Tag Archives: asceticism

The fish and the hairdryer

SmokedRainbowTroutDo you like smoked fish? I do, a lot. Nom nom nom! It’s full of that famous new type of flavor, umami, which distinguishes simple salt and vinegar, sugar and bitter, from luscious savoriness. It’s fun to eat a generous helping of that stuff, but really, very little is needed to be satisfying. It tends to be expensive because of the labor that goes into making it and the small amount produced, what with the wood chopping and the long drying at low temperatures, but that doesn’t stop me from standing at the display at the corner store and feeling myself starting to drool at the vacuum-sealed package of peppered smoked trout.

There are many and varied editions of anecdotes from the lives of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, who were Christian monastics, mostly from Egypt of the very early middle ages, and some from the Russian steppes of the early modern period. (Wait, this is connected!)

51hM9lR63QL._SY344_PJlook-inside-v2,TopRight,1,0_SH20_BO1,204,203,200_One monk who lived out in the Egyptian countryside got a hankering for smoked fish. Smoked fish not exactly growing on trees in the desert, he had to walk to town to get some. He walked miles and miles with his mind preoccupied by the fabulous thought of a bite of smoked fish. (Being poor, he probably could afford no more than a bite.)

Finally, he got to the town, and suddenly realized that he had put an immense amount of time and labor toward acquiring nothing but a flavor that would be gone in minutes. “This is nucking futs,” he said to himself, or whatever early medieval Egyptian monks said to that effect. He repented of his gluttony. He turned around and walked all the way back to his home in the desert where, I imagine, in the typical monastic fashion he had bread, water, and probably nuts and dried fruits.

For over a decade, my doctor begged me to find some kind of exercise. (Wait, this is connected, too!) “Do what you enjoy doing,” he said. “Maybe you could try walking. Walk five minutes in any direction whatsoever, walk back home, and you’ve got ten minutes done.” I always replied, “No. What I enjoy doing is lying on the floor in front of my computer. A rolling chair like in the movie ‘Wall-E’ would be nice, too.” I am allergic to the term “exercise,” what with its connotations of “fitness” (what, so everyone else is unfit to live?), and sweatiness and heat.

But on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, I found myself in a hotel pool paddling back and forth doing laps. I suddenly realized with dismay and logic that I had found the famous “form of physical activity I like,” something I was so prepared to do voluntarily that I had packed my swimsuit in anticipation. So after six weeks of trying to ignore this grim fact, I joined a gym with a pool. I had a suitable gym bag, an extra hair dryer, some slippers.

Andis RC-2 Ionic 1875W Ceramic Hair DryerSo the first thing I did after my pleasant first swim at the gym was to go on a shopping quest, to look for a new hair dryer. The vast array online offers so many desirable qualities! Quiet, lightweight, folding, powerful, with a retractile cord, professional sturdiness, and all the cascading bounty of “ions” a girl could ever want. So much nicer than the old ones I have. I spent an hour or so putting many models into my wishlist. Such a technological upgrade!

And then, like the monk who wanted smoked fish, I suddenly said, “This is nucking futs.” I have a perfectly good hairdryer I use at home, and I had bought it as a quieter replacement to the one I keep in my until now-unused gym bag. To spend an hour selecting a third when I have two that work fine? That’s nucking futs!

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Being ascetic about asceticism

250px-Ignatius_of_Antioch_2Well, things have continued to be unpleasant in my work life. Actually, they’re getting worse. I have had to take consolation from the fact that what I’m going through is hugely easier than being an early martyr eaten by wild beasts– if slower. I shouldn’t whine. But, anyway, this blog continues to help me stay more alert to my relationship with objects.

It appears that the level of stress in my life is correlated with an increase in the size of my Amazon wish list. I hate to admit I was really surprised when I looked carefully. The number of objects on my wish list has gone up by 2.4% this month alone.

I already knew that under stress I tend to eat too much, but I wasn’t quite so clearly conscious that I also tend to WANT too much. Wow! I see now that it’s like an anxious kid reaching for her bear and blankie! Not good for a grownup!

So for today’s object, I’m going to pick something from this month’s additions to the wish list that I am choosing not to buy.

Marriage, Celibacy, and Heresy in Ancient Christianity is the first major study in English of the ‘heretic’ Jovinian and the Jovinianist controversy. David G. Hunter examines early Christian views on marriage and celibacy in the first three centuries and the development of an anti-heretical tradition…

JovinianistControversyThe early history of Christianity is really fascinating. A lot of people don’t realize that a huge amount of action took place in the first centuries after the writing of the New Testament. It is very true that those who don’t know history are condemned to repeat it, because a lot of the most fiery disputes in Christianity in the most recent four or five centuries (such as between Protestants and Catholics) are simply rematches of similarly passionate disputes from the first centuries of Christianity. Any believer who has ever had a serious religious argument with a fellow believer knows: “Let Mortal Kombat Begin!”

