There are of course, potentially good reasons for giving something up for Lent, whether sweets or meat or adult beverages. This practice could be beneficial for your health or, as Sr. Joan Chittister has written, a show of solidarity with those who are hungry in the world. When I began to study qigong with Master Hong Liu, I was asked to become a vegetarian for about a year to improve my health but also to become more sensitive to the qi within and around me.
I do think, however, that there is a potential danger in the underlying unconscious message around the practice of abstinence and fasting. This hidden message is that our sensual human nature, our bodies, and the good things of mother earth are bad and somehow in opposition to our soul and to God. This notion appears to be based upon a history of Christianity that in some ways was formed more by Plato and St. Paul than by Jesus. Plato and Paul argued that the body and spirit are absolutely separate and even in opposition. This division is currently expressed when someone says, “We are not physical beings having a spiritual experience, we are spiritual beings having a physical experience. I just came across this statement again, attributed to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, in a new book on meditation. The author spends many pages explaining the importance of fasting and controlling our sexuality in order to develop our true spiritual self.
According to Rabbi Rami Shapiro, the danger in thinking we are either spiritual beings having a physical experience or physical beings having a spiritual experience reinforces and continues the illusion of dualism. Rabbi Shapiro wrote in the current (spring 2015) issue of Spirituality and Health magazine, “physical goes with spiritual the way front goes with back and up goes with down.”
Celtic Christianity is an embodied spirituality. That is not to say that the early Celtic Christians didn’t fast or employ practices of self-discipline as a means of focusing on the Divine, but Celtic spirituality trusts the senses and the promptings and stirrings from the body. Ninth century Celtic teacher, John Scotus Eriugena taught that being human consists of both a body and soul bound together into a single harmony. Like the Eastern Church, Celtic Christians saw the human body, sanctified by the Incarnation, as an integral part of the human person and a unity of spirit, soul, and body.
Our bodies are holy. Instead of trying to separate our spirit from our body, we should follow the insight of twelfth century teacher and mystic, Hildegard von Bingen, who said, “Holy persons draw to themselves all that is earthy.” Instead of denying our body during Lent through abstaining or fasting, perhaps we should learn to appreciate and honor our bodies through practices like qigong or yoga, eating more organic foods or getting a massage. And we should join our Jewish sisters and brother in praying this adapted version of the Asher Yatzar :
Blessed are You, Source and Substance of all reality,
Who fashions me with wisdom,
And blesses me with a body of wondrous balance.
I honor Your gift by honoring my body and cultivating its promise.
Blessed are You, Healer of all flesh,
Who blesses me with form and function.