Asceticism and enjoyment

I just ate a piece of chocolate. It was good.

This evening, on and off, I was craving sweets and that craving started to center on the bar of chocolate that has been lurking on my kitchen counter for weeks now.

Quite some time ago, I made a conscious choice to minimize my consumption of refined sugar. As a result, I seldom crave it. But every now and then I get a taste for chocolate. And so I nibble away at this bar of chocolate, breaking off one square at a time.

Perhaps tonight’s craving was the result of a busier and more intensive work day than usual. Or maybe my body is low on some substance contained in chocolate. Who knows?

What is interesting about this, however, is that I found myself trying to resist the craving and not eat the chocolate. And then I stopped to consider this further. Why was I acting like I should not eat it?

Thankfully, I do not have any health conditions that the preclude the consumption of chocolate. I am blessed with a normal blood sugar, a lipid panel well within parameters, a healthy blood pressure and so on. I am not allergic to chocolate and I have determined that it does not trigger migraines in me as it does in some people.

The chocolate in question was 70% cocoa, meaning it was a dark chocolate – which purportedly has a number of health benefits.

The chocolate was also labeled “fair trade” chocolate. While labels are not always true, the promise is that a grower in a developing country was paid a fair price and that no slave labor was involved in its production.

This was socially just chocolate.

So what possible rationale could there be for resisting such a lovely treat?

When I stopped to consider this automatic reaction, I realized that it was fueled by wrong thinking. More specifically, by wrong thinking inculcated by my early religious training.

Some of you may be thinking, “What?! I grew up Catholic (or Orthodox) and no one ever told me that it was wrong to eat chocolate!”

And there may even be a few of you closet chocolate addicts that wish you had internalized such a value so that your struggle with this particular passion might be made easier.

But, of course, no one taught me this specifically. It was something else.

Allow me to explain.

+++

In my young adult days, I remember a friend showing me a poster with the photo of a rather stern schoolmarm bearing the caption, “If it feels good, don’t do it!”

And this, of course, was meant to be funny.

The poster reflected the sentiments of a generation of young people who had begun to question the mores of their culture, many of which had their roots in the Catholic (Christian) Church.

Okay, “question” is too mild a term. It would be more accurate to say that this generation growing up in the 1960’s and early 1970’s cast off the shackles of the abstinence-oriented teachings of the Church and culture.

The message of the poster was to suggest that we had been taught to equate pleasure with sin.

And the humor of the caption lie in an unspoken understanding that such an association was now to be considered absurd.

Against this background, my early values were formed, shaped and reshaped.

I received my earliest religious instruction in Catholic school and it was of the traditional sort:

“Who made you?” the Baltimore Catechism drilled. “God made me,” I rotely replied.

“Why did God make you?” it continued. “To know Him, love Him and serve Him in this world and be happy with Him in the next”.

Fascinating, isn’t it, that I remember the exact words, despite not having seen them in over 50 years?

I believe I was in third grade (or was it fourth?) when there started to be a significant emphasis on avoiding impure thoughts. Of course, I had no idea what an impure thought was. I just had to fight them because they were “an occasion of sin”.

Also during this period in my life, I encountered the Seven Deadly Sins. I have written elsewhere about the confusion this exposure engendered in my developing conscience.

It seemed that the most deadly of sins (as I interpreted them at that age) were behaviors that naturally evoked good feelings.

Some of them I couldn’t relate to at all. For example, I was too young to understand lust. Good little girls of that era hadn’t a clue about what sex was – unless, sadly, they had been abused.

But from what I could make out, gluttony was about eating too much. Though I never had a large appetite, I enjoyed food, especially sweets. When we could get away with it, my brother and I would eat a whole package of cookies on a Saturday morning while watching cartoons and the Little Rascals. What fun!

Pride was about feeling good about something I did well. I got good grades and some teachers thought I had talent in art. I liked the feeling I got when I brought home A’s. When someone admired my artwork, I really liked that feeling because my father was artistic. I loved my daddy and wanted to be like him.

