As I sat in the cafeteria yesterday, eating some delicious beef teriyaki and reading Thomas Merton, a conversation I'd had with a good friend came to mind.
For most of my life I've been fat. Heavy. Chunky. Clinically, the term would be 'obese.'
My friend, on the other hand, is not even close to being fat. Never has been. Never will be.
Our desks are next to each other, and most of last year she'd give me her second cookie from lunch. Without thinking I would eat it.
That is, until two months ago when my doctor said that I'd reached the weight I swore I would never see again. I was heartbroken to see the digital readout.
For Lent, then, I'd sworn that I would cut out sweets, and even cut out meat on certain days. I would get myself back to a proper relationship with food. I would stop running to it for solace and strength.
In that conversation with my friend, I mentioned how I can get paranoid when I eat. When I eat in public, I start to think about what my food choices indicate to other people. Should it be the day that I indulge in something fattening, then other people are silently "tsk-tsk"-ing me for poor dietary choices and for being a 'Fat American.' Should it be that I'm eating anything other than a leafy salad, then I'm failing as a human being. Each bite I take is a bite to my own condemnation.
And each bite I take is yet more confirmation that I shall live and die unloved by any partner, for who would want to date this?
She looked at me strangely. She couldn't fathom how someone could think all those things while simply eating. She couldn't understand how much hatred and anger and shame and despair could be wrapped up in the simple act of eating.
Yet it's not just in the simple act of eating. It's in the simple act of being.
Walking around, catching a sideways glimpse of my reflection in the mirror, eyes focused not on my smile or my lovely beard but my gut. That damned gut. Every positive is quickly and effectively negated by that mass of fat I lug around in front of me.
To the gym! I should say. To healthy food and exercise! I should say. And so I try.
But that gut is obstinate and unyielding.
That gut has a greater power than I'd thought.
Where does it get such power?
From the opinion in pop culture that it is ugly and is a sign of worthlessness and sloth.
From the judgment that it renders me unfit for desire and sex, worthy only for what I can offer in mind and heart. It neuters me.
From the years it has sat there, giving me ample (pun intended) ammunition to judge myself.
It stands and sags as a sign of years of sin. Sins of sloth, sins of gluttony, sins of worthlessness.
Is it a cross to bear? I'd say so.
It's a sign of shame. It's been that way for years. It has changed me in many ways. My feelings of shame over my body have forged me into the person I am now. Daily I struggle with my body. My obsessions, my fears, my sadness. It mounts its assault on my self-esteem.
Is this what St Paul talks about? The thorn in his side that plagues him day and night? Something that breaks him day by day?
Can this lump of flesh bring me to rely more and more on God? The one God who loves me and cares for me and gives me wholeness? Yes, yes it can. Does it? Each day is a new day of new struggles.
Society and culture and other people cannot determine my worth. They can't. They try and frequently convince us that they determine our worth, but they can't. Their power is an illusion.
God, however, values us. Even the worst among us are held close to God's heart, if only we'd see it and feel it and open ourselves to it.
I may eat, and I may eat unworthily, and I may eat to my own condemnation. It is not God who condemns me, however, and so the verdict is, in the eyes of eternity, null. Nothing. Void.
I must feast on God, and in that eating there is no condemnation.