Eating in the Land of the Living

Today’s reflection is from Mac Svolos, a contributor to Bondings 2.0.

Today’s liturgical readings can be found by clicking here.

For today’s installment New Ways Ministry’s “Journeys” Lenten series on the Transfiguration, click here.

This year, I ate meat on the first Friday of Lent.  Not by accident, like I’d done before. Not justifying it with a technicality (like it was after midnight Friday night when we left the bar, so it was really Saturday). Not feeling out of control, or like I couldn’t stop myself, but on purpose.  Purposefully.

I walked to the coffee shop down the street and ordered a bacon, egg, and cheese for breakfast. I got up early to make sure I’d get there in time. I tipped well and returned home to savor the sandwich. That was the Eucharist, this year.

Lent comes usually a couple weeks after January ends, when most people have abandoned their New Year’s resolutions, maybe feeling guilty and desiring a “fresh start.” In the church I grew up in, Lent was so often about dieting. People “gave up” chocolate or sugar or soda. Fasted on Fridays or more often. Of course, these resolutions came with slip-ups and failures, often adding to a sense of guilt and shame around food.

These practices are a merger between Catholic spirituality and diet culture, between faith and capitalism. Which came first?

I started restricting food before I was ten years old. I don’t have any memories of eating food before I felt ashamed about it. In my body, there was a merger between Catholicism and diet culture. I read about medieval mystics, these women who fasted for weeks, who only consumed the Eucharist. If I was really holy, I thought, I would be able to do that. I feared that I wasn’t being a girl right, and I channeled my anxiety into obsessing about food. I became stuck on a cycle of dieting and bingeing that would continue for years.

This experience is a common story for trans people like me. One study found that trans college students were more than four times as likely as their cis peers to experience disordered eating. The popular media image of an eating disorder patient is a young, extremely thin white woman from a privileged background. But eating disorders are actually prevalent among people who experience any type of marginalization.

Trans people starve ourselves — or wish we could starve ourselves — to attempt to change the parts of our bodies that society tells us prevent us from being the people we know we are. Or to feel a sense of control. Or as a response to trauma, deprivation, and harm.

In a culture that constantly tells us we need to be thin, athletic, and healthy in order to have value as people, a religious emphasis on fasting can often do more harm than good. We need to be far more careful about how we talk about this traditional Lenten practice.

Our psalm today says, “I will walk before the Lord in the land of the living.” As Christians, we might think that “the land of the living” refers to some imaginary future — heaven, the reign of God. The psalm is aspirational.

But when the verse was originally written, “the land of the living” meant where we all are now — as opposed to where the dead are. It would be like saying, “I will walk before the Lord in this life.”

Thinking about that changes the meaning of these words so much.

We Christians tend to fear this life and the things that make it up — bodies, sex, food, fatness, the possibility of death, vulnerability. Can we hear this psalm as an invitation to walk with God here and now, just as we are?  In our bodies, just as they are?

This week’s Gospel reading shows us some of Jesus’ friends viewing the Transfiguration. Afterwards, they find themselves confused: “So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what rising from the dead meant.”

For years, my relationship to Catholicism was something that kept me dead while I was alive, a relationship so fraught that I had to be afraid of eating food as a way to distract myself from the anxiety it caused me. And once I began the miracle of healing, I, too, began to question what rising from the dead meant.

My spiritual upbringing primed me to expect dramatic epiphanies, sudden shifts, and unexplained events. The reality of healing has been much more simple. It doesn’t look like anything dramatic from the outside. It’s taking a second portion at dinner without worrying about what others will think, or stopping a workout when I’m tired instead of forcing myself to continue to “burn off calories.” Or eating a breakfast sandwich on a snowy February morning, with nothing to repent for. The miracle of healing, walking with God in the land of the living, actually looks very much like simply being human.

Mac Svolos, New Ways Ministry, February 28, 2021

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