Mormonism has a really interesting ritual - every month, usually on the first sunday of that month, they encourage all able-bodied member to engage in a fast - no food or water for 24 hours. This is to be accompanied by much prayer and then taking the money you would have normally spent on the food during that time and donating it back to the church, which was then distributed among the needier members of the congregation.
I remember as a kid I hated fast sundays.
I've been thinking back on those lately, about how a bit of asceticism can be good for the soul, cleansing for both mind and body. I'm not talking about the self-flagellation or anything, I'm talking more about being conscious of what a person truly needs to be alive. And how, by removing yourself for a time from those things that we often take for granted, you come closer to a sense of your connection and dependence on the universe to sustain you.
It's kind of like how nice air feels after you try holding your breath for a minute. (I always do that subconsciously when watching movies where the characters are underwater - - - they always manage to hold their breath FAR LONGER than I can. I would totally drown if I were in those movies.)
So, I just noticed that it's Lent right now. I'm not Catholic or anything, but the practice does intrigue me. I guess the basic gist of it is that you give up something non-essential but emotionally dear to you, and, as best as I can tell, something that's probably kind of sinful.
Now, the premise seems valid and sound. Give up something that's probably bad for you, and dedicate that as an offering to God.
The part that amuses me about this, though, is Mardi Gras - fat Tuesday. Everyone spends that whole time, kind of emotionally and physically stocking up on that thing they plan on giving up. "I'm giving up chocolate for lent, so I'm gonna stuff myself on it now til I'm sick and won't WANT it for a month!"
This has evolved (de-evolved?) into a huge party where people just indulge - nay, overindulge in whatever they can get their hands on. I had some friends who were missionaries in Rio de Janiero, and told me that they were expressly ordered to stay in their apartments during the entirety of Carnival. They told me afterwards that they saw pretty much all ten commandments broken right on the street in front of their apartment. Repeatedly.
It seems a bit extreme, doesn't it? Does it really work like that? Overindulging in order to abstain?
What would I give up for Lent, were I so inclined? I suppose I could give up coffee or beer - things I don't really do a lot of anyway. Well, okay, no, coffee I have once per day.
I gave up fast food more than 2 years ago. I've only had any at all, maybe 3 times since then, and I gotta be honest, it made me sick. I gave up soft drinks - namely, mountain dew - about 3 months ago, with only one or two since then. Can I really call it "giving it up" if I have any more ever? Well, considering how much of it I used to drink, I'm pretty confident that I can say that. I could say I was giving up smoking or drugs, but I don't do either one now, so that's kind of a cop out.
Could I give up video games? Sex? Chocolate? Television? Foul language? Sarcasm?
I don't know, really. Is the purpose of Lent to give up something you like but that isn't really hurting you (like pasta, or something), or is it that you give up a vice that keeps you in a life of wickedness? Because the latter does make sense, obviously, but the former seems a bit excessive.
I suppose this is why such abstinence is accompanied with prayer and spiritual-mindedness. Because without that, it's just pretty much a diet.
In meditation, one of the first things you learn - even before telling you how to breathe - is how to distance yourself from all distractions. Sound, light, anything which could break your concentration.
Now on the one hand, that certainly fits in with the sense of a fast - - - but it's also very hard to concentrate when you can't stop thinking about how hungry you are, or how much you miss a good beer.
At the same time, I've found that there's something to be found in the struggle to overcome your own habits which pushes you to a reserve of strength you can't really find any other way. You see what you're capable of, and you also drive your mind past that sense of distraction which can keep greater clarity at bay.
Just past the noise, the pointless clutter, the obstacles to our own evolution, we can find a peace and illumination we only suspected might exist.
What is it worth to find that? What price would you be willing to pay to comprehend your life in a greater definition?
And maybe that's really what it's supposed to be about.