Mental Health Monday: Lent Light

While Western Christians are less than two weeks away from celebrating Easter, Orthodox Christians all over the world are just beginning their Lenten journey today—on Clean Monday. I made it to Forgiveness Vespers last year, but not last night. It’s complicated. But my reluctance to jump into Great Lent wholeheartedly has something to do with longing for a life that isn’t so… heavy.  That may surprise those of you who know me well enough to know that I’m all about intensity and embracing the dark side of life. But when it comes to God and Orthodox spirituality, I struggle with the heaviness of the season, at least the way it often comes across in parts of the Orthodox world.

If you’re tired of reading my rants about fasting, you can just skip the rest of today’s post, because I’m going to do it again. But don’t worry, it’s going to be a much lighter rant than in the past.

LightSideOfSin

 

With excerpts from a surprising (and completely secular) source: the April issue of Reader’s Digest. Joe Kita has a piece in the “Our Lives” column called, “The Lighter Side of Sin.” He breaks down the seven deadly sins—wrath, greed, envy, sloth, pride, gluttony and lust—giving each of them a slightly scientific spin and revealing their lighter sides.

Here’s a taste: (Some are quoted, others are paraphrased.)

 

Wrath—The chronic suppression of anger can cause high blood pressure, heart disease, depression, and sleep disorders, studies show. … If you’re married, a little bit of wrath might even save your life. A report from the University of Michigan determined that couples who regularly got problems off their chests lived longer than those who internalized them.

Greed—Materialistic greed can have positive effects. Research shows that when you’re pursuing and acquiring what you desire, you feel great. This has the potential to benefit not only you personally, in the form of happiness and health, but also those around you, including family, friends, and depending on your business, shareholders and society…. It’s basic human nature to feel greed. Whether it’s a sin depends on the limits we place on it.

Envy—Dutch researchers recently determined that benign envy, which lacks the venom of its poisonous big sister, (malicious envy) motivates us to improve.

Sloth—Richard Wiseman, a British psychologist who measures pedestrian walking speeds around the world, says the human race has sped up ten percent since the 1990s. But where is all this hurrying getting us? Taking it slow may have benefits, like weight loss. Adults sleeping five or fewer hours per night have a 55 percent greater chance of being obese.

Pride—Although pride is regarded by some as the original deadly sin, achievement-oriented pride creates feelings of optimism and worthiness. It is motivational, resulting in greater perseverance and personal development. It can even change physical appearance, prompting more smiles and better posture.

Gluttony—Thirty-six percent of American adults are obese, so it seems there could be no upside to gluttony. But scientists at Tel Aviv University discovered that adding a little dessert to an otherwise balanced breakfast facilitates weight loss. A cookie at breakfast or an occasional cheat meal can keep you from going elbow-deep into a bag of chips before bedtime. (He explains this better in the article, but I do think this was the weakest of his 7 arguments.)

Lust—Research at the University of Amsterdam (why does the location not surprise me?) shows that lust helped study subjects focus better on the present and its details. Kita admits that lust for sex can certainly be destructive, but a lust for life is virtuous. Like all the Seven Sins, what determines whether it’s deadly is a simple matter of whether we control it or it controls us.

Lent ecardI think Kita nailed it on the head with that final sentence. The Lenten Fast (and all of the spiritual lifestyle promoted by the Orthodox faith) aims at control—our control over our flesh, rather than the other way around. I do get that. It’s not the goal I take issue with—it’s the method. The rules and regulations just don’t help me draw closer to God. I know some Orthodox Christians who are greatly helped by the same regimen that undoes me, so my thoughts are just that—mine.

And the results of Kita’s lighter approach to the seven deadly sins might not even be things that you consider “good” goals for Christians—longer life, health, happiness, improved marriage, weight loss, perseverance, good posture, personal development, material success—but I appreciated his thoughts.