Greed was about wanting things. I liked getting presents for my birthday and Christmas. The more the better!

Did you notice that how my “voice” changed as I started writing about my earliest experiences with the “deadly sins”?

The words and tone in my writing became those of the little child I was, delighting and taking pleasure in what felt good.

And these things that felt good – these were the worst sins of all.

No one had to say directly, “it’s wrong to feel pleasure”. The meaning was internalized and became part of the very fabric of my soul.

So much so, in fact, that it would be decades before I would even recognize that this unspoken belief was hidden beneath my more rationally held values.

+++

The times I grew up in were indeed turbulent, both in the culture around me and in my developing identity.

Who was I?

Would I be one of those who cast off the shackles of my repressive, guilt-inducing religion, as did so many young people of my generation?

Or would I remain with the faith of my family and my Church?

Would I continue my journey to know, love and serve God? Or would I become cynical and discount His existence?

Perhaps I would remake Him into a more “comfortable” God, one who accommodated my wants and weaknesses. Maybe the true God really didn’t mind if I felt pleasure…

Why, after all, would He give us so very many enjoyable experiences, only to say, “Don’t touch!”?

And so went the conflicts of my early years…

+++

I began this post by noting that my “automatic response” to resist the urge to eat chocolate was based on wrong thinking.

The wrong thinking involved is not only the distortion that equates pleasure with sin. It is perhaps something even more insidious than that.

And this is the notion that God delights in my self-deprivation, or worse, that He is pleased by my suffering.

This permutation is particularly dangerous because, if God is pleased by my suffering, how can I possibly imagine that He wants me to be happy?

Not only does this give rise to a false asceticism, i.e. one devoid of love, it also leads many to view God as cruel rather than loving.

Bad enough that He required His only Son to suffer and die. Now He wants the rest of us to suffer too?

Given the choice between suffering to please a sadistic God and trying to create one’s own happiness through life’s pleasures, it is not surprising that so many have opted to pursue the latter.

+++

Oh my. I have created quite a dilemma for myself here, haven’t I?

In my last post, I made a rather sound argument for asceticism, including fasting, as central in our struggle to follow Christ.

Yet in this post, I have made argument that depriving ourselves of enjoyment or causing ourselves suffering are not what our loving God asks of us.

How do I reconcile these two trains of thought?

Asceticism is about spiritual training the purpose of which is to help me grow in love.

And growing in love is not easy.

Because our ancestral sin implants in us a bias toward pleasing ourselves first and foremost, the innocent pleasures God bestowed upon us have been corrupted.

To truly love, we must struggle against this corruption. This struggle is called asceticism and Christ has led the way.

We are to follow Him – not just for a moment but with the totality of our lives.

Yet is there never a moment when I can let down my guard in this struggle? A moment in which I can say, “I’ve struggled enough for now. I think I’ll just kick back and enjoy myself for a while”?

The obsessive nature of this question should be evident.

Can I ever say, “Now I know well enough how to love. I don’t have to be watchful for temptation”? Certainly, I cannot.

Yet if I cannot say this, how can I allow myself to enjoy anything in this life? Of course, a bit of chocolate is of little import. But where then does one draw the line?

Besides the impossibly obsessive nature of this line of reasoning, it contains one vital flaw.

It bypasses perhaps the most central truth about our life in Christ.

When I become so wrapped up in trying to show my love for God, I lose my awareness of how much God has loved me.

When I’m preoccupied with trying to please God, it does not occur to me that God wants to please me.

The notions of asceticism, struggle and fasting too often raise specters of ordeals to be endured. Certainly they are not regarded as causes for joy.

But this is a false image based on a false asceticism.

For the struggle of love, when shared with Christ, is perhaps the most joyous experience a human being can have.

+++

I write slowly and so a couple of days have passed since the chocolate was consumed. Of course, there is still some on the kitchen counter but now is not the time for more.

