And Now For a Little Abstinence


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?)

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