Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Spiritual Worth of Giving Up

There is a peculiarity among many who were raised in the Catholic faith. That is that they profess to believe that a person is "born Catholic". In other words, if your parents were Catholic and you were baptised and raised Catholic (whatever that meant in your family), you are ALWAYS a Catholic. You CAN'T be anything else. It is not possible. So, while you may walk the middle path with the Buddha or dance for Jesus with the Pentecostals, you are still, in the eyes of the Catholic Church, a Catholic. Just not a very "good" one.
I speak of this because my own spiritual path began (in this body, anyway) with me being held over a pool of Holy Water, swathed in incense and oil, my name being officially spoken before God and his faithful. Since then, it has led me through an Assembly of God, the Buddhist teachings and everything in between. And yet, as I grow older, and perhaps wiser, at certain times of the year I can not help but feel, well... Catholic.
Spring is one of those times. The time of Easter. The time of Renewal. And the Giving Up.

It is not a coincidence that Easter occurs in the Spring. Even pre-Christian Easter myths speak of death and new life. Of growth and renewal. We clean our houses. (Some of us clean our digestive tracts!) Everything is given a chance to become new. And that is what Spring and Easter really are all about. This idea is integral to understanding the real value of "giving up".

For those of you who may not be familiar with Catholic teaching, it is customary at the beginning of Lent (the forty day period leading up to Easter Sunday) to "give something up". A vice. A pleasure. A source of comfort. When I was a child, the rationale for this was explained, simply: Jesus suffered on the cross, so we should feel some suffering too.

This explanation, while simple to understand, fails on a few levels.
All one has to do is look around and see that there is suffering everywhere. Just like Siddhartha, I have glimpsed out at the vast suffering in life and wondered at times if that was not really all there was. So, to say that for a certain forty days of the year, we should induce suffering in some small, most likely non-life-changing way, seems rather ridiculous and a bit grandiose. Really? You're giving up Chocolate? Wow. Im sure all the starving children of the world will be right there with you as you post your woah-is-me Facebook status updates for the next thirty nine days.

More importantly, the explanation really fails to invite us to explore the immense potential spiritual benefit to "giving up".

Regardless of your spirituality, the idea of giving up, surrender, letting go has most likely made its way into your personal lexicon. In recent years, popular spirituality and psychology has melded the Eastern ideas of Zen Buddhism and other schools of thought into quaint little snippets, sorts of "spiritual petit-fours", to quote Lily Tomlin in "I Heart Huckabees", for us to carry around in our pockets for times when we need to "remember to breathe". You know. "Serenity now!" and all that.

I would like to think that in today's Religious Ed classes, the children and young adults are given a much more enticing and provocative rationale for "giving something up" for Lent. I would hope that it would go something like this:

Giving up can be a profound Spiritual exercise. Even the idea, in today's materialistic, instant-gratification culture, seems foreign. "Why would Jesus care whether or not I drink a cup of coffee every morning for forty days?" Well, forgive me, Mother Genevieve Regina and all the devout Christians in my life, but I for one do not believe that Jesus gives a rat's ass whether or not you drink coffee in the morning. And even if he did, that would be far from the point.

The point, in this wayward Catholic's mind at least, is the experience. It's not the thing. It's not the absence of the thing. It's you being present in the absence of the thing. And, ultimately, what fills the space that the thing left behind.

It is so very easy in our culture to find ourselves burdened by the massive amount of things that we have learned to cling to for security. The idea of discomfort is foreign and scary. Going without has become a non-option. And of course we have all seen where that has gotten us, even on a national level. How many of us might find that having one thing less might just give us the levity to explore something deeper and more meaningful?

How often during the year do we pause and really check in with what it feels like to be uncomfortable. The mere avoidance of discomfort is the ultimate goal of some peoples' lives. Maybe even people you know. Maybe even you. Imagine that there might be something waiting beyond the discomfort. Something worth the discomfort. But you have to go through that place to find out.

When I think about "giving up for Lent" in this framework, I think to myself "Man, thos Catholic Patriarchs were effing amazing!" A gift in the form of a mandate. But none the less, if accepted, a real gift. Sure, some guy in a funny hat is telling you what to do. But, like our own parents who are "meanies" for our own good, the guy in the hat wanted you to have something better.

What a brave and valuable exercise it could be, for a finite number of days in this time of newness, to just see what things might unfold in the space where the thing you think you can't do without once was.

Even if your personal spiritual belief is more along the lines of "Im going to grab all the gusto I can get in this lifetime because you only live once.", consider how much easier it would be to grab ahold of (or graciously accept) the Next Amazing Thing that the Universe has in store for you if you didn't have so much in your hands already.

Emptiness is a transitional state. The question is, transition to what? The answer can not be known until you create the empty space. However uncomfortable the creation of that space may be, like a tidal pool, it WILL fill up again. Maybe with something really beautiful, valuable and elusive.

So this year, once again, for forty days, I'm a Catholic. I'm going to engage in the spiritual practice of giving up. Surrendering. Letting go. And I am certain that when I come out on the other side of Lent, I will be anything but empty.

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