I wonder if what I have written about asceticism and love make sense at all outside of my own head. Probably not.

But I want to share with you my experience of that evening of chocolate-eating. It was so profoundly beautiful, even if a bit fanciful, that I cannot keep it to myself.

It is a sort of vision of my life with Christ. Not a mystical vision, of course, just a story of sorts…

Sometimes it feels like we’re an old married couple, the Lord and I, though I suppose it sounds odd to say so.

It feels like we’ve been together forever, for better or for worse. (His better, naturally, my worse…)

I cannot say that I feel this way most of the time or even often. But it is one of my favorite ways to feel.

It is no longer about “You” and “me” in our relationship – it is a “we” or “us” that flows off the tongue without a second thought.

We sit in companionable silence.

“What shall we do this evening?” I ask. “Shall we write a bit? Or perhaps we might paint?”

Naturally, He reminds me that there are dishes to be done. I know that He is the head and I defer to His decisions. (Or at least I tell myself I will…)

Still, He is so sweet, always trying to please me, that often we end up doing something I want to do  –  and we get to the dishes later.

We have been together so long that He doesn’t have to ask what makes me happy. He knows to send butterflies and He knows just when to send them. He sees how I love them and He delights in my delight.

He has always spoiled me, I suppose. While I know deep within me what pleases Him, just as well as He knows what pleases me, He is patient when I am slow to act.

“Come on”, He cajoles, “Don’t be so afraid to give and to love. Let go. It’s fun – we’ll do it together.”

Naturally, His idea of “fun” is very different from the world’s. But He is right. Doing it together makes all the difference. 

And when I try to do something special for Him, some little sacrifice He hasn’t asked for, I end up feeling so happy that it almost feels like it shouldn’t count.

“I don’t think I suffered enough,” I confess to Him sheepishly.

He just laughs. “It’s not your suffering I want!” Then He explains most seriously. “It’s your love. It’s your mercy. That is what makes Me happy. And it pleases Me because it’s something we do together.”

I ponder a moment and know that His words are true. Whatever I’m doing, I am only happy when I am doing it with Him. It doesn’t matter if I’m working or playing, painting or doing dishes.

And the thought of having to do anything apart from Him terrifies me. 

“Please stay in my heart forever,” I plead. “Don’t ever leave me. And don’t ever let me leave You.”

I look up at Him with tears in my eyes and see that He is smiling…

+++

Yes, we enjoyed eating that chocolate, the Lord and I. And the real joy was experiencing it together.

Only one thing could have made our joy even greater. And that would be if you had been here with us. We would have broken off a piece for you too and all savored its sweetness together…

11 thoughts on “Asceticism and enjoyment

  1. albert

    Well, I was there — in our way, as we believe. I’m still there. I’m not good at conversation.but that doesn’t matter among friends. I like chocolate. Every now and then I feel at home. Here as well as there.

  2. John F Reeder

    This reminds me of the story of a priest in France who, while doing various chores in the church in the morning, observed an old peasant man who entered the church, sat down in front and looked at Christ on His Cross. Finally, the priest couldn’t restrain himself any longer and asked the man what he was doing while sitting quietly and looking at Christ. He replied, “I look at Him and He looks at me and we are happy.”

  3. mary Post author

    Thanks, John, for reading and reminding me of one of my favorite stories. I believe the priest was the Curé of Ars (known as St. John Vianney in the western Church).

    Interestingly, I first read this story in Met. Anthony Bloom’s book, “Beginning to Pray”. This was long before I had any real exposure to or interest in Orthodoxy as such. I just knew I liked that book and that story created a longing in me – a longing still within me decades later.

    (It is also a joyous occurrence when east and west cross paths with a truth so simple and profound.)

  4. albert

    I’ve been rereading, Mary. And sorting through things. Here’s one passages that got me thinning. (Lots more, but i’ll stick with is one for now.) – “when I try to do something special for Him, some little sacrifice He hasn’t asked for, I end up feeling so happy that it almost feels like it shouldn’t count.”

