brings about our spiritual renewal" (underlining and emboldened emphasis mine).

Discussing the importance of the Lenten Fast we are warned of two opposite dangers "phariseeism" and "laxity":
"the temptation is to imagine that a perfect obedience to the fasting guidelines is an end in itself, and can save us. This is wrong. No one and nothing saves us except God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We dispose ourselves to divinization through our ascesis and other practices, but theosis is a free gift of God… If our health, work, energy levels, economics etc. demand some concessions in fasting and abstinence, so be it. On the other hand, the reaction when one realizes that he or she cannot keep the fast perfectly is often to give up all-together: 'What's the use? I can't avoid some (whatever: meat, tuna, cheese, etc.) during Lent. I might as well just quit now'… As the Western Christian writer G.K. Chesterton once quipped: 'Anything worth doing, is worth doing poorly.'"
In a weird twist, the very practices through which we seek liberation can become ways of oppressing ourselves and negatively judging others.

The danger I am addressing in this post is obviously "phariseeism," but worries about phariseeism easily turn into excuses for laxity. It seems to me the case that many Roman Catholics missed the authentic of spirit of Vatican II with regard to the reform of our corporate practice of fasting and abstinence, which was not to do away with these practices, but that by no longer being compelled to observe them on pain of sin we would embrace what Duffy describes as "life-giving… observances" freely in the confidence that these time-tested disciplines would bear fruit in our lives. A quote I have used twice before here on Καθολικός διάκονος by James Kushiner, who is an Orthodox Christian, sums all of this up very well: "What the discipline is meant to do is to help you get yourself, your ego, out of the way so you are open to His grace," or, as the Lord reassured St. Paul as he struggled with what he described as "[a] thorn given [him] in the flesh"- "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness" (2 Cor. 12:7-9).

2 comments:

  1. You're welcome, Dan. For those who of us who endeavor to practice the spiritual disciplines, we need to reminders, corrections, and more than a little encouragement. So, I hope you and maybe a few others found this helpful.

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