Thoughts on Fasting

Today is Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of Lent for Roman Catholics. The Orthodox Church has a different start date for Lent- Coptic Lent is already underway, and Greek/ Russian orthodox Lent begins next Monday.

The Catholic Lenten fast is pretty light- you just abstain from meat for a handful of days, and if possible, eat only one meal plus two snacks on those days.

The Orthodox Church is much stricter, requiring a vegan diet for the duration of lent, but is ambiguous about how many meals a person can eat each day. Only the Coptic Church is specific: those who are able to must abstain from all food and drink (including water) until a single evening meal- similar to the Ramadan fast but without the pre-dawn breakfast. Children, sick and elderly are exempt and can eat throughout the day.

I always found the “vegan fast” kind of odd. Having been a strict vegan for many years I know it is entirely possible to eat sumptuously on a vegan diet. I got damn good at cooking “fake meat” dishes- they rivaled the real thing. I could bake mountains of cookies, breads, cakes, muffins and churn out delicious pilafs with quinoa and brown rice. My salads were fantastic- a carrot raisin salad with peanut dressing was my favorite. YUM!

Fast forward to my diabetes diagnosis and I had to ditch the vast majority of vegan foods. Even “healthy whole grains” like brown rice, and the health-food-worshiped bean spike my blood sugar astronomically. Practically overnight I went from a bean, fruit, veggie and grain devouring vegan (I was a “healthy vegan,” having eschewed sugar for years before my diagnosis) to an all out carnivore.

Ironically I find eating a meat based, very low carb diet far more restrictive and spartan than my vegan days. I mean, technically I was following an orthodox Lenten fast for years! Funny, right? I never felt deprived in any way. But for three years now I have eaten nothing but meat, fish, egg yolks (I don’t like the whites) low carb vegetables, mayonnaise and the occasional binge on peanut butter. That’s it, and yes, it can grow taxing being boxed into such a restrictive diet by fate of health.

Another puzzle for me is that without restricting when you can eat, I don’t see where the fast is. Not to be a bible thumper, but when the bible mentions fasting it means NOT EATING! In some cases it means not even drinking water! How is having three square vegan meals a day “fasting?” There is a running joke in the Orthodox Church that people gain weight during the Lenten fast- Greeks are amazing cooks.

As a diabetic I am exempted from the fast, but would like to try the once-a-day eating if I can handle it. I’ve never done that before in my life, so one more thing to cross off the bucket list. Technically this is intermittent fasting which is all the rage these days.

Orthodox Christians are annoying. Try asking one about fasting rules, or what their personal views are on fasting. All you will get is “Ask a priest!!” Jeesh. God forbid you have an autonomous thought.

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Mystical Allegory in The Good Catholic

[contains spoilers]

On the surface The Good Catholic is a sweet if awkward story of an unconsummated romance between a catholic priest and a free spirited, artistic young woman. Yet while watching, I kept catching hints there might be an intentional deeper, ‘supernatural’ secondary narrative, not unlike Boondock Saints. Like Boondock, The Good Catholic sprinkles easter eggs pointing to a hidden meaning, some more obvious than others.

The most obvious ‘hint’ that this is more than a simple love story is the bingo scene. Strangely in this scene the only person who seems to be able to see Jane is Father Daniel. Even when they burst into an argument, and Jane storms out after throwing a bible at him, no one looks up from their bingo cards. Believe me if a catholic priest was seen in public arguing with a beautiful young woman, people would notice!

Then it occurred to me: in both cafe scenes where Jane is singing, again, the only person who seems able to see her is Father Daniel. In the second scene Jane even makes a point of chastising the crowd for ignoring her.

With the theme of ‘seeing god’ introduced early on in the film it becomes clear that the Jane character is meant to represent more than an attractive young woman: she represents god, or belief in god. So the ‘relationship’ that develops between her and Father Daniel is, on this deeper level, in fact the story of his evolving relationship with god.

If Jane does in fact represent god, her strange assertion that she is dying suddenly makes sense; it is a nod to the nietzschean ‘god is dead,’ a nod to loss of faith in a relentlessly secularized world. And it is only after Father Daniel has fallen in love with her that she ‘comes back to life’ and admits she is not, in fact, dying.

There may be a further, even more wild mystery to the film regarding the priests. Note how many times the three priests are shown eating at the table in the exact same position. This is an unmistakable nod to the famous “three angels” holy trinity icon:

(note the three frames, and the three panes of glass in the background door)

The origin of this image is Genesis 18, where Abraham is approached by three angels who tell him his wife will conceive a son. Abraham then feeds them a meal. Christians believe these “three angels” represent the holy trinity, thus why you often see three angels sat around a table in orthodox icons.