The Jovinian Controversy was about what level of asceticism is most appropriate for Christians. Aha! You see why it caught my interest. The “Look Inside” selection on Amazon holds my attention, and rereading it makes me see why I put the book on my wish list a couple of weeks ago. The appropriate degree of involvement with the physical world is still a hot topic in Christianity (as the story of “the Bishop of Bling” illustrates), and probably always will be. The topic enthralls me.

ApostolicFathers1But thinking about it today, I know, deep down, that I don’t have the fortitude to wade through almost 300 pages of anything, much less a tome of early Christian studies. I also don’t feel I have enough background, which is why I’m leaving both volumes of the reasonably priced Loeb Classical Library’s Apostolic Fathers on my wish list, because Jovinian was quite a bit later than people like St. Ignatius of Antioch, who studied directly under St. John the Evangelist (best known as the beloved disciple at the Last Supper). And my work situation is keeping my span of attention low.

My experience in academic publishing whispers greedily, “You should get it before it goes out of print. You just know that probably there was a print run of 1000 and it will never be reprinted. Just buy it and keep it.” But my more ascetic self says it’s a waste of space and money I don’t even have, really, to spend $47 for a book (or $30 for a used copy) that I will probably never get around to reading. And this book, if I leave it in the freecycle area of my building, is going to end up in the trash.

So, with a great deal of regret, I’m going to delete it from my wish list. The mortal combats of Jovianian’s era will have to wait for another day, perhaps another lifespan.

Christ’s money

As you probably have noticed, the header on my blog shows three magi (mages, Wise Men) happily hustling along with their gifts for the young Christ, who is out of camera view to the right with his mom.

The traditional Christmas nativity scene or creche is a mashup of the story in the Gospel of Luke (the manger, the angels and the shepherds) and the story of the Wise Men in the Gospel of Matthew. The Wise Men probably showed up months or even years after the birth of Christ. That is why King Herod ordered all the boys in the region two years and younger to be slaughtered. It had to take some time for the rumors of Christ’s birth to travel across the land, for the Magi to do their astrological calculations, for them to travel to meet Herod, and then to find Jesus.

The gifts of the Wise Men are now considered quaint, if not actually incomprehensible. Gold famously was called a “barbarous relic” by the economist John Maynard Keynes, and relatively few people have seen it in the coin form that was probably given to Christ and his family. Myrrh comes in hard little brown chips a little paler than instant coffee crystals. Frankincense is small firm irregular blobs shaped like Nerds candies, but they are the tan, slightly translucent shade of boogers. Pure myrrh and frankincense aren’t self-lighting like incense sticks and cones; they are resins that need to be placed on burning charcoal to make fragrant smoke.

Lydian Lion One OunceHowever, like salt or peppercorns used as money in other times and places, all three of these gifts met the characteristics of money: Portable, divisible, durable, fungible, and a store of value. These substances are completely useless to a child — but extremely useful in funding the care of a child. Indeed, some have speculated that the gifts of the Magi were used to support the family during their years in Egypt. So what the mages were giving was money.

God is spirit, as St. John writes, but he also was a little kid. It’s dreadfully expensive to raise a child, even when there are no iPads to buy them, because the poorer you are, the higher the proportion of income you spend on food, so that having to feed another mouth, even a young one, can be quite a blow. The wise men may have been a little strange about astrology, but they knew about money.

Unless one belongs to a church that preaches prosperity theology, one hears among people of faith a concerted attempt to make one feel guilty about one’s comfort. One cannot be a servant to both God and money, and the love of money is a root of evil, and one should not store earthly treasures. Hermit saints like Seraphim of Sarov and Mary of Egypt who lived in destitution are held up as examples.

But this kind of preaching is as unbalanced as prosperity theology. We are called to be “as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” It is irresponsible not to manage one’s money carefully when one has children. In this era of modern medicine where people grow old slowly and die even more slowly, it is irresponsible not to save up money for the time of disability that most people face in old age.

What is more productive than austerity preaching is to teach ascetic questioning, to challenge ourselves: Do I really need both television and internet? Do I really need clothes I do not wear? Do I need a new computer? Do I need a little gadget singing in my ear all the time? Do I need that bag of flour? Do I need that bar of soap? Do I need that pencil? Do I need those plain cotton underpants? Maybe, maybe not. Maybe we should go commando!

