I doubt I have to explain Lent to many of you, but for those who don’t know, Lent is a season of the Christian calendar. It takes place in the 40 days (not including Sundays for Protestants) before Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week. The tradition is founded in the many references made to the number 40 in the Bible. From the 40 days and nights of the Great Flood, to the 40 years the Hebrews spent wandering the desert in search of the promised land, the teachings of the Old & New Testaments continually return to this number. Perhaps most importantly during Lent, we study the 40 days Jesus retreated to the desert where he was tempted by evil, emerging triumphant and poised to begin his life-saving ministry to all of God’s creation.
Lent today is a complicated thing. Some churches, like the Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and Eastern Catholic Church abstain from all animal products for the duration of the season. Other churches, like the Roman Catholic Church pursue a fast involving one large meal and two smaller “collations” (really a fancy word for light snacks) a day, intended to maintain one’s strength but not to satisfy hunger. For many, however, Lent has become a season of deprivation from a specific hunger. Some give up chocolate or potato chips. Others give up buying certain items or logging onto Facebook. More ambitious still, are those who choose to give up a social practice like apathy, racism, sexism, and more.
Last year, Pope Francis issued a call for all of us to fast from indifference. He said he “distrust[s] charity that costs nothing and does not hurt.” He called us to sacrifice our indifference at the altar God laid before us and open our eyes to a dark and dying world. Difficult, right?
My point is that fasting takes a multitude of forms. Even atheists will fast during Lent. Lent has become so vast and divergent that I have struggled to discern its purpose for many years. I still cannot remember who said it to me (probably my former pastor, Ann Held) or where, but a few years ago I heard explained we are called to fast from what separates us from God, the Father. As Christians, we are called to give up something truly difficult, not something trivial and inconsequential, in order to bring us back to God.
This year, I forgot that tenant. I fell into the trap of Lent as a diet. I started the season with the idea that I would give up processed sugars. I came up with a flimsy definition for what “processed” really meant and then imposed it on my caregiver-mom who does our grocery shopping. Sure, it’s been a bit of a struggle to keep myself from my traditional sweets, but mostly it’s been confusing and frustrating for my mom. How was this bringing me closer to God? Why would God call me to give this up? Then I realized something had been lost in translation.
Somewhere along the line (probably from many conflicting and inaccurate messages from my culture and society), I interpreted abstinence from food as holy. For many centuries, in many churches such abstinence is deified. It’s not uncommon for people to choose a food to give up for Lent. Yet what message did this send me throughout my life, especially as a young woman? I internalized, not just during Lent, the message that food, especially for girls, was bad. It did not nourish or sustain. It made you fat, slovenly, unworthy.
I am not alone. I have several friends who have developed eating disorders, myself included, from the divisive and damaging messages we all had engraved into our souls, even by the church. For years I struggled with bingeing, even into and after my diagnosis with lupus. Once I discovered I had lupus nephritis, I was put on a huge dose of prednisone for a long time. I gained more than 70 pounds in a year and maintained that weight throughout my battle to save my kidneys (and my life).
I struggled the entire time with a profound self-hatred. If I thought I was unworthy before because of my weight, what was I now? At my heaviest, I weighed in at 274 pounds. My body was covered in dark, painful stretch marks. I could no longer walk any distance without back pain and exhaustion. I developed an autonomic nervous system disorder that meant I was unable to control my sweating, breathing, or heart rate. I was living with a heart that pounded at 150 beats per minute. My sleep became erratic, and I developed sleep apnea. I was angry. How could my body betray me like this? First the lupus, then my kidneys, then a heart condition, then, then, then. I accumulated diagnoses during those three years like snow falls in Norway.
Needless to say, I felt cut off from the body of Christ, spiritually and physically. I could no longer attend church. I lost contact with most of my friends, and my (wonderful, loving, incredible) father was still struggling to come to terms himself with this savaged life I was now living. I felt unable to burden anyone with this painful severing from God because I thought I had already overburdened them with this terrifying disease. I fought for my faith, but felt it slipping away like the tide rushing back out to sea. Slowly, it ebbed from me completely. I refused to pray. I would snort derisively at mentions of God in my daily life. I was adrift.
Slowly, however, I decided to fight back. I read blogs and articles by body-positive activists and started to reclaim my own subconscious. I selected a handful of people who loved me. I mean really, really loved me. But it’s incredibly difficult to reclaim your self-image when you cannot reclaim control of your body, which I cannot.
I decided, however, to love my body anyway. I realized that my body had not betrayed me–it had carried me. Through all of my trials, each near-death experience, every painful procedure, it had done its job. It had kept me alive. My body was fighting the same thing I was, but I had abandoned it to struggle on its own. Perhaps some might argue that there is a flaw in my body that means it will attack its own tissue, but I prefer to think of it as something like depression where the mind is besieged by itself, without its permission and beyond its control. My body had not done this to me. Lupus did this.
So this Lent, instead of giving up “processed sugar” and depriving my body, hating it every time I cheat and eat something sweet, I have decided to fast from self-hatred. It was hatred of my body that initially separated me from God years ago, but God fought tooth and nail alongside this body. He waded through the storm, battled every enemy in order to sustain and protect the incredible gift He gave me back in 1991. This Lent, I refuse to look at myself in the mirror and criticize my rounded face or acne scars. I refuse to feel less than at the gym beside people who can run on treadmills or lift anything other than five pound weights. I will pat myself on the back for every minute this recovering body can spend working at physical therapy. I will touch my stretch marks lovingly, because they are a sign that I have fought an incredible battle and I won.