The only scene where Jane is recognized by anyone other than Father Daniel is when she visits the rectory for dinner. Why does such a small parish have three priests? Even huge Staten Island parishes only have two priests. And why are the three priests repeatedly visually referenced to the holy trinity?

For non-christians out there, the catholic concept of the trinity is “three in one.” So while you may have three separate aspects to the trinity, they are ultimately considered one entity. An argument could be made here that, allegorically, these three priests are all aspects of Father Victor’s personality, and Father Victor is in fact the only priest in the parish. There are hints to this too scattered throughout the film; note how Father Victor tells Father Daniel that he “reminds him of a younger version of himself.”

Furthermore Father Victor is the only black person in the entire film (I would have to rewatch it, but I’m pretty sure even the crowd scenes are all white). Why was Father Victor cast as a black man? Was it the chance of catching a famous actor (Danny Glover) or was this deliberate and part of the script?

The reason this is important is because both catholic and orthodox churches have a mysterious tradition of depicting the madonna as having black skin- the “black madonnas.” These vierges noires are associated with miracles, mystery, and spiritual revelation.

If you watch (or rewatch) the film with these two points in mind: Jane as a representation of god/ belief in god, and the three priests as aspects of a single priest’s personality and struggles, I guarantee you will start picking up on the many hints and easter eggs scattered throughout. Pointedly the final dinner exchange between Jane and Father Victor lays it out plainly:

Jane: Was that, like, supposed to have some sort of deeper meaning?

Father Victor: In our work, everything has deeper meaning.

When viewed through this lens the film is not about a priest who abandons his faith for a romantic attraction, but rather about the psychological turmoil of a priest who ultimately ‘falls in love’ with god. It’s no mistake that the final scene is of Father Daniel about to knock on Jane’s door. Even casual christians will know Jesus’ famous statement: Knock and the door shall be opened.

 

 

 

The Good Catholic

[spoiler free]

The Good Catholic is a 2017 drama-slash-comedy, written and directed by Paul Shoulberg, about a catholic priest who finds himself drawn to a woman who wanders into his confessional. The priest then wrangles with his emotions, faith, and vocation.

The film is clearly low budget, with a video look and fixed scenes. But the acting is excellent; Zachary Spicer is poignant as the straight laced Father Daniel; Wrenn Schmidt is striking as the artsy, intense, annoying Jane; Danny Glover delivers an excellent performance as the glowering Father Victor, and Father Ollie- my favorite character- is beautifully acted by John McGinley.

I intentionally have avoided reading reviews of The Good Catholic, because while watching it I couldn’t tell if this is something catholics would love or hate. Catholics are weird- you never know what will offend them. I’ve had casual catholics freak out on me over the vaguest slight to their faith, even when I meant no harm.

I’m going to guess catholics will split 50-50 over this film. While yes there are offensive scenes where Jane is disrespectful toward priests, the priests themselves and the church are displayed in a highly affectionate and favorable light. There is no catholic bashing as Hollywood is wont to do.

So yes I recommend this film. It’s kind of a fluff piece and in places tries too hard to be profound, but the relationships and character development are sweetly intriguing and the acting on point throughout.

The film is available on netflix as of this posting.

 

The Rarefied Few

I overshot yesterday based on what I thought was fast returning vim and vigor. After barely eating for days I prepared a “normal” lunch- scrambled eggs with blue cheese. Ate it with relative ease (remember it was agony to swallow water two days ago). Topped things off with two glasses of ice water. This is more food and water than I ate all three days previous.

I felt pretty good! Took a shower, changed my clothes, got my three year old bundled up so we could fetch his older sisters from school. Then… a proverbial truck hit me. I was suddenly shaky, weak, horribly nauseous. I managed to get the two of us into the car and preemptively brought along a metal bowl.

I sat in the parking lot watching the minutes tick by like molasses; normally I enjoy this small hiatus, waiting for the doors to open. I pressed my face against the cold window willing myself not to throw up. When the kids began to trickle out I walked back and forth in the courtyard, found my older daughter and whispered (I have completely lost my voice) in her ear I was sick, could she bring her sisters to the car? I made a beeline back to the car and started puking my guts into that metal bowl.

As all this unfolded I reflected I was joining the rarefied few of humanity who have vomited in church parking lots. Really, how often could this happen? People don’t use church reception halls for weddings like they used to. It couldn’t be many of us.

I kept puking and puking and puking. Out of the corner of my eye I saw one of my daughter’s friend’s mother- I dearly hoped she couldn’t see what was going on. When all was said and done I had three girls plus my three year old staring at me aghast.

