Plunging myself into matter

Until relatively recently, I have always had an ambivalent attitude about food.  It is an attitude I inherited from my father, which undoubtedly has a great deal to do with our metabolisms.  Both of us are thin and neither of us enjoy food as we should.  My mother was fond of saying that some people (like her) live to eat, while others (like my father and I) eat to live.

But in a very real sense, my father and I have a unique dependence on food.  When we get hungry, which must happen in several times in the course of any day, we become mean.  Often this happens quite quickly.  In a matter of second,s I can turn into a real beast without even realizing why.  C. S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity:

“Most of the man’s psychological make-up is probably due to his body: when his body dies all that will fall off him, and the real central man, the thing that chose, that made the best or worst of this material, will stand naked. All sorts of nice things which we thought our own, but which were really due to good digestion, will fall off some of us: all sorts of nasty things which were due to complexes or bad health will fall off others. “

Of course, I believe that my personality is tied to my body in such a way that if all that were to “fall off” me, I would no longer be “me”.   But Lewis’ observation that our niceness or nastiness has a lot to do with our digestion is confirmed in my case.

It has taken me years to educate myself so that I am more conscious of this process and can intervene and eat something quickly before I do or say something I will shortly regret.  This problem is complicated further by the curious fact that, the hungrier I get, the more I lose my appetite.  The more I need to eat, the less any food appeals to me.  And then I must quite deliberately force myself to consume what is food which seems repulsive to me.  While many people struggle with gluttony, I have my entire life struggled with its opposite … I’m looking for a word for it, but I can’t find one.

Jane Ellen Harrison actually describes this temperament in her discussion of the Dionysian religion in her Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion:

“There are some to whom by natural temperament the religion of Bromios, son of Semele, is and must always be a dead letter, if not a stumbling-block.  Food is to such a troublesome necessity, wine a danger or a disgust.  They dread all stimulus that comes from without, they would fain to break the ties that link them with animals and plants.  They do not feel in themselves and are at a loss to imagine for others the sacramental mystery of life and nutrition that is accomplished in us day by day, how in the faintness of fasting the whole nature of man, spirit as well as body, dies down, he cannot think, he cannot work, he cannot love; how in the breaking of bread, and still more in the drinking of wine, life spiritual as well as physical is renewed, thought is reborn, his equanimity, his magnanimity are restored, reason and morality rule again.  But to this sacramentalism of life most of us bear constant , if partially unconscious, witness.”

For most of my life, I have experienced food as a “troublesome necessity” and “stumbling block”.  And as Harrison observes, my relationship with food was related to a more general relationship with the external, material world.  She states that people of this temperament “dread all stimulus that comes from without, they would fain to break the ties that link them with animals and plants.”  This was me.  If I could have lived a purely mental life, separated from my physical body, I would have.  If given the choice, I would have readily given up all the joys of food, sleep, and sex, if I could also be relieved of their troubling necessity.

I’d like to blame the Christian notion of the separate existence of the disembodied soul for reinforcing this attitude.  But in my case, since I was raised Mormon, I have no such excuse.  Mormons have a unique doctrine regarding physicality.   Mormons believe that God has a physical body and that one of the reasons for our mortal existence is to to experience embodiment.  Like many Christians, Mormons believe in a bodily resurrection, in an immortal and perfected body.  But, Mormons believe that this perfected bodily existence will include eating, and drinking, and sex!  What’s more, Mormons believe that our spiritual selves are actually material also, only of a more refined nature than our physical bodies.  So, I can hardly blame my Mormon upbringing for my attitudes.  They are perhaps unique Christians for having such a pro-body, pro-matter doctrine.

So I am left blaming my metabolism and my own idiosyncratic personality for my aversion to food and all matter.  With my conversion to Paganism, however, I became convinced of the essential and inescapable nature of physical existence, and I came to understand that if I failed to enjoy what physical life had to offer, then I was very probably missing the point of my life, and would discover upon my death, as Thoreau says, that I had not lived.

Curiously, it was the words, not of a pagan author, but of a Christian priest, Teilhard de Chardin, that brought this home to me.  (Although de Chardin is hardly an orthodox Christian, and has in fact been accused of being pagan.)  When I read these words from Teilhard de Chardin’s Hymn of the Universe, they seemed to me to be the words of the Goddess to me personally:

‘You called me: here I am. Driven by the Spirit far from humanity’s caravan routes, you dared to venture into the untouched wilderness; grown weary of abstractions, of attenuations, of the wordiness of social life, you wanted to pit yourself against Reality entire and untamed.

‘You had need of me in order to grow; and I was waiting for you in order to be made holy.

‘Always you have, without knowing it, desired me; and always I have been drawing you to me.

‘I am the fire that consumes and the water that overthrows; … all that breaks apart and all that binds together; power, experiment, progress — matter: all this am I.

‘Because in my violence I sometimes slay my lovers; because he who touches me never knows what power he is unleashing, wise men fear me and curse me. They speak of me with scorn, calling me beggar-woman or witch or harlot; but their words are at variance with life, and the pharisees who condemn me, waste away in the outlook to which they confine themselves; they die of inanition and their disciples desert them because I am the essence of all that is tangible, and men cannot do without me.

‘Son of earth, steep yourself in the sea of matter, bathe in its fiery waters, for it is the source of your life and your youthfulness.

‘You thought you could do without it because the power of thought has been kindled in you? You hoped that the more thoroughly you rejected the tangible, the closer you would be to spirit: that you would be more divine if you lived in the world of pure thought, or at least more angelic if you fled the corporeal? Well, you were like to have perished of hunger.

‘You must have oil for your limbs, blood for your veins, water for your soul, the world of reality for your intellect: do you not see that the very law of your own nature makes these a necessity for you?

‘Never, if you work to live and to grow, never will you be able to say to matter, “I have seen enough of you; I have surveyed your mysteries and have taken from them enough food for my thought to last me for ever.” I tell you: even though, like the Sage of sages, you carried in your memory the image of all the beings that people the earth or swim in the seas, still all that knowledge would be as nothing for your soul, for all abstract knowledge is only a faded reality: this is because to understand the world knowledge is not enough, you must see it, touch it, live in its presence and drink the vital heat of existence in the very heart of reality.

‘Never say, then, as some say: “The kingdom of matter is worn out, matter is dead”: till the very end of time matter will always remain young, exuberant, sparkling, new-born for those who are willing.

‘Never say, “Matter is accursed, matter is evil”: for there has come one who said, … “Life shall spring forth out of death”, and then finally, the words which spell my definitive liberation, “This is my body”.

‘Purity does not lie in separation from, but in a deeper penetration into the universe. It is to be found in the love of that unique, boundless Essence which penetrates the inmost depths of all things and there, from within those depths, deeper than the mortal zone where individuals and multitudes struggle, works upon them and moulds them. Purity lies in a chaste contact with that which is “the same in all”.

‘Oh, the beauty of spirit as it rises up adorned with all the riches of the earth!

‘Son of man, bathe yourself in the ocean of matter; plunge into it where it is deepest and most violent; struggle in its currents and drink of its waters. For it cradled you long ago in your preconscious existence; and it is that ocean that will raise you up to God.’

One day after reading this I realized that I no longer dreaded eating, or resented sleep, or begrudged the pleasure of sex.  I’m hardly a hedonist now, and I still need to consciously make myself slow down and taste my food, which I usually inhale rather than eat … but it’s a step in the right direction.

I am still trying to develop that sense of what Harrison describes as the “sacramentalalism of life”.  A key to this, I think, is consecrating the simple act of eating.  And my next post will be about the meaning of food and the holiness of eating.


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