Seriously though, Lent begins this Wednesday (tomorrow) and is, just like every other thing I encounter in life, an eating disorder trigger.
Talk of fasting, sacrifice, and “I’m giving up dessert” comments don’t go in one ear and out the other. No, if I’m not careful and aware of the deception going on inside of me, I could easily slip back into old, bad habits again.
Will Lent feel like Lent if I don’t cut back on snacks? Are hunger pains the only way I can tell that I’m sacrificing?
When we think of Lent, the first thing that comes to mind is giving up something. And more often than not, people focus their penances around food, trying to give up sweets, chocolate, or eating in between meals. I’d argue that these sacrifices have ulterior motives, but that’s a post of a different color.
For those with eating disorders or disordered eating tendencies, food restriction is the last place we should look for spiritual growth. Food based sacrifices will not lead us closer to God, but farther away from Him by distracting us with desired weight loss, diminishing self-worth, and obsession with appearance or control.
This disparity calls for some creativity when discerning what to do about this liturgical season.
During the Homily this past Sunday, our priest gave some very practical advice on how to approach the self-penitential side of things. The purpose of Lent is to help us prepare for Easter by growing closer to God. He recommended looking into these three areas for growth: intellectual, spiritual, and physical.
First, we can grow intellectually by engaging in any spiritual reading, the life of a Saint, the Bible, the Catechism, or another goodie from your local Catholic book store. You can also find a ton of encyclicals and papal letters on the Vatican website; JPII’s Letter to the Artists, Humanae Vitae, or Gaudium et Spes are a few of my personal favorites.
If you’re looking for a good, spiritually and intellectually enriching novel type book, I’d recommend My Sister’s The Saints by Colleen Carol Campbell, Left to Tell by Immaculee Illibigiza, and The Hidding Place by Corrie Ten Boom.
My Sister’s The Saints, by Colleen Carol Campbell is an amazing, totally relatable, spiritual autobiography of a 21st century woman who’s story intermingles with the lives of certain woman saints who aren’t so un-relatable as she once thought. I think, primarily, this book is intended for women, but I spoke about it so often and with such admiration that my husband read it and loved it too.
Left to Tell, by Immaculee Ilibagiza is an incredible account of one woman’s experience of the Ruanda Holocaust. To say her story is inspiring is a severe understatement. Her perseverance in faith, complete trust in God, and supernatural forgiveness makes this book a perfect Lenten companion. I could not put this book down once I started reading it.
The Hidding Place by Corrie Ten Boom is a story of one family’s service and ministry to the poor and needy during WWII, even when they themselves were counted among the suffering. It is truly a life-changing book that will certainly help you grow in faith.
The second area to look at is spiritual growth. Strictly speaking about prayer, there is a plethora of things one can add to his daily routine. Lent doesn’t have to be about the “giving up”. Adding prayer throughout the day is also a form of penance because you have to sacrifice the time you would have spent doing something else.
Starting small is the key; even five minutes a day will change your life. If you try to take on too much, you will get overwhelmed and likely end up doing none at all. Blessed are the over zealous – committing to daily Mass, daily rosary, liturgy of the hours, conquering the Summa Theologica, and reading the Bible cover to cover – for they shall be snowed under and never seen again. Instead, humbly pick just one small realistic thing. It is better to achieve an obtainable goal then to talk about lofty ones and never do anything at all.
Something that has worked for me is to listen to God’s invitation to prayer. Instead of imposing a rigid prayer schedule, I try to pay attention to the moments when the Lord calls me to come to Him in silence. If I am passing by Church, I might stop in for a bit. Or if the notion comes to me when I’m washing dishes, I’ll say some prayers then. For me, the danger with lists is that they become mechanical, robotic, unfelt. It becomes more about crossing them off the list then about actually praying. If instead I respond to God’s still strong voice, my prayers are more intentional and heart-felt.
Now for the physical (cue ominous piano cords) – Immediately my mind goes to food because that’s how I’ve trained my brain for some 20 odd years. However, incorporating a bodily sacrifice doesn’t have to be limited to eating or, I guess, not eating for that matter.
In fact, for me and others who struggle with E.D.’s actually shouldn’t mingle food and penance. It’s like expecting a recovering alcoholic to go to a bar everyday yet never take a drink. It’s too much of a temptation to put oneself in that situation day after day, and it could also be a near occasion to sin. Likewise, for those with disordered eating tendencies using food for sacrifices is harmful, irresponsible, and should be avoided.
All in all, the Lenten Season is supposed to help us grow closer to God. Maybe it is a bigger sacrifice for me not to participate in the giving up of sweets like everyone else. Maybe it is more of a penance to humbly accept my limitations.
I am reminded of a story about St. Therese of Lisieux. She wanted to skip dessert and offer the sacrifice up for poor souls, but her Mother Superior told her she was not allowed, for whatever reason I do not know. St. Therese came to the conclusion that it was more of a sacrifice to obey her Superior than to not eat the dessert.
When I am tempted to sacrifice in a similar way, I’ll think of The Little Flower and find reassurance and solidarity. From her example, I’ll be re-committed to obey the Lord in this matter.
And hopefully, this year I can actually grow in holiness opposed to enabling my eating disorder tendencies.