|A Christmas Party. I don't know if you've ever been to one. Probably not.|
We in the West (and increasingly everywhere as technology spreads and the unifying Gospel is no longer Christ but contraception) tend to give ourselves penances not out of love for creation's God, but out of disgust for our bodies and the material world. In a strange contradiction, the material world is considered the sum of existence. It is not a pleasant affair to be disgusted by the only thing that exists. We can only find Usefulness in matter and so we either consume excessively in order to get the most out of the material world before we die, or we study matter extensively in order to determine how to more efficiently consume. This over-consumption gives many in our culture a spot of guilt and in retaliation, they lash out at enjoyment of creation and thus the puritan is born.
Believe me, I myself am puritanical at times. All of us who are concerned about the looseness of morality and the wastefully indecent way of treating God's gifts fall prey to the temptation to reject God's gifts. Are there alcoholics? Yes. Fear of alcoholism drives the puritan to reject beer or wine or liquor as a sign of moral decadence and a culture of abuse. Do people overeat? Of course they do. The puritan comes up with categories for Good Foods and Bad Foods, which, as you may have noticed, change over time. We should reject carbs (never mind that pasta has been a staple of multiple cultures for centuries.) We should reject fat (never mind that without fat, cold-climate peoples would freeze to death. Besides, low-fat ice cream is gross.) We should reject any animal product, or just meat, or gluten, or any number of things.
Now if we were to really think about it, none of these things is deadly to people. What is deadly (and what leads to obesity 9 out of 10 times) is the lack of a consistent culture of active work. Instead of physical activity being a natural part of our day, we have to schedule it in two or three times a week and thus have to schedule our eating to respond to the work-out schedule.
But of course, all of this is just a side note. We reject the goods of creation not through the love of God, but through the fear of what he has made, namely our bodies and the food we eat. We are extremely concerned with our bodies and what they look like, but so often end up hating them no matter what. Since our bodies lead us to sin in obvious ways that very clearly hurt us or others, it is easy to be hard on the body.
But at the same time, we can't stand being uncomfortable. Who wants to eat low-fat ice cream? (Did I ask that already?) Who wants to be always tired and hot (or cold) and under-sexed? No one. No one wants to live a life of continual rejection of the body because we are both body and spirit. To hurt one is to hurt the other. So our culture embraces what makes us feel good.
Sometimes this is physical pleasure, but more and more often, it is about feeling good "inside" where it matters the most. Or does it? Our strange modern dualism is rather schizophrenic. It can't make up its mind whether it loves the body and hates the soul or loves the soul and hates the body. Why, I might ask, can't you love both?
And this is where the Catholic comes in with his penance and parties. Joy in creation is a direct way of giving glory to God. It is not idolatry to enjoy a rare steak, nor is it pantheistic nonsense to revel in a sunset. In fact, every part of creation, living and non-living, is filled with being that reflects the very existence of God. A rock reflects God just as a hummingbird does. We can quibble about various amounts of reflection, but suffice it to say, everything is a reflection.
And this, I believe, is what we've lost in our pursuit of scientific knowledge and simultaneous reduction of our bodies to mere Useful Objects. We've lost the wonder of creation. But just as we need to recover the wonder of creation in all its mad revelry, we need to recover a sense of self-gift. This is not just to each other, though it sees its highest expression in the love between persons. In fact, only rational beings can properly give of themselves. Self gift, however, is not just for others' consumption, or else we would lose ourselves and be unable to continue giving. Self-gift is sharing so that neither the giver nor the receiver of the gift is consumed but is drawn into a deeper existence.
As I said, the highest expression of this is between persons, but it is also true that we can give of ourselves to other parts of creation. The meaning of the land is to produce beautiful flowers, trees, and plants which sustain and beautify the area. When we cultivate the land and do not destroy it, we allow it to flourish in an even more orderly and beautiful way. But this requires that we give of ourselves.
This is merely an example, but our penances are training for a life of self gift. We do not merely give up chocolate so that we suffer or because it is bad for us (it's not). We give it up because we mist always continue to practice self gift so that when the opportunities arise, we are ready to help our fellow man or work to preserve God's creation.
My own patron, Thomas More, was a fan of both parties and penance. He loved conviviality and enjoying the company of others, but what also, in private, severely penitential and trained himself to not hold too fast to the things of this world. And that, I suppose, is the real reason that we both party and do penance: to lead us to Him Who made us, Who gave us these gifts in creation and Who ultimately desires us to give it all and ourselves back to Him.
|He gave it all and Himself.|