    I know it’s a “story” and not part of the preceding reflection, except indirectly, so the words come freely and it’s the “picture” that is of interest, and the tone, more than the idea(s) embedded there. Still, I wanted to ask if the words “sacrifice” and “count” are essential to a love relationship, in your view – or did those words pop up spontaneously.

    Im guessing that you don’t think that giving up something (sacrificing) is a more importent part of love –as most of us understand that concept — than doing something positive for the other person, so maybe you are using the term “sacrifice” in its word-history sense (making something holy or sacred) and not so much in its church-history and now current sense. I’m also guessing that you don’t think things ought to be weighed and tallied, so that one loving gesture can “count” more than another, or even that loving gestures are anticipated and assessed by the other person. But I hope you can see why this sentence lingered in my mind.

    In general the little story-vision helped me remember the passages in Matthew’s writings about how much of a personal interest and care God has for us. I don’t know why it is so easy to forget that, or maybe to believe it’s true.

    P. S. I got in the habit of analysing stories long ago. Don’t take my comments too seriously. They are simply a sign that I liked this enough to come back and think about it. Be inspired again too.

  5. mary Post author

    Hi Al,
    Thanks for this thoughtful collection of comments and questions. As you know, I love the opportunity to expound (on my writings or others’) because I learn so much in the process. I believe God teaches me through what I write – so a gentle push to consider more what it means is a very good thing.

    The story really is part of the preceding reflection, though it may be hard for me to say how…most obviously because they came to me at the same time and it became clear to me that they were to be posted together.

    In one sense, I suppose, the story is a vision of my spiritual growth – both what has occurred since childhood and what still needs to occur. My spiritually immature understanding that I must suffer in order to “please” Him, stands in stark contrast to His boundless generosity toward me. In this passage, I am showing that I still don’t really understand what “sacrifice” means.

    In previous posts, I have written of the importance of sacrifice to love – and I fully believe this to be true. Without sacrifice, “I love you” describes a temporary emotional state, at best. At worst, it constitutes a mere collection of words used to get what we want from God or another.

    So what then is sacrifice? (Of course, as one who doesn’t really understand sacrifice, my answer here cannot be fully trusted.) But I will look to what God has revealed.

    In the fullest sense of the word, it involves a true giving up – of myself and everything that is important to me. I hold nothing back for myself. Yet the etymology you cited (“to make sacred or holy”) is not be ignored – for these meanings are not mutually exclusive.

    If I give up self, possessions or pleasure outside of the sacred, i.e. separating this act from a life lived with and in Christ, it becomes nothing. Well, worse than nothing, because it is a sinful effort to make myself holy (instead of allowing Him to make me holy) and to prove my holiness to others or to God (more pride – yuck).

    Perhaps the image of the Lord and I as an old married couple came to mind because it portrays a life together, giving up self to the other in good times and bad. (He obviously gave up far more than me, but He is teaching me what it means.) Hence, sacrifice certainly may involve pain and suffering but, in the context of love and holiness, it also involves a joyous sharing – because I am living through it all with the Spouse of my soul.

    Looked at concretely, the immature understanding of sacrifice is, “I should not eat the chocolate”, i.e. I should forego this pleasure because it pleases God for me to do so.

    In a more mature understanding, I may eat the chocolate (at least sometimes) but I am giving up something by sharing it. Had all of the people who read this post actually been here, I wouldn’t have any chocolate left now. I might have even gotten a smaller piece! 😦

    Yet in His love, this bit of “sacrifice” does not define itself by the degree of suffering experienced. I might have suffered “for a time” by sharing my chocolate – but it would have been totally worth it to enjoy the sweetness together. 🙂

    I don’t know if this answers your question, but I enjoyed writing it.

  6. Pingback: If the Lord does not build a house… – O Holy Earth

  7. albert

    Yep, good answers. No more questions here. The sweetness of sharing, that is indeed a positive way to describe sacrifice. I’ll stick with that. For now.

