Except on Sundays

Fasting and Feasting During Lent
Giorgio Morandi, Natura morta (Still life), 1943, (Vatican Museums)

I went into Lent having decided on a fairly typical set of self-imposed austerities: no meat, no coffee, limited drinking, and some other things I am not going to get into here. Then, unfortunately for me, I also went to the doctor the Monday before Ash Wednesday. She responded to my complaints of not feeling well by prescribing an even more restricted diet—no dairy, no gluten—to try for the next couple of months. This meant going from wondering if I’d ever have the dedication to follow the Orthodox fasting rules to practicing a slightly less strenuous version of them.

It would be nice to say that I could extol the great spiritual benefits I’ve derived from this restraint. I am assured this happens for some. But actually, my diet has made me completely obsessed with food—figuring out what I can eat, planning what I eat, cooking what I eat, trying to understand my own response to what I eat, and so on. I sit in front of my computer intending to write and instead spend the time wading through recipes, trying to figure out what to eat or how to adapt some recipe or another into something I can eat. Once I’ve cleared one meal, the next is already looming; the business of feeding myself stretches out, endless and always urgent.

I like cooking. But I do not especially like eating, an activity which, it seems to me, should really only have to take place once or twice a week. If it must take place every day, I don’t see why it can’t take place only once. (The doctor disapproved of this opinion.)

Still, there’s one area where six days of lentil-and-rice variations actually has had a dramatic effect on me: Sundays. In Western churches that mark Lent, you aren’t supposed to abstain on Sundays and certain other days. Because Lent is often considered a dieting period, or a time to break bad habits—which it can be, of course—these Sundays pop up like a series of cheat days. And most years that is how I experience them; the day when I can, inexplicably, do the thing I’m not supposed to be doing. One year I ambitiously gave up complaining, which led to saving up all complaints until Sunday.

All of the abundance is for you. You just have to accept it. So take it.

But now Sundays feel very luxurious to me: I drink my coffee, indulge in a non-dairy latte, sip a solitary glass of wine, and break certain dietary restrictions (meat) if not all of them (still no gluten). It’s the one day I don’t really need to think about food and can instead just quietly, thankfully enjoy it.

Most years, I tend to be “good at” Lent, by which I mean I am good at periods, even long ones, of arbitrary self-denial. I didn’t eat meat for ten years because of an overnight decision that I couldn’t quite justify it. Even with my restricted diet, I can eat pretty well, and I’m not hungry. I’ve discovered new staple recipes, like moudjendra. If I had to eat for this like the rest of my life, it would be socially difficult, but (probably) not personally so, and after a while I’d stop worrying about running out of things to eat.

But in some ways this quality of being “good at” Lent makes me think I’m not very good at it at all. If I’m already good at things like self-denial or self-judgment or being solitary, real spiritual growth might mean thinking hard about how to welcome goods in my life and share them, how to cultivate generosity and gratitude (and even—ugh—joy) alongside these other aspects of myself. And if saying “no” is the easy thing, is the thing I have to practice saying “yes”?

So Sundays have become a day when I really do feel extremely, profoundly grateful. I don’t experience the rest of the week as a hardship, but I do really feel exuberant on the days when I can drink coffee or get something meaty from my favorite local Thai joint. And the rest of the week, well, I make it work. Sunday no longer feels like cheating to me, but more part of a cycle of restriction and abundance, understanding that each belongs in its proper place and that the virtues each contain are complementary. All of this seems elementary, but this is the first year that I’ve really begun to understand it.

One of the books I pick up and read a little of from time to time for spiritual help is The Flowing Light of the Godhead, a book by the thirteenth-century mystic Mechthild of Magdeburg. In particular, I end up returning to this vision:

I, sinful, lazy creature, was supposed to pray once; and God acted as though he did not want to give me any kind of favor. I wanted to give myself over to deep sadness because of the weakness of my flesh, which seemed to me to be an obstacle to spiritual pleasure. “No!” said my soul. “Keep in mind all his faithfulness and praise your Lord thus: ‘Gloria in excelsis deo.”’

 

As I thus praised, a great light appeared to my soul, and in this light God revealed himself in great majesty and indescribable brightness. Our Lord held two golden chalices in his hands that were both full of living wine. In his left hand was the red wine of suffering, and in his right hand the white wine of sublime consolation. Then our Lord spoke: “Blessed are those who drink this red wine. Although I give both out of divine love, the white wine is nobler in itself; but noblest of all are those who drink both the white and the red.”

One does not, of course, need to accept any kind of private revelation. Still, I am always comforted and challenged by the motion of this vision, in which Mechthild first resists God in favor of sadness, and then is told that consolation is nobler than suffering. It’s this passage that I go to when I worry about praying the right way, receiving the Eucharist, going to confession. It reassures me that it is right to accept suffering, but also right to accept and even seek consolation, and that I can accept both of these things as gifts from God that come in their season.

Sometimes, when I’m collecting recipes I can eat, I imagine a spectacular Easter dinner where I would slow roast a duck, make potatoes in brown butter, caramelize some shallots, add a side of crispy green beans and a salad. I think about this Easter meal a lot, though chances are I won’t be making it. It’s a lot of food, for one thing. And Easter meals are hard to share—most people already have plans. So most likely this meal will just remain in my head, and I’ll celebrate Easter in a more pared-down, amenable-to-a-party-of-one fashion, as I usually do.

But I also imagine making all that food and then just opening up the doors to anyone who wanted it, so that I could say, take it, eat it; this is for you. All of the abundance is for you. You just have to accept it. So take it. It’s not mine, it’s not yours; it’s God’s, and it’s for all of us.

B. D. McClay is senior editor of the Hedgehog Review, and a contributing writer to Commonweal. She lives in New York. 

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