And Now For a Little Abstinence

by Jason Peters on March 9, 2011 · 11 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Philosophers & Saints


Rock Island, IL

Many good folks who are almost right will receive the imposition of the ashes today. Others of us, way more righter, have already been suffering for a couple of days now on the other side of the Bosporus. Nothing like Clean Monday, clean foodless Monday, to remind you of the misery you’re in for. Hearty souls—nay, hearty souls and bodies, especially bodies—may make Tuesday fully clean as well, and maybe Wednesday and Thursday right on down to the Sunday of Orthodoxy, that triumphal day appointed to celebrate the restoration of the holy icons or, as some of us like to say, the victory of truth over error.

There’s some cheek in that remark, but we’re hungry, so back off.

That first Monday in Lent can be unpleasant, especially if, like me, you usually use Mondays (the only day the Bar Jester Five are for sure together at dinner) to whip up something elaborate and adorn it with an airy liquid obbligato not untouched by the juniper berry.

But, oddly enough, by Tuesday the body already somehow enjoys its abstinence and even suffers it more easily. The mind, as usual, sharpens, the intention of the soul asserts itself more forcefully. You undergo a deliverance of sorts. You understand what the poet meant by “world’s and flesh’s rage,” for their rage has abated noticeably. You understand what that Jewish rabble-rouser was getting at with all his righteous pique about living ‘not by bread alone.’ “Clean” is the right word so far as the body is concerned. Of course cleanliness must extend to the soul as well, but for the moment I am concerned only with the body, for the body is the first to feel the bracing Lenten slap.

And that’s the proper order and direction of things–outside in; through the flesh, through the material world, to what’s inside it: the athletic penetration of the finite. Even Dr. Johnson, who, according to Boswell, relished his food as no other, said that if you give no thought to the belly you won’t be able to give much thought to anything else.

(I’ll lay odds that Dr. Johnson never skipped a meal and that he was a slovenly eater, but that doesn’t make him wrong.)

How quickly, then, does the sting of that initial blow fade, and how comfortably does the joy of the season of bright sorrow settle in. According to the canticles appointed for today, this is a “light-giving season of abstinence”; “the fast shines upon all of us more brightly than the sun.”

There will be days when we don’t think so, for although it is true that we live ‘not by bread alone,’ we live by it plenty nonetheless. Bread and cantaloupe and T-bones and IPA.

IPA! Why hast thou forsaken me?

Because, O my soul, and thou my throbbing flesh, it is too easy to forsake all others for IPA. Look you then! It is Tuesday evening, and the impious Jester is at it again, tapping away for that vast multitude of seven loyal readers, a grim glass of water (behold it there!) at his elbow.

But how elegant it looks in the dim light, how pure, how like that very thing the Great Fast proposes to us and puts so abundantly on offer. (I say to you it is an illusion, you who hold that the writing is more watery today, and I’ll prove it. By the saints I will!)

This desert in the calendar, this frozen landscape in time, always makes me think of a buddy of mine who, nearing the end of his first Lent among the Greeks, turned to me and said, “Gosh ’dox Lent is sodding long!” And so it is. It is longer than the one celebrated by our brothers and sisters who had to go and fiddle with the creed way back (Front Porcher Polet is among them, and he was here Saturday to lend his considerable talents to draining the house of its oatmeal stout), but, long or short, Lent’s genius is that it goes somewhere. It is a journey that, like any journey, starts somewhere and ends somewhere else. And, as always—as we learn from the Pentateuch and St. Augustine and Chaucer and Graham Greene—the purpose of the journey is transformation; the purpose is being made worthy of the feast that awaits us.

And I know, mostly from failure, that that doesn’t happen without intention. It doesn’t happen without our availing ourselves of the best-kept weight-loss secret in the world. (You want to stay trim? Keep liturgical time vigilantly.)

Am I thinking right now about steak tartare and a glass brimming with an inky purple Amarone? Damn straight I am! But that’s a longing proper to a man, so long as he can convert it into a true longing with a proper object. Like everything we touch and taste and see and hear and smell, meat and drink are but penultimate things, for there’s always something on the other side of them. Or you could say they are an outside with an inside. The trick is to pass from the one to the other. The trick is the athletic penetration of the finite.

But first we must know, we must get it into our heads, that the world is made thus, made not of objects or idols (for they have no insides) but of images, images that bear the stamp of something else. And we must treat these images—we must treat the world—not with contempt but with reverence. We must embrace them. It is even fitting that we should kiss them, as in a few days we will.

I knock back the last of the water, loving it for what it is and for what it is not but especially for what else it is. And what do we hear in one of the canticles appointed for tonight? “O my soul, pass through the flowing waters of time like the Ark of old, and take possession of the land of promise.”

(But hurry up, will you?)

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Robert March 9, 2011 at 2:28 am

May you have a blessed and beneficial Fast, Dr. Peters.

avatar Rob G March 9, 2011 at 9:05 am

Being of the same persuasion as you, Dr. Peters, I went out with a gang of Papists on Saturday evening and celebrated Samedi Gras with Full Pint Deuce Brown Ale and Victory Headwaters Pale, seeing that Fuller’s ESB, my desert island brew of choice, was making no appearance on any taps within a reasonable driving distance.

BTW, if you’re ever in Pittsburgh, and it’s not Lent, we’ve got what is widely considered the best Belgian beer pub in the U.S., and mirabile dictu, they do half-price Belgian drafts daily during happy hour.

And now, onward to the arena. A blessed Lent!

avatar Anamaria March 9, 2011 at 11:12 am

First day of the fast for me, and I came to FPR solely in the anticipation of Jason Peters’ words on Lent. They did not disappoint. Thank you.

avatar Jeff Polet March 9, 2011 at 11:25 am

Neither did the oatmeal stout disappoint. Whatever I can do to help those Eastern schismatics get ready for Lent, I am willing to do.

Hope does not disappoint.

avatar Rob G March 9, 2011 at 11:50 am

Jeff, whose oatmeal stout were you drinking? I got spoiled early on, as the first one I ever tried was Samuel Smith’s, and I tend to judge all by that standard. Nothing so far lives up.

avatar D.W. Sabin March 9, 2011 at 11:59 am

Johnson was also reported as saying “Boswell, you rueful sot, hand that Port over lest I be forced to tell you of the time when it was discovered that fasting is the last refuge of the starved and that furthermore, you sycophantic foppish nincompoop, no sooner than you can place a proper Devon clotted cream next to a Somerset one of equal quality that they shall each commence to think the other is superior to themselves”.

Then, inasmuch as he was chewing, sloshing another gulp of Madeira down his incessantly mewling gullet before resonantly belching, the rest of the comment was indecipherable. Boswell, of course thought it melodic nonetheless.

avatar Jason Peters March 10, 2011 at 6:48 am

Rob G: Local oatmeal stout, by God!

avatar Rob G March 10, 2011 at 8:27 am

Excellent. We have a good local stout here too, although there’s no use (or abuse) of oats involved. And despite being brewed with molasses, for some reason it’s not sweet like you’d think it’d be.

avatar G. Koefoed March 12, 2011 at 7:12 pm

Very well put. This year the Latin Ash Wednesday fell on my birthday. There is nothing like being reminded that “dust you are and to dust you shall return” on the day of your birth. There is also nothing like being able to conveniently slide celebration back to Fat Tuesday.

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