Mommy… asked my oldest daughter. Are you okay? 

Uh not really I managed in hoarse whisper, staring at the bowl brimming with vomit. I looked around blinking. Where to dispose of it? To my right was the grotto of the virgin mary; people leave roses and other flowers there. Nope. To my left was the backyard of the convent, modest snowbanks abutting the chain link fence. That might be a good spot? I’m sure the nuns would understand.

Bowl in hand I made my way through the exiting cars and neatly poured my stomach contents into the snowbank. I was surprised how watery it was; I must chew my food really well.

Back at the car I wiped my face with a towel, then wrapped the bowl in that towel, carefully placing it in the trunk. We drove home in silence… I guess the girls were in a state of shell shocked disgust.

Once home I dragged/ carried the uncooperative three year old up the stairs, asked my older daughter to man the ship and I collapsed into bed. Three hours later I woke with the song “Anthem” from Chess in my head.

So what happened? The penicillin doesn’t make me nauseous, I’ve repeatedly taken it on an empty stomach with no ill effect. Did I experience a mild version of refeeding syndrome? When a person goes a long period not eating, food must be reintroduced gradually or they can experience a nasty assortment of symptoms ranging from vomiting to edema. Or maybe I drank too much water after days of dehydration?

I guess it doesn’t matter because today I AM on the up and up! I can swallow food and water with minimal pain. Thank god for antibiotics.

The Lesson From St. Paisios Is…

…get thee to urgent care!

Shortly after writing my last post I realized the pain was so excruciating, this couldn’t be a run of the mill sore throat. I imagined St. Paisios standing before me with a look of exasperation.

You crazy girl? Go to urgent care!

When my husband got back from errands I whispered (since my voice is totally awol) I need to go to urgent care. He was kind enough to drive me, and thankfully the waiting room was not packed. I was triaged right away which included a brutally painful strep test (I’m not exaggerating- the pain, when triggered, is on par with labor contractions). I saw white and recoiled into my seat.

Then we waited, and waited… took forever even though it wasn’t crowded. Two russian families poured in and waited with us, chatting in russian and watching the flat screen doling out healthy living tips. Do yoga. Eat fruits and vegetables. Avoid potato chips!

Finally we were called in; a tired but friendly doctor confirmed I do indeed have strep and he would give me penicillin. I wrote on a piece of paper- can you give me anything for pain? Nope, he said. Take advil and tylenol. Ugghhhh.

How is it junkies manage to procure bottles of pills but non-junkies like me are relegated to advil? I was already taking double doses of advil and it didn’t touch the pain. Oh well. Time to suffer.

I spent the rest of the day watching TV, popping penicillin, advil, forcing down what little food or water I could manage- I’ve lost four pounds in three days- perhaps strep throat should be marketed as a weight loss program!

This morning and four doses of penicillin in, the pain is downgraded from 10 to 8, I still have a fever and can barely eat or drink, but by all appearances am on the mend. I had no idea strep throat is so painful! And it can turn into rheumatic/ scarlet fever! How did anyone survive this back in the day? I remember how the entire family fell to scarlet fever in Little House on the Prairie– it’s how Mary lost her vision and went blind at age 14.

Really Extremely Sick

I can’t remember the last time I was sick. Back in march I broke my toe and a rib. That sucked. It took eight weeks for me to walk somewhat normally and more months where turning side to side while sleeping didn’t send a shockwave of pain through my torso. But I don’t think I came down with a cold, since… not sure. A long time!

A few weeks ago my kids started dropping like dominoes with a nasty cold. My 20 year old puking and passed out in bed for days. My 6 year old had a fever for five days! Then the 12 and 8 year olds succumbed. My 14 year old faked succumbing (she’s sneaky like that) then my 15 year old was hit. Even my husband who never gets sick has a nagging cough.

I’m now on day three of the most nightmarishly painful sore throat I’ve EVER had in four decades of existence. It’s like an invisible sadist is jamming needles into my tissue and god forbid I have to actually cough or swallow something. Add to this persistent fever and body aches. Oi vey! How much is a skinny housewife supposed to endure? What did I do to deserve this cosmic torture?

St. Paisios is known to have said his greatest lessons were learned from his illnesses. I kept reciting that to myself last night between 20 minute patches of sleep and countdowns to the next dose of advil, an avalanche of tissues piling up beside the bed. Not sure what the lesson is here, although once I’m well I’ll treasure my health in a way I neglected previously. Like when my toe was sufficiently healed so that I could walk. Wow!! I forgot how much fun walking is!

Perhaps the moral is to appreciate the small things in life. I’ll let you know once I’ve rejoined the world of the living.