LentWhat I do like about the Orthodox approach to Lent is how fasting is only one third of a three-pronged “stool” that, as our pastor said yesterday, won’t hold up without all three legs. I embrace (anonymous) almsgiving and I try to pray (in secret) but it’s the fasting that keeps tripping me up.

If you’re in the throes of a serious ascetic struggle, please don’t take offense at the lighter approach I’ve introduced here. But if, like me, you struggle with the heavy cross of self denial in the seemingly legalistic form of which foods not to eat on which days (and the endless “fake foods” and recipes to make fasting taste good) I hope you can take this post in the spirit in which it’s shared, and find the lighter side of Lent. And please forgive me.

Faith on Friday: Just Buy the Beggar a Beer

This time of year many people are looking for ways to help others. We sometimes refer to the Christmas season as the “season of good will.” A few years ago, I blogged about my favorite activity during the season here, and here—Christmas caroling to the residents at Kings Daughters and Sons Nursing Home. (I’m sad to be out of town for it this year, but I know it will be a blessing to everyone—carolers and listeners.) And of course millions of people have seen the picture of the New York police officer giving a pair of new boots to a homeless man this past Tuesday. (The man didn’t know a tourist was photographing him.)

Jockluss Thomas Payne

My friend and neighbor, Ellen Morris Prewitt, works with homeless and previously homeless people in a writing group here in Memphis through an organization known as Door of Hope. Some of their work was recently published in The Advocate: A Voice of Experience. Like this essay, by Jockluss Thomas Payne.

 

Just Buy the Beggar a Beer

by Jockluss Thomas Payne

 When people ask me for money in front of a grocery store, I usually recoil. If you bum enough quarters, you’ll soon have enough for a beer. I pontificate on misery. It’s a daily routine. Bum change and buy beers. Many street people have made this their daily occupation. Sometimes I will give some change to hustlers and sometimes I won’t. It’s according to how I feel in a particular day, I guess. When I was homeless I worked at temp services and always had some sort of income. I never stood in front of the grocery stores and bummed change. An upstanding tramp I was. I do feel some compassion at times and will part with a dollar or more. Or just buy the beggar a beer. I know what he’s after. I could have been the same way myself. But by the grace of god I survived. I don’t like enabling street people to get drunk. At the same time I feel that drunkenness is their only solace from a miserable life. The same as mine was.

 And yet another member of the writing group, Veyshon Hall—who used to be homeless—disagrees with Payne. This is her essay:

 

Panhandling

by Veyshon Hall

I have given people money who were panhandling. That was before I realized what some of them do with the money. I hear people say that thy are responsible for blessing others with the money, not what they do with it. I feel differently. When I know they are going to buy drugs or alcohol, I am enabling them. I know because I used to be one of them. I also feel bad knowing that a drink or drug I helped pay for may be the one that kills them. There are places to get food, clothes, hygiene products and shelter for free. There is even a free doctor and medication. Anyone who spends all day panhandling has the sense and energy to do a job. Too often I hear people say they won’t do a job sweeping or mopping, but those same people think it’s o.k. to panhandle. Panhandling should be a job so they can pay taxes and help our economy. Let’s see how many career panhandlers we would have then.

I know there are “two sides” to every argument, and I really don’t like to argue. I prefer a non-judgmental exchange of ideas. So, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. But first, I’ll close with a quote from a favorite book, The Diary of a Russian Priest, by Father Alexander Elchaninov.

“Some do not give alms, saying: it will be spent on drink, and so forth. Even if it is spent on drink, the sin is less serious than the anger we provoke by our refusal, and the harshness and condemnation which we cultivate in ourselves.”

I’m off to Athens, Georgia, this weekend, for my eighth and final event (since July) for Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality in 2012. I’m looking forward to seeing co-editor, Wendy Reed, again, and to meeting one of my fellow contributors, Barbara Taylor Brown, at the reading/signing at Avid Bookshop on Saturday. Have a great weekend, everyone!

And please share your thoughts about almsgiving. You can leave a comment here or start/join a thread on Facebook. Thanks!

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