This was a year of no bad passion plays; I couldn’t have stomached one.
I grip the cross at the base
Of the soft, yarn prayer rope
And pray a quick our father
Then move my fingers clumsily
To the first black knot
And breathe in, kyrie eleison imas,
And breathe out, christe eleison imas.
On the second black knot
I breathe in, Jesus Christ, Son of God
And breathe out, have mercy on me a sinner.
One phrase for each of ten knots
Alternating the corporate and the personal,
The Greek and the English, until
I feel the hard cold blue of the first plastic bead.
Another our father but more attentive this time.
I repeat this process nine more times
And I am back at the base of the cross
for the Apostle’s Creed.
By the third time around the knots and beads,
I put the rope down and crack the soft
Black, leather cover of the bible.
I pause, reflect, and pray:
Our Mother-Father-God, you are
In heaven. Your name is holy.
Your kingdom come, your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day your daily bread.
Forgive us, as we forgive others. Do not lead us into
Temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. Yours is
Forever and ever, even unto the ages of ages.
Since I was a sophomore in high school, I have frequently fancied myself as a nun, living in poverty, praying, working, and living alongside other people who are as consumed with spirituality as I am. I think about living a life of celibacy, cloistered away from the world. My family members used to say when they were asked what I was going to do with my life: other people dream about being movie stars, Corby dreams about being a nun. For now, it is a fantasy I will not realize. And I am settled with it, but I entertain these thoughts sometimes during the high holy days of the liturgical calendar, and frequently as I pray the prayer rope in my own small library.
I was thinking about becoming a nun today. It’s Lent, the highest holy season. Thanks to the Los Angeles Times and my insatiable desire to be correct in every argument I ever have with Becky, I know that the last time Lent came this early in the secular calendar was in 1913. I barely have the Christmas decorations down from celebrating Jesus’ birth, and it’s already time to start mourning his death! To mark this newsworthy occasion, I didn’t “give anything up for Lent” as goes the tradition. I am not consciously trying to look inwardly, or biblically, for some life changing insight. I am not disciplining my body in order to gain some great theological understanding. And I am not changing my habits in order to better glorify God for the next forty days, as every good Methodist should.
It feels strange, though, not wholeheartedly observing Lent, but I am one of those people who throws myself into things, allowing my whole body to be consumed by it, particularly if it is a spiritual discipline. For me, fasting by giving up coffee or chocolate, or something like that is like giving up something that I consider a privilege in the first place. Lent is traditionally about suffering, more specifically, Lent is reminding yourself daily of the suffering endured by Christ, and for me giving up chocolate, as many of my friends do, or giving up coffee, like I have done in the past, just reminds me that I am privileged enough to have it to begin with.
Recently I was processing the enduring effects of a time in my life that marks the ruination of my tolerance of my own lukewarm faith. I had an experience during seminary that changed me and affected my life in many ways. I am going to retell my experience here, but I want you to know that I am not telling it because I think I am enlightened or have reached the epitome of spiritual greatness, but I am telling it because as I look back, it seems to be a marker in the wrecking of my superficial faith; it also lingers in the back of my mind every day as I seek to live a somewhat normal life in a secular graduate program studying literature.
When I was in my second year of seminary, we were encouraged by our ethics professor to make a radical commitment for the observation of Lent. Mind you, I went to a Church of God seminary, so they take this time period in the liturgical calendar pretty seriously. In fact, they are one of a handful of denominations that practices the ritual of foot washing on Maundy Thursday. I combined their intensity of faith with my beliefs and decided to only drink liquids. I gave up solid food, eating only soup for lunch and dinner on Sundays. I told myself that I wasn’t going to tell anyone about my plans for two reasons: I didn’t want to answer all the questions, and I didn’t want to have a spiritual pissing contest with my peers. I wasn’t yearning to find out which one of us was more spiritually endowed. You see, it frequently happens that when you put several spiritual people in a group and challenge them to make commitments, they end up trying to out commit each other. I wasn’t up for the challenge; I just wanted to deepen my faith.
On Fat Tuesday, I ate as much as I could possibly stomach, which wasn’t much because I was nervous about this whole endeavor. I had read quite a bit about fasting and I learned that after a week without food, your body sort of shuts down and reintroducing food is a challenge. So I stuffed myself with all my favorite foods, and for once I understood why Mardi Gras was such a big deal. I was so full, I felt like I would never want to eat again anyway. On the next day, Ash Wednesday, we had a special chapel service in order to begin the forty-give or take a few-days of contemplation. We were marked with the ashes in the shape of a cross, and sent on our way to “seek Christ in a radical way” …for forty-days. I was ready to begin this discipline. I was eager to find out why so many Christians before me had found such healing and mystical fascination in the discipline of fasting. In my mind I supposed a quick, radical difference. I thought I was on the fast track to becoming like Mother Teresa, Thomas Merton, the desert fathers and mothers, or maybe even Saint John of the Cross.