A Hindu and a Christian Walk Into a Bar

In high school I had a history teacher who spent time in India teaching at a private school for children of diplomats. More than once he related funny stories of Christian missionaries enthusiastically received by would-be converts. Of course they believed in Jesus’ message! They would be thrilled to worship him! Then they set the statue of Jesus on the shelf next to Ganesha and Krishna.

When I read Autobiography of a Yogi I noted with interest mention of a book that supposedly illustrates absolute synchronicity between Christianity and Hinduism. Huh? This I had to read. It was written by Yogananda’s guru Yukteswar Giri.

I ordered The Holy Science from amazon and it promptly arrived on my doorstep. I cracked open the slim volume- read it cover to cover- read it cover to cover again- and it made absolutely no sense. It’s not that I disagreed with anything it claimed, because I couldn’t tell what it was claiming! No joke: this book might as well be written in Klingon. There is one semi-coherent passage about how humans, based on the length of their intestines, are meant to be fruitarians. But didn’t Jesus eat fish?

As it turns out Yogananda also wrote on the supposed synchronicity between Hinduism and Christianity. I ordered The Yoga of Jesus: Understanding the Hidden Teachings of the Gospels, read *it* cover to cover, and unlike The Holy Science it was coherently written. Paramhansa’s writing style is eminently accessible and adroit.

I thought I might give you the cliff notes of Yogananda’s theories, in case you’re curious, but don’t want to bother buying or reading the book.

The notion of “god incarnate” is a familiar one to Hinduism. In fact, according to Hinduism, there are any number of living saints walking the earth who essentially “channel” god and can act, teach, and be worshiped as divine entities. Mata Amritanandamayi (“Amma”) is a good example of this. So right off the bat we have a deep commonality between the two faiths. Of course Christians believe Jesus was the ONLY living incarnation of god, but this is a moot point for Yogananda.

The purpose of religion, according to Yogananda, is not to dictate morality, make a person righteous, nor to grant association with a particular group. Rather the point of religion is to expand one’s consciousness. He calls this “Christ consciousness-” what Jesus alludes to when he says “the kingdom of heaven is within you.” As to how one achieves expanded consciousness, Yogananda recommends meditation and yoga (the spiritual kind, not the exercise kind). While this may sound kooky, in the gospels Jesus does engage in a brand of meditation when he “withdraws” to the desert; the Hebrew term for this is hitbodedut and has its roots in Jewish mysticism.

Yogananda’s next assertion will sound even more far fetched to mainstream Christians. He is adamant Jesus’ “lost years” were spent studying with Hindu rishis (holy men) in the Himalayas.

A small detail in the gospels lends credence to the assertion: remember those “wise men from the east” who are “led by stars” to Jesus’ birthplace? Well east of Palestine is the Indian subcontinent. It is entirely plausible these men were in fact Hindu.

Yogananda further interprets “being born again” as a literal reference to reincarnation. One must be “born again” (and again, and again) to better calibrate one’s soul. In fact the end goal of Hinduism is to escape further incarnations by achieving “god consciousness” and merging back with the divine- remember how Jesus says “I and the father are one?” This is exactly what Yogananda is talking about. His term for it is “self-realization.”

As I have stated in previous posts, mystical Judaism holds a tenet of reincarnation, gilgul– literally “recycling” or “wheel.” When Jesus asks if a man is born blind because he sinned, or if his parents sinned, this implies a belief in reincarnation. Since a baby can’t sin, the sin could only have transpired in a previous life. According to Hinduism negative karma caused by sin can be “burned off” in subsequent incarnations, eventually refining the human soul to the point of perfection, i.e. god consciousness.

One of the more fascinating assertions in this book is that the seven seals of revelation are in fact the seven chakras. Chakras are the “seals” in the physical body wherein the soul can enter and exit. I have experienced this firsthand with my projections, and have otherwise felt chakras “light up” with a sort of burning energy. Sounds crazy, but I can (subjectively) attest to the reality of these portals on the human body.

I’ve only touched the surface here but if your interest is piqued I highly recommend the book- it is well written and sheds a compelling if bizarre light on christianity. There are other topics covered, for instance the concept of Satan is linked to maya– the illusion of the physical world- which doesn’t entirely make sense to me but perhaps I’m missing something.

In closing, has Yogananda revealed hidden truths here or is this the result of a wild culture clash between east and west? I suppose the answer depends on your beliefs. Hinduism describes existence as a game of hide and seek god plays against himself; he “hides” himself in creation and then must be discovered, kind of like easter eggs in a video game. The Sanskrit term for this is lila- “divine play.” If we as humans are emanations of god’s consciousness, then our “job” in life is to play the seeker in the game.

