- At The Desert Retreat House -
In many parts of the world it’s Mardi Gras season – carnivals and wild parties, lots of eating, and binge-drinking. The celebration of Mardi Gras goes back at least to the Middle Ages – in the days leading up to the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday, people would do everything they possibly could to have fun and enjoy themselves because when Lent arrived the discipline and drudgery began, so “eat drink and be merry” now, because when Lent arrives you will be expected to deny yourselves, discipline your bodies, abstain from the food you like-- party-time is over.
Growing up as a boy in a Christian household we were always expected to “give something up” for Lent. In the days before Ash Wednesday my parents and teachers would always ask me to account for what it was that I was planning to “give up.” In my case it was usually candy or soda, many adults gave up drinking alcohol, we all refrained from eating meat. The underlying message in doing all this was that somehow the body is bad and the more you punish the body the more pleasing it will be to “God”- and Lent was a time for pleasing “God.”
As a boy, I actually remember wondering why it was that “God” would be happy when we punished our bodies since “God” was the one who supposedly made our bodies?
All these many years later I don’t think a spiritual journey of any kind ever calls us to punish our bodies but rather to integrate them into our spiritual lives. If anything, Lent is a time to celebrate our bodies, to cherish and relish them, to focus on ways in which we might become healthier in body so that we might be healthier in mind and spirit, because it’s all interrelated.
The Buddha taught his disciples:
To keep the body in good health is a duty,
otherwise we shall not be able to keep our minds strong and clear.
The English word for holiness comes from the same root word as the word for wholeness, and the words for saint and sanctity come from the same root word for sanity and health. Our ancient ancestors understood that health of mind and spirit is dynamically interrelated to health of body. In a very real sense all spiritual disciplines stem from a Practice of Wholeness – eating healthy food and exercising are spiritual disciplines equal in importance to meditating or praying or going to church.
A few months ago an op-ed piece in the New York Times had this to say about the relationship between body, mind and spirit:
The body has a spiritual essence.
Humans don’t just live and pass along genes,
they paint, make ethical judgments,
savor the beauty of a sunset and experience the transcendent.
The body is material but it is more than that,
it is spiritualized matter.
The upcoming season of Lent may be a good time for anyone of us, believers and non believers alike, to practice wholeness in our lives - to concentrate on growing healthier bodies so that we might have healthier minds and spirits.
This may indeed be a good time to refrain from too much alcohol or to stop eating harmful food or too much food. Maybe it’s a good time to abstain from candy or soda, it may even be a good time for “fasting” because fasting can be a powerful tool to help the mind and spirit be more alive.
Whatever I decide to “do for Lent,” it won’t be a way of punishing my body, it will be a way to honor it.