    When it comes time for involuntary sacrifice (illness, loss, and all the “shocks that flesh is heir to”), I won’t expect loved ones, God most of all, to share them, because they can’t, and it wouldn’t be fair anyway (you take some of my suffering so it might feel “sweet” in the sense of a little less painful for me). I’ll ask God for help, iin whatever form He thinks best..

    As far as laying down ones life for a friend, that’s love all right, but how to get there? A parent maybe (including God), but the rest of us. . . .we’d probably have to depend on God. I’ve not been tested yet, but I’m trying to keep praying.

  8. mary Post author

    Hi Al,
    I don’t know if you meant to, but you spurred some more expounding on my part!

    I do not believe there is such a thing as “involuntary sacrifice”, though I think I know what you mean. Part of the message of this post is that suffering and sacrifice are not synonymous. We can suffer without sacrificing and we can sacrifice without suffering.

    Let’s say some involuntary misfortune befalls me, e.g. I become ill or someone I love dies. I am likely to “suffer” as a result, i.e. “experience distress”. That suffering, by itself, does not have any spiritual significance. Something may have been taken from me but that doesn’t mean I have given up anything of myself. I may simply be miserable. This is suffering without sacrifice.

    Now suppose once this misfortune befalls me, I bring my suffering to our Savior and say, “Take me! Unite me to You on the cross, that my suffering may be transformed and become a prayer, a gift for others! Do with me whatever you will…” This is suffering with sacrifice and is of great spiritual value.

    What about sacrifice without suffering? “Sharing my chocolate” may be an example of this, in a sense.The joy of sharing so overshadows the bit of hardship involved that I cannot really say there is any distress (suffering). Of course, there are much greater and more meaningful examples of this sort of experience.

    St. Ignatius of Antioch, in a letter shortly before his martyrdom, begged those who loved him to not try to stop him from being thrown to the wild beasts, so much did he want to give himself completely to Christ. It has been said that some of the saints so martyred did not even feel pain or know they had been bitten, so absorbed were they in prayerful surrender to God.

    Perhaps an example we can better relate to is in the life of St. Thérèse of Lisieux. Her “little way” was an offering of everything to her divine Spouse out of love, every little irritation, inconvenience or hurt. Toward the end of her short life, she wrote that it was no longer possible for her to suffer (even though she was dying of tuberculosis) because she so welcomed every opportunity to give Him even more.

    Of course, these examples of “sacrificing without suffering” indicate a very high level of sanctity. One I doubt I will ever experience – unless God were to make some extraordinary changes in me by means of His grace.

    But it is good for me to understand the process and the possibility. Perhaps I can at least learn to share my chocolate.

  9. Christina Chase

    A friend in church just quoted a Saint (Saint Augustine maybe?) for me today:
    “Love God and do as you please.”

    I was delighted in the timing of this as I read your post. It sounds like wrong Christian thinking at first,like something that the If-It-Feels-Good-Do-It crowd could get behind. But it’s actually very profound and, I think, akin to what you are saying. For, if God is first and we truly love Him, then what pleases us will be the very things that please Him. We won’t spend the weekends getting drunk and rowdy because this will not bring us pleasure – because, truly loving God, we start seeing everything through God’s eyes.

    Like in your story!

    We share our lives with God Who gives everything to us. I’ve been trying to be more aware of this lately, entering into conversation with God throughout the day. Prayers don’t have to be formal and austere. God created wildflowers: if we live like those blossoms, with our eyes on the light, letting the light fill us, then we are beautiful and delightful to God– and to one another.

    Your post and subsequent comments give me so much food for thought, in heart and mind!!! I could go on and on… Thank you! Thank you for sharing your chocolate.

    Pax Christi
    Christina

  10. mary Post author

    I always love it when someone takes something I wrote and draws deeper meaning out of it! Thanks, Christina, for doing just that. Now I have much to ponder – again, still…

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