Paramahansa Yogananda’s Excellent Adventure

When I related my daughter’s Koran shopping episode I noted that Barnes and Noble carries exactly zero books about Hinduism in its religion section. Being married to my husband, I know that not a single book at B&N is accidentally placed: exhaustive research is executed on buying habits of customers, and the potential profitability of each and every book. In fact, even how the books are laid out is thoroughly researched and deliberate. You know those tables scattered throughout the store? Publishers pay a premium to have their volumes displayed on them, as opposed to the shelves.

There are tons of new age, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and Buddhist books– but nary a volume on Hinduism. Which is strange, because immigrant Hindus in the U.S. tend to be well educated and of the book buying capacity.

However, I do occasionally see one or two volumes published by the Self Realization Fellowship, which as far as I can tell is a quasi-Hindu organization devoted to bringing the “spirit” of Hinduism to a western audience. So it’s not exactly Hindu per se, but probably the closest you’re going to find at B&N.

One day earlier this year I bought one of those volumes: Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda, pictured below:

paramahansa-yogananda
ommmm…

I got the book home and my husband immediately asked: why did I bring Steve Job’s book home?

Huh? I had no clue what he was talking about.

As it turns out Autobiography of a Yogi was handed out at Mr. Job’s funeral per his request. The Self Realization Fellowship had to scramble to supply oodles of copies, and those who watched the scion interred walked away with a parting gift. Which I now happened to own as well.

The book is not what you think– or at least it wasn’t what I anticipated. I imagined a few hundred pages of Hindu apologetics, and while the volume does include that betimes, Mr. Yogananda’s chirpy, almost silly voice delivers a spellbinding tale that, like most truth, is stranger than fiction.

Way back in the 1930s Mr. Yogananda received a call from God to preach Hinduism, or quasi-Hinduism to the west. So he peregrinates to the States and not only was he well received here, but eventually, with a couple western disciples, embarked (in a model T Ford!) on an around-the-world journey to interview a variety of saints and gurus, including Mahatma Gandhi and stigmatic Therese Neumann.

While in audience of Ms. Neumann Mr. Yogananda uses his vulcan mind-meld powers (yes, he can read minds, but typically only does so with permission) to see if she’s a fake: she isn’t, and by entering her mind Mr. Yogananda witnessed the passion of Jesus Christ in excruciating detail, just as Ms. Neumann did during her stigmatic episodes. He concludes that Ms. Neumann was granted the gift of the stigmata so that Christians could have the veracity and suffering of Jesus Christ validated. (Even if you don’t feel like reading the whole book, reading that chapter alone is worth the effort and $12.50… not to mention the volume is available free online in pdf form.)

The book is not entirely autobiographical and does delve into Mr. Yogananda’s theological “unifying theories–” namely that there are no vital differences between Hinduism and Christianity. Of course, this will make your average believing Christian’s head explode, but he does offer salient points, or at the very least food for fodder. For instance there is evidence that early Christians held a tenet of reincarnation- as does mystical Judaism, from whence Christianity arose.  When Jesus heals the man born blind, he asks: did this man sin, or did his parents sin? Well a baby cannot sin, so where did this sin originate? Plausibly this is a reference to a previous incarnation, hearkening to the concept of karma. Furthermore the gospels imply that John the Baptist is the “recycled” (to use the hebrew term, gilgul) version of Elijah. In Matthew 11 Jesus says of John the Baptist, And if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

Mr. Yogananda’s theories on Christian-Hindu unity are complex and I can’t pretend to understand them fully. However, one his stranger postulations is that the Hindu concept of maya– illusion- is synonymous with the Christian notion of Satan. This will be a foreign concept to believing Christians, who view Satan as a personified fallen angel who tempts mankind toward evil deeds.

The book is an easy read and would be of interest to anyone with a yen for religion or history, as the era in which Mr. Yoganada travels prefaces World War II. Heck, it would be an interesting read even for people with an interest in Steve Jobs! So if you are looking for a book to page through by the pool, this one comes highly recommended.

Catholic School

Some views from the caverns of Catholic school. When I walk into my younger children’s school I feel I’ve been transported back in time. Case in point:

phonebooth
Neo?

Despite growing up in a Christian environment I still find it bizarre to see Christian iconography in a school.

stjoseph
supernatural hallway monitor

infantjesus
infant jesus of prague, backup for checking hallway passes

cagethe cage where they lock up naughty children. JUST KIDDING! this blocks access to the roof.

lastsupperthe last supper in the auditorium

francisPope Francis looking humble and communist.

nrdame
the virgin at my older daughter’s school.