28 February 2011

How Do I "Do" Lent in This Life of Chronic Pain?

What does Lent (the Christian's annual 40-day period before Easter) mean this year, after I have had to leave my job, greatly curtail my social life, stop all my pain medications, and fast from most of the foods I love?

OK, that will hopefully be the last sentence in this post that sounds so miserably pathetic.  I just don't know how else to say it, and certainly don't care to pretty it up with more acceptable, falsely pious wording.  I really do wonder how to "do" Lent this year.  And I figure I would be wondering how to "do" Ramdaan were I Muslim (although persons who are ill or pregnant, etc., are actually barred from practicing the fasts of Ramadan, the question would still be there, I think).  Many spiritualities hold respect for and mandates about  the practice of abstinence, sacrifice, and repentence, all for the benefit of our spirits.

(Note: here's an interesting thought.  As I researched other spiritualities for information on Lent-type practices, I Googled "spirituality, sacrifice" and got information on human sacrifices as a way of appeasing the gods.  Make of that what you will.)

Christians view Lent in many different ways, although a primary purpose is as a time of repentance and abstinence that echoes and reveres Christ's life and His own time in the wilderness.  Coming as it does in the 40 days before Easter, Lent has a deeply reverential regard for Christ's sacrfice on the world's behalf, asking His followers to undergo a spiritual sanctification not unlike His.

The Hindu religion, about which I know little, seems to have differing thoughts on repentance.  I found one source that said repentance is useless because there is no system "...that can affect the inevitability of [Karma's] punishments and rewards."  In another place, I found a clearly written treatise on the benefits of repentance in a classical work by fifteenth-century Hindu saint Arunagirinadhar.  This document extols the virtues of repentance and its powers to focus the mind so that we concentrate on higher aspects of life: spiritual purification, in other words.

For Muslims, Ramdaan is significantly a time of repentance, a time to "[T]urn to your Lord whom you have disobeyed, beseeching Him and fearing Him, regretting and weeping ..."  A month-long fast from sunrise to sundown and including gatherings with friends for the evening meal and a three-day celebration when the month is over, Ramdaan seems to me to be a wonderfully intentional and practical way to express repentance and the desire to turn to God.  And I love the way it includes making gifts and donations as part of the fast.

The Baha'i Faith, second in the world only to Christianity in the number of its adherents, contains a central messaage of unity: there is only one God, there is only one human race, and all the world’s religions represent stages in the revelation of God’s will and purpose for humanity.  Interestingly, I could find little on repentance or Lenten-style fasts for purification, but that does not mean there are none.

So: a quick overview of four religions, three of which feature fasting and purification and abstinence as a way to come closer to Allah/God/Krishna.

And I can relate to none of it right now.  Normally I  have a deep respect for the world's religions and spiritualities.  I revel in how they seem so often to be saying the same things.  I learn new practices to add to my own repertoire, and soak up wisdom from other times and other cultures.  Yet as Lent draws near, I cannot relate to any of the ancient wisdom that upholds the virtues of fasting, repentance and abstinence as a means to spiritual growth.

Perhaps that's because I am now in the fourth month of a migraine reduction regimen that includes giving up all pain medications and being on a strict diet.  And I mean strict: no caffiene; no chocolate; no citrus fruit or bananas; no nuts or nut butters; no aged meats or cheeses; no wine or alcohol; no onions; no tomatoes; no mushrooms; no processed foods that include MSG, or "natural flavors" (a euphimism for MSG endorsed by the FDA), or citric acid - and believe me, this includes just about every bottle or jar you pull off the shelf; nothing that has fermentation in its process, like soy sauce or vinegars.  "So what," I ask myself with maryred gloom, "am I supposed to choose for a fast for Lent this year?  There's nothing left."

And when I am really in pain, which is three or four days per week, the idea of sacrificing anything for spiritual growth seems laughable.  Is not my whole life a sacrifice to pain?

When I find myself in this place of spiritual paralysis or confusion, I often use a practice that has served me well for many years now.  It is an important step on the path to spiritual growth: what I call "casting the inward glance."

I developed the practice of casting the inward glance during my fourteen years at Miriam's House.  When I found myself deriding a resident's choice, or frustrated at the way she was behaving, or judgmental about her actions, I realized that all I was doing was separating myself from her in a way that - among other things - belied and made a mockery of my words about compassion and meeting each woman "where she is."  Also knowing that this was the ego's way of asserting itself in order to prove superiority, it became imperative, in the interests of self-honesty and integrity, to look inward to my motivations and hidden agendas before judging.  99.9% of the time, this process made me realize how similar I was to the person or circumstance I was deriding, as well as how divisive and unloving I was being.

Casting the inward glance has application in every area of my life, including the subject of this post.  What do I see or hear as I look inward, beyond the voice that moans about pain and sacrifice?

The first thing I hear is the voice of the victim.  Casting oneself consistently as the victim of circumstance, other people, the weather, you-name-it, is a subject about which I have posted before on this blog.  It is a trap that is understandably and so humanly easy to fall into, yet is spiritual death, to put it rather dramatically.

I also sense a deep fatigue.  It is tiring being in pain much of the time.  How do I "do" Lent in the context of a life already seriously constricted by pain?  It seems oxymoronic.

Finally, and blessedly, I hear a small, reminding voice telling me to have compassion for myself.  It is impossible to make a sincerely open-hearted gift of a sacrifice or repenance when I am feeling sorry for myself, and the sacrifices of Lent or lenten-type fasting are meant to be joyfully raised to one's God.  There's no joyful in this whining.  Compassion: the Buddhist word is "karuna," as I have recently been reminded while reading Toni Bernhard's "How to Be Sick."  She says, in this wonderful book about which I will write posts later this month, that "...[O]ur culture tends to treat chronic illness as some kind of personal failure on the part of the afflicted ... [I had to be reminded that] this illness was just this illness and was not a personal failing on my part."  Compassion for myself opens me up to other possibilities in this Lenten season, and it helps to pull me out of victim status.

Where these practices - casting the inward glance, listening to my fatigue, and compassion - take me will be the topic of my next post.

I would love to hear from you.  Please use the Comment box below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmailcom.


  1. Carol--

    I like that there is so much space between Christmas and Lent this year. It is giving me time to prepare. This was a great post; it has me thinking.


  2. I know, Tina, that Ash Wednesday comes so late this year has made it so that I don't miss it all together.

  3. one thing i try to give up is being so dang hard on myself. it's harder than you'd think. not the kind of childish idea like getting away with things, but really noticing and surrendering the judgmental critical harshness of my self-regard. just sharing it because we often think of giving up some delicacy we love, or staple we take for granted. this just taps from a different angle.

  4. Thank you Carol. We have recently made contact on Facebook and it brought me to your blog...this is truly helpful for me in my struggles to listen to my wiser self...I hear her in your words here...she is happy to have found a friend who pushes (sometimes I want to give up) with compassion. You have found a way to GIVE - please know that that - and inspired me to know that however limited I feel, I will find my way to give, my purpose despite these limitations. The pain I can handle...it's this sense of having lost my worth - as a leader, a wife, a mother, a friend...feels there is so little I can give sometimes and so much I need by way of comforting which is not there... that part is as draining as the physical pain itself. Having hope that I can use my voice, can find a way as you have to connect and give to others....very helpful. Please, keep it up...I will be reading. And please, watch for what I create - it will come....Kristin Wright

  5. Dear Kristin - so much about what you say touches my heart. You give voice to your own yearnings however painful that may be. I am honored to know that your creativity will come. I will be waiting.