The first days went of without a hitch.Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. I was hungry. In fact, by Sunday I was ravenous, so I wolfed down the soup I had made from scratch. I was also disappointed because no great transformation had taken place in my faith. Apparently, there is no fast track when it comes to spiritual growth. My spiritual transformation would be slow, tedious, and incomplete, always changing and growing from this experience, although I didn’t know it then. I feel as if I seek every day in some way to get back to that place where I was ten years ago.
The next week was horrible. Each day it felt as though my stomach was digesting a little bit more of itself, as it cramped and groaned and refluxed. By the next Sunday, though I was hungry, every little bit of soup that I ate left my body in a hurry, so I just drank more water and more fruit juice. By this time, I had learned that once you wean your body from food, only clear juices are digestible with ease and that tomato juice was not my friend, so I looked forward to forty days of apple juice, white grape juice, and cranberry juice, which I quickly found to be too acidic for my empty gut. Forty days of water, some soup, and white grape juice. After two weeks I had discovered that not only was I not hungry anymore, but I was also quite repulsed by food. The smell, the taste, the sight of food became overbearing for me. The Sunday soups were eaten with much force, and over a period of about an hour for each bowl.
One of the most challenging aspects of the fast was that during the forty days, I was a social outcast: forty days of self-imposed ostracism. One of the only things the Church of God has on the Methodists is a love of food. Every social event at seminary was a feast of some kind: the Indian missionary feast, the after chapel pizza feasts, the daily excursions to the coffee shop on the corner, the Friday brown bags. Because I couldn’t eat, I had to choose: Don’t go or be a spectacle. I was in a place spiritually that I didn’t really want to talk about not eating, because I felt as if I was doing something intensely private and personal and I didn’t want them to glorify that decision. And as I said before, sometimes seminary is like a little sacred cult with each student trying to outdo the other, so I went to events, but I simply said that I wasn’t hungry. That worked for the first couple of weeks, but then they got suspicious. The dark circles that were forming under my eyes, the odd dryness of my skin, and my lack of energy gave me away. They jumped to the logical conclusions: I was either sick or anorexic, so I admitted what I was doing. I explained my attempt to follow the examples set down by years of Christian ancestors.
Their discovery brought on the barrage of questions as I was suspecting, and I didn’t want to answer them: Yes, I felt like I was supposed to do this. No, I’m not hungry, in fact, that greasy hamburger smell on your breath kind of repulses me. Yes, I am using some online sources from a monastery to guide me. No, I didn’t talk to my doctor; I don’t consult my doctor about spiritual matters. No, I haven’t told my professors. Yes, I am exhausted and I am not really sure why I feel compelled to continue this madness. No, I don’t want to testify about it in chapel.
I wanted to ask them to leave me alone, but I was also mildly attracted to the feelings I got when they were curious. I wanted them to look at me. I wanted to challenge any one of them to the “I am more spiritual than you are” game. I wanted them to ask me how it felt to be so spiritual, but then I remembered that one of the points of fasting is humility. When you have no food, you are humbled in a way like no other, and I was immediately, to use the words of my favorite gospel writer, Mark, I was immediately conflicted about my lust for the spiritual accolades of my peers and the spiritual correction of my attitude about this discipline. Humility: humble pie tastes even worse when you’ve nothing else to eat for a while. I began to learn how starving people feel, and I sort of felt like Oliver Twist: I was on the outside of this huge feast looking in, and my nose was leaving smudges on the window. I could watch everyone else having fun, eating, and socializing, but I couldn’t join. If you ever wonder about the role of food in socialization in our culture, try not eating for a week. If you want to move yourself further outside, replace your food with reading Biblical texts.
By the time the end of Lent came around, I was in an incredibly tender place, susceptible to the slightest force of spiritual movement. Not eating coupled with intensely reading spiritual texts moves your mind in ways that are hard to describe. There was this feeling of being at one with something, sort of like the great cloud of witnesses that is talked about in Hebrews: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” I could literally sense this cloud of witnesses and I did not grow weary or lose heart. I am sure this example would make my seminary professors cringe, but it was like being high and dancing to a really long Grateful Dead song. I was with friends that I could see, and friends I couldn’t, only I can remember everything that happened in an acute way. It seemed as if everything moved slowly and had a soft, rhythmic cadence to it. I could literally feel the spirit of the earth, the spirit of the cloud of witnesses.