Some traditions call the Wise Men kings, although there is no scriptural evidence that they were kings, or even that there were exactly three of them. What is clear is that they were pretty wealthy. And this shows in the mosaic header I use on my blog: They are richly dressed in heavy, multicolored robes and red Phrygian caps; they carry fancy containers and not simple earthen pots; and they are depicted in a scene of luxury, a dreamy golden sky with delicious fruit hanging down from date trees. (If you have never eaten a whole date and not one of those crumbly pebbles, you have missed a real treat.)

Critically, above all, they are offering their gifts to God, the King of All, who normally doesn’t need anything, but as a baby desperately needs material support.

And, as Christ says, “Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me” and “whoever gives one of these little ones only a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple, assuredly, I say to you, he shall by no means lose his reward.” When we look into one another’s eyes, we are seeing God in them. So in the midst of the commercialism and greed of the Christmas season, I want to affirm that in the spirit of self-questioning, the act of gift-giving, and enjoying doing so, is nothing to be ashamed of and can indeed be an expression of respect to God.

We, too, are spirit, and we, too, are flesh. We are both physical and nonphysical. As was God. So let us take an attitude neither of unrestrained materialism or unthinking renunciation, but instead follow a truer path of asceticism, which is questioning, and challenging, and taking action.

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Christ was a baby who needed milk

 

Too snug

I started out by writing some nonsense about not having posted for over a week because I was struggling with a topic. Indeed, my next post will be an Observation, and those always take a little longer to write.

However, the main truth about my silence was that in my constant war against overflow of the “bathtub” of my SRO, I’ve had to turn my emotional attention, slowly and very reluctantly, from shopaholism to hoarding.

Packratting is boring compared to shopaholism: I don’t want to gather up all my trash, then walk it down two storeys to the garbage depot, and then walk back up. Same story, again and again. And the more days I am in denial, as I have been this past week, the worse it gets.

At this time of year, facing my clutter is even more difficult. I don’t want to deal with the gifts that people give me, so I leave them here and there half-opened so that the boxes and wrappers snag on me when I try to walk from one place to another in my little home. (Let’s see if I get to the Harry and David’s basket before the pears go bad.) Then there’s the problem of the original boxes that things were shipped to me in that aren’t nice enough to use to give people their presents in. And now I don’t have space to gather up trash as I usually do, so the bags and boxes from needful things like food and prescriptions pile up, ready for me to slip and fall on and for vermin to explore

It’s like the huge garbage whorls in the Pacific Ocean. There’s the big patch by the sink, the patch between my computer and the window, the patch by the door on the closet side, the patch by the door on the other side…

It always amazes me that in about ten days I can go from imagining that I’ve got my hoarding sort of under control to finding that I’m living in quite unpleasant circumstances of my own making. Given that my place is only 8′ x 10′, I shouldn’t be so surprised at how fast this happens, but the sudden ballooning always takes me unawares. I really do feel like Alice (in Wonderland) panicking at how small my room has become so quickly.

I took a couple of little presents to the foyer and put them on the freecycle shelf for someone else to use as their Christmas presents for people in their lives, but that’s not nearly enough to make up for the chaos reigning rampant in my home.

So I am sorry not to have written as I regularly do, but I think the hoarding situation is urgent enough for me to sign off now and put some sweat into dealing with the mess. Housekeeping requires a completely different sort of asceticism from restraining shopaholism, but it is ascetic nonetheless.

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Too sweet to eat

This recipe probably should be called not “Arroz con Leche” but, rather, “Death to All Diabetics!” It is delightfully and lethally full of sugar, starch, and saturated fat.

Furthermore, not only is this bad for anyone with blood glucose control issues, it is one of those dishes, like lobster drenched with margarine and served with glasses of champagne, that meets the ascetic dietary rules of my religion for the pre-Christmas season while utterly violating their spirit (which is why those rules are only guidelines and not religious law). This dessert is really a feasting food, and only if you aren’t diabetic, hyperinsulinemic, glucose intolerant, or the like.

eagle-brand-sweetened-condensed-milkThoughts of this recipe have been bothering me for a solid month and a half. I can imagine its milky, coconutty, starchy, sweet, delicately spiced rice flavor and chewy grainy texture with such vividness that I have been constantly tempted to buy all the ingredients and beg my friends to let me use their kitchen to make it. I yearn for the taste of condensed milk, which is a canned cream-colored substance composed of whole milk cooked with so much sugar it is extremely viscous, and almost solid when chilled, and for the aroma of coconut milk, which is a thick product much richer (i.e., fattier) than coconut water.

