Sunday, March 31, 2013

Easter, Grocery Shopping, and the Transformation of the Self

My sister phoned me yesterday to complain about my father, who had driven several hours to spend Easter with her and her family. He was being his usual surly self, his surliness tempered only by the sentimentality that often overtakes him in his cups. I noted that he hadn't changed much since my mother's death in December. "Unless you're committed to self-transformation," my sister replied, "you're not going to change much."

As I've mentioned here before, my sister (once a daily Mass-goer) is now a committed Buddhist, so, while I'm not sure what Easter means to her, I am aware that the notion of self-transformation is a powerful part of her religious practice.  But even for faithful Catholics, if there's ever a time to be "committed to self-transformation," Lent is it. And I don't know how other people manage it, but I seem to fail miserably at this attempted self-transformation each year.

This year, my Lenten penance was a diffuse attempt to rely on God more radically by striving to consume the copious stores of food in my pantry. I would allow myself to go grocery shopping only when they had run out. This meant curbing my usual practice of buying several of something on sale if the something is a thing I use regularly.  This way, I told myself, I would be identifying with the poor: buying only as much as I needed at one time, buying the cheapest things possible, and eschewing my usual penchant for shopping in the gourmet and organic sections of the supermarket. I worried that I had a tendency to hoard food, and I imagined flinging myself on the mercy of God and relying on him to provide for all our needs.

This didn't work out for several reasons. One was that I realized how time-consuming and costly it was to dash off to the store when I'd run out of an essential item like eggs, instead of buying an extra carton on my regular grocery-shopping trip even if the carton at home in my refrigerator still had four eggs left in it -- even if, in other words, my egg stock wasn't yet depleted. So I soon gave up identifying myself with the inconveniences, logistical difficulties, and annoyances that the poor put up with every day -- because I could.

I failed even in the small matter of coffee. As with most comestibles, when it comes to coffee I'm a fearful snob. My favorite coffee is Peet's Major Dickason's Blend, but, in some pre-Lenten paroxysm of penance, I had told myself that ten dollars was too much to pay for a bag of coffee beans, and I bought Eight O'Clock French Roast instead when it was on a buy-one-get-one sale. I made myself drink it during Lent, and it made me pretty sad -- so sad, in fact, that I cheated, and snuck in a bag of Starbucks toward the end of the forty days (I consoled myself that it was a bag of Starbucks Holiday Blend that I'd found as a deeply-discounted overrun at the local job lot). On Holy Saturday, with palpable relief, I threw out the remaining several-cups'-worth of Eight O'Clock coffee. So I failed to identify myself even with people who couldn't afford to drink expensive coffee, but who still needed, as I do, the buzz that coffee confers.

And then there was the other small matter of anger. I stayed mad at practically everyone I knew during the entire forty days. I found it very hard to let go of my everyday frustration with, and self-righteous indignation at, people who don't do the things I want them to do, or who don't do them in the ways I want them to be done. I cursed and swore many times a day, almost always in a room where I was momentarily alone, but even so. I wanted my family to be different. I wanted my three-year-old to stop acting like a three-year-old; I wanted my autistic son to stop being autistic; I wanted my husband to be less like a man and more like a woman in his emotional presentation and responsiveness. At the same time, I wanted everyone to like and admire me.

I see now that, instead of striving to be holier during Lent, I became obsessed with grocery price-points and whether or not I was getting the respect I felt was my due. And I see that this doesn't make me so different from my non-committed-to-self-transformation father, or from anyone in the world who doesn't observe Lent, since I had substituted material things and material results for that which is real.

And what is that which is real? I long for transformation every week at Mass -- for a transformation that can be felt. I beg God, when I receive him in Holy Communion, to transform me, to make me different,  in a perceptible, lasting way. I want the miracle of transubstantiation to change me, too, utterly. I want to see my old self go up in a conflagration, a holocaust upon the altar.

More often than not, however, I leave Mass feeling the same way I felt when I came in:  angry, petty, frustrated, drab, lifeless, irreparably broken.

The Easter flowers were beautiful on the altar today, and the music, while not exactly good in any Platonic sort of way, was much better than usual. In a few weeks, the flowers will be gone, and the choir will be back to its usual quality. And I will be the same. Or will I?

Perhaps we are all constrained to believe that, through our longing for Him, and through His gift of self to us, God is transforming us in ways that, though they may be imperceptible to us, are truly radical. We may pray for the sensation of knowing, of feeling, this transformation, but this is just as materialistic as my Lenten grocery obsession. We need to believe without seeing, and also without feeling. As T.S. Eliot wrote in the "East Coker" section of Four Quartets:

I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.