By Maundy Thursday, I was ready for Holy Week. I was ready to experience the passion of Christ with this raw spiritual nerve. I had never been part of the ritual of feet washing before, so I was shocked to see the usually barren room packed from end to end, with people sitting on the floor in the aisles. My naiveté coupled with my weird spiritual state made the experience more than I could bear. Now, I cry at movies and books, as long as I am in my own home; however, I despise crying in public, but when my friend Kimberly, who sat next to me, got up out of her chair, bent down and started washing my feet, I teared up and sobbed uncontrollably, nose running, gasping for breath, sobbing. Picture me as Tammy Faye Bakker, only for real. Churches keep boxes of Kleenex under the altar rails for times such as these, but I don’t think a Kleenex could have helped what was happening in me. In that moment, I wasn’t focused on the events at hand, my mind was looking forward to the next days and anticipating what was to come: the eventual death of Jesus on the cross. My knowledge of what was to come, the emotion of one of my best friend friends washing my smelly feet, and the physical emptiness of my body was too much to bear. This was a year of no bad passion plays; I couldn’t have stomached one.
Maundy Thursday progressed into Good Friday. I was in a grief-induced daze as during the service, the sanctuary was stripped of its adornments, symbolizing Jesus being stripped before being crucified. The room was left barren with only the naked cross hanging in the front of the church. Our red-carpeted sanctuary was especially eerie with no decoration, no gold adornment, no eternal flame, and no light except the spotlight on the hard, wooden cross. I was mesmerized by that cross, and then the gong sounded and the spotlight went out. Jesus was dead.
Friday turned into Saturday. Because I hadn’t eaten for forty days, I was already slightly delusional, I knew I would get to eat on Sunday, and I realized for the first time, that for one day the followers of Christ were without their best friend, the man they considered their teacher and confidante. As far as they were concerned he was dead. The emotional drudgery of that one day is so pressing that I wasn’t sure if I would come out on the other side. I haven’t experienced a feeling like that Saturday before or since. There was a great weight on my chest, which I can say was not my stomach caved against my ribs; the pressure was external. It seemed as if my heart would stop beating, my lungs would stop inflating. My body was wracked with hurt, guilt, sadness, and pain. I was heavy in the world. I spent the day inside, in my room, writing and drawing, trying to capture the gravity of it all. I tried in vain to record that feeling. I tried to keep myself from being jealous of the Christians who lives two-thousand years ago, because at least they had the consolation of preparing his body for burial. Some would say, I spent that Holy Saturday in a religious fervor. Holy Saturday was the last day of my status as a self-inflicted social outcast. It was the final step in my journey of this spiritual discipline. On Easter Sunday, I would begin to return my body to its happy physical state of nourishment.
I didn’t sleep much that Saturday night before. I am sure I looked like hell. I know I felt like I had just been there. I stepped up into the Lectern to read the Scripture from John:
Then the disciples went back to their homes, but Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus’ body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot. They asked her, “Woman, why are you crying?”
“They have taken my Lord away,” she said, “and I don’t know where they have put him.” At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. “Woman,” he said, “why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?” Thinking he was the gardener, she said, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.” Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). Jesus said, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: “I have seen the Lord!” And she told them that he had said these things to her.
While I read this Scripture, my whole world opened and I knew. I knew the holy mystery. I could feel it. I knew that my fasting was not in vain, because I had experienced the trial, death, and resurrection of my Christ.
It wasn’t until several years later that I realized how this experiment had impacted me, had changed my life, had wrecked me spiritually. I had sensed what it must be like to live in a convent, in community, with other people who are entrenched in the daily exercise of spiritual discipline. I didn’t know then that the forty days I spent fasting would shape who I would become ten years later as a graduate student at Ball State who still wrestles with spirituality on a daily basis. I reflect on the way my life could have been had I chosen that cloistered life, had I chosen to follow a celibate path, had I chosen a vow of poverty, work, and prayer. I struggle to apply what I know about myself through my spiritual life to what I read in every text, every situation, and every experience I have. I sometimes fail to see how what I am doing will effect the greater good, but I pause, I reflect, and I pray. And if you asked me, on most days, I am settled with my decisions.