My husband delights in sharing the news from the online New York Times he reads every morning. I take less delight in the process; some of the news can cast a pall over the brightest spring day. Today he was as horrified as I when he shared with me that the latest body “decoration” was not a tattoo, but a carving. Yes – people are now carving things into their own flesh. We’ve long known about self-mutilation, but what does it say about our society when that becomes a fad?
Then I stopped and thought. Is that really very different from hair shirts and self-flagellation or the use of the cilice? This whole idea of mortification of the body is complicated, whether it is done for religious or for secular purposes. To be honest, I’ve never really understood it. It has seemed to me that life often brings enough pain of every kind that we do not need to look for more. I understand self-denial better. Learning to curb our appetites is usually pretty profitable in many ways for us. But that seems different from deliberately inflicting pain upon ourselves.
The things that I often find most difficult, for myself and for others, are things like: forgiving the person who has caused you pain; loving the person you have been taught to hate; continuing to pray hopefully when you seem to have no answer from God, or indeed any sense of God’s presence at all; patience with yourself when you repeatedly fail; looking for some joy in the midst of sorrow; forgiving yourself and letting go of guilt; working to overcome prejudice; maintaining values and beliefs when there is gain in forgetting them…
And on and on. I guess I believe that life brings enough pain and enough hardship without our going about creating more. Learning to live joyously, grace-fully, lovingly and gratefully in an average life is quite enough for any of us, I think. And so, my Lent typically lacks a great deal of “giving up”, but contains much more in the way of increased prayer, mental and spiritual discipline, and a conscious effort to be joyful. I definitely will give up self-carving – this and every Lent!