A blessed and joyous Easter to all.


Melanie Bettinelli said...

This is lovely. I love your conclusion with the Eliot.

"committed to self-transformation" Yes, I that's the big difference between Buddhists and Catholics,isn't it? We both acknowledge the need for transformation but where Buddhists think of it as something one does to oneself and for oneself, Catholics acknowledge that we don't have the power to change ourselves-- if we did we wouldn't need a redeemer-- the most we can do is to let God change us. Which means the struggle to stop trying to be in control, to stop taking the wheel and instead to surrender. Ah, death to self.

In that sense, it seems to me that your Lent was quite fruitful in that it forced you in some ways to discern your powerlessness and your need for someone else to step in and save you from yourself. We arrive at the end of our journey and find ourselves back where we started, still desperately in need of a redeemer. "We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time." That knowing I suppose is the realization of our own poverty.

For me the iconic moment in literature where I first encountered this idea is in C.S. Lweis' Voyage of the Dawn Treader when Eustace is turned into a dragon. He tries to remove his dragon's skin but cannot do it. For all his scraping off of the scales, there are always more underneath them. Only Aslan can claw away all the layers of the dragon's skin to reveal the boy hidden underneath and submitting himself to that process is incredibly painful.

When I try to identify my own faults, I'm always sure I'm focusing on the wrong things. Which I suppose is why the Psalmist prays, "But who can detect all his errors?
From hidden faults acquit me."

Of course Eliot says it so much better: "hope would be hope of the wrong thing.. love would be love of the wrong thing.... you are not ready for thought"

This is the hardest death to self, the death to our own impulses for self improvement. I suppose that's what Pope Francis is getting at when he says: " It is not in soul-searching or constant introspection that we encounter the Lord: self-help courses can be useful in life, but to live by going from one course to another, from one method to another, leads us to become pelagians and to minimize the power of grace, which comes alive and flourishes to the extent that we, in faith, go out and give ourselves and the Gospel to others, giving what little ointment we have to those who have nothing, nothing at all." Hmmm. Our self-help program is going out to help others. Which I suppose is also why one of the three pillars of Lent is almsgiving. Fasting and prayer by themselves can be too much like a self-help program, almsgiving means helping others. So I suppose the Catholic motto is less, "God helps those who help themselves" and more, "God helps those who help others."

Blessed Easter to you, my friend. May the light of Christ always guide you on your way.

Pentimento said...

Thank you so much for this heartfelt and deeply wise comment, Melanie. You are so, so right. A blessed Easter to you, too.

MrsDarwin said...

Happy Easter!

I read in Pope Benedict's Jesus of Nazareth: Holy Week (on Holy Thursday or Good Friday, I think, so not really in time to help me out during Lent) that when Jesus says, "This is my body given up for you", one of the important words (in a sentence full of important words) is "for". My body FOR you: Jesus's being is being FOR others, being defined by existing for other people, not just for himself. That's something that's been very beneficial to me over the past few days, especially when I'm not feeling very charitable. I can evaluate my Christian life not in terms of what I'm feeling, but what I'm doing, and how I'm doing it: am I being FOR others? Answer: usually not, but contemplating that does help me align my motivations, and remind me to call for the help I need.

There's the verse from Romans 12 that says, "Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind." The "renewal of your mind" is a very compelling image for me. It's still your own mind, but it's renewed, refreshed, transformed with a new way of being: being FOR others.

Pentimento said...

You are a sight for sore eyes, Mrs. Darwin.

You are right, of course. For the record, the money I thought I was saving by buying the cheapest and only buying when necessary is going here:

JMB said...

I hear you sista loud and clear. On Good Friday, I wanted to kill my family. I will spare you the details, but it had to do with major PMS, being hungry and a little bit hung over, and well, you know the rest. Thank you all for your wonderful Lenten reflections (you too Mrs. D!). Love you all! Happy Easter:)

BettyDuffy said...

Well looky here--some of my favorite people on the internet hanging out in this combox. Reminds me of the old days.

This idea of self-transformation is always on my mind, and is always puzzling me. I cherish all of y'all's thoughts. The lines from Eliot are particularly enlightening. Thank God for poets.

Happy Easter, P, and thank you for the very nice link above. I feel exactly the same about your writing.

Pentimento said...

It's like Old Home Day in this combox. Miss you guys.

MrsDarwin said...

I second, or third, or wherever I am in the lineup, the Old Home sentiment. We all need to get together.