I want to take a big bowl, fetch a pint of this rice dessert, and go to town, my eyelids drooping half-closed in pleasure as I chew slowly, lick my sticky lips, and suck on the spoon. No matter if I’m nauseated, sleepy, and headachy for a full day afterward while my blood sugar soars through the roof — the pleasure’s the thing.

Just like my other fantasies of acquiring particular objects, the desire to eat arroz con leche is another manifestation of a type of greed — gluttony — that I wish to turn away from. I share the recipe with you partly in case you are one of those people who can eat anything (at least a bit now and then) without ill effects or religious strictures, but mostly because this blog really has been helping me to let go of these pesky greedy obsessive thoughts about things I choose not to indulge in. Herewith:

Arroz con Leche

By Elizabeth Carrion
Published October 11, 2013
Fox News Latino

Ingredients

  • 3 cups water
  • 3-4 cinnamon sticks
  • 5-6 cloves
  • 1 inch piece fresh ginger
  • 2 cups short or medium grain rice
  • 12 ounce can coconut milk
  • 12 ounce can evaporated milk
  • 14 ounce can condensed milk
  • ½ to ¾ cup raisins
  • Ground cinnamon

Directions

  1. Add water, cinnamon sticks, cloves and ginger to a large pot and bring to a boil. Simmer for 5-10 minutes.
  2. Strain to remove spices. Add same water back to pot.
  3.  Add rice and simmer on low for 30 minutes.
  4. Add coconut, evaporated and condensed milk and continue to cook on low until rice is tender to your preference. Mix frequently so that rice does not stick to the bottom of the pot.
  5. When ready, fold in raisins.
  6. Serve in bowls and sprinkle with ground cinnamon.

Tip: If rice is not tender enough or has dried out, add milk ½ cup at a time and sugar to taste.

Serves a crowd.

http://latino.foxnews.com/latino/lifestyle/2013/10/11/hispanic-heritage-month-arroz-con-leche/

Black Friday preview

This 1:44 video made me incredibly sad. As an ascetic shopper, I cannot imagine how anyone could possibly get any good, satisfying, enjoyable merchandise under such circumstances, much less find a gift suited to a particular person; and I hope it is obvious to the reader that the free expression of unrestrained greed cannot be of any interior benefit at all to the participants. Turn your sound WAY down if you choose to watch.

Thinking of buying? Think about buying.

This anonymous condolence verse is all wrong. We are not just our souls!

Loving friends! Be wise and dry
Straightway every weeping eye,
“What ye lift upon the bier
Is not worth a wistful tear.
‘Tis an empty seashell, — one
Out of which the pearl is gone;
The shell is broken, it lies there;
The pearl, the all, the soul, is here.”

Our souls are part of us along with our minds and bodies. Our selves are not just intellects inhabiting meaningless bodies, the way the above verse claims. However, on the other hand, we are more than chunks of meat that think and feel. We have both physical and nonphysical elements united together, each being (only) part of us.

The tragedy of death is not really that of the bereaved losing the deceased. The tragedy of death is the separation of the body, which is (merely) part of us, from the non-material element of our selves, which is also (merely) part of us. Death breaks us in two. Dead bodies are indeed worth weeping over, every bit as much as live bodies deserve to be loved and hugged and cared for.

This is on my mind in relation to, of all things, the “holiday” shopping frenzy. More than in previous years, I’ve been reading a lot of business news stories about Black Friday, Thanksgiving store openings, and the expected tens of millions of shoppers. This has led to some thought about some of the purposes of this blog.

Because of my belief that we are composed of both material and non-material elements, I mean two things when I examine an item closely in this blog. I say that goods can be good, that the material world is worth enjoying, that matter matters. But beyond this, I am also saying that the material world should be examined closely and enjoyed with real thoroughness, awareness, and, yes, suspicion. If you are going to own something, then really choose it, own it with respect, use it, enjoy it, appreciate it, and don’t let it own you. And real enjoyment of our possessions entails taking a close hard look at things we want but do not own yet. And so I take a close, appreciative, respectful look at things I long for but decide to deny myself. I do not blanket condemn the physical world.

However, the sickness of the holiday buying frenzy is that no objects are contemplated and examined for their goodness and their meaning; they are not appreciated or truly wanted; they are only grabbed at, seized, barely looked at for a minute or two. They are mere entertainment, never truly enjoyed.

This acquisitiveness, this greed, this materialism, is a mirror image to the idea that we are nothing but souls in shells, ghosts in machines, intellects inhabiting meat. Both attitudes show disrespect to the physical world. And both are wrong.

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