In the previous post, I pointed out that moralistic alternatives to consumerism (self-acceptance, selflessness) can only temporarily mask our drive to consume. We will never be able to get rid of our attraction to material objects or to beauty. What is needed is not to diminish these attractions, but instead to channel them toward a truer object or end.
As much as I ate up the moralistic messages fed to me as a child (“accept yourself as you are,” “the best things in life are free,” “real beauty is on the inside”), I couldn’t help but notice those vain, materialistic thoughts and desires emerging through the thinly-composed mask I had constructed. I wanted to buy more trendy clothes. I wanted my body to look like the models I saw on underwear packaging. I wanted to be liked by everyone. When I made my profiles on social media, I treated my identity as something I had to market well enough so that it would sell. No matter how much I tried, I was unable to repress these deeply seated longings.
It wasn’t until my encounter with the Church that I found a more fulfilling alternative to the consumerist/moralist dichotomy. I found that my attraction to beauty, and that my experience of my own body and the material world as a whole, was intensified, clarified, and liberated from the confines imposed by society and by my own moralistic constructions.
I’ll here cite a few specific examples that have helped to “rehabilitate” my sense of self, my body, and my desires.
In the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, my desire for affirmation, aesthetic beauty, and material goods was redeemed and transformed. By giving himself to us in the form of bread and wine, God affirms our drive to consume, but lifts it up and expands it. The Eucharistic sacrifice on the Cross affirms that the body is good, the body is necessary, and that the beauty of the body shines most gloriously when making a gift of itself to others. Our drive to unite ourselves to this beauty is lifted beyond an ephemeral aesthetic experience or mere carnal pleasure, but is turned into the call of loving communion with God and with humanity. True beauty is not just internal, but “takes flesh,” and envelopes the totality (both internal and external) of our being.
I’ve also been helped by surrounding myself with people who live their desire for the flesh whole-heartedly, and whose lifestyles channel that desire toward self-gift. I always find myself changed by spending time with families who are intentional about doing things together. One of my neighbors has four kids, and they each play a role in making dinner. Being able to participate in their communal, dinner-making process helps to reorient my sense of time. When I was younger, I would often drift off to my room to scroll through social media while dinner was being made, constantly asking if it was ready yet.
I also find it helpful to follow my friends around at work on my days off. Many of my friends are educators, and watching them work with their students helps me to shape my view of friendship away from a focus on mutual use and closer toward the ideal of accompaniment on our journey toward truth and charity.Additionally, I’ve been greatly helped by spending time with communities of people consecrated to virginity. I think specifically of a group of Franciscan sisters who run a weekly soup kitchen in Manhattan. Every time I work with them, I find myself amazed by the way these celibate women use their bodies to unite themselves to others and to bear fruit through their work. It reminds me that the true orientation of sexual desire is not toward pleasure or the expression of feelings, but instead is toward life-giving communion.
In a similar vein, I find that different forms of charitable work–from talking to the homeless on the streets to visiting the elderly at adult day cares–have radically changed my understanding of beauty, love, and the body. Spending time with those who our society relegates to the margins–whether it’s because of their lack of physical beauty or economic dependency–slaps the consumerist obsession with aesthetics, efficiency, and utility in the face. The homeless are not marketable….nor are the elderly—to which the ascending support for euthanasia is a testament. Physically engaging with people in need is not just a form of doing good for others, but is a way of encountering beauty in the flesh.
When engaging in activities that are physical, sensual, or induce pleasure, I find it helpful to challenge myself to ask how those moments can be ordered toward love and communion rather than consumption and use.
When I’m exercising, I’m often tempted by the idea that I should work out more intensely so that I can make myself look more physically appealing. I counter that thought by thinking about how maintaining my physical health will enable me to use my body to serve God and others.
When eating, I try as often as possible to make sure I’m not doing it alone–so as to remember the sacramental value of food. Food is not just something to be consumed for pleasure. It’s a reminder that we are not self-sufficient, we are always depending on something external for survival. We need someone to feed us, to give us our daily bread–both physically and spiritually.
When shopping for clothes, I redirect the thought that what I’m going to buy is going to make me more marketable to the public by thinking about how the way I dress is a means to communicate my awareness of my body being a temple of God.
Lastly, I find it important to intentionally seek out experiences of beauty through observing art and nature. This helps me to remember that my need for beauty is satisfied not by vanity or attempting to consume beauty for myself, but instead by seeking its Source, of Which it is a shadow. I’m especially helped by art that depicts the lives of Christ and the saints, specifically of scenes depicting physical acts of devotion or suffering. When I meditate on a crucifix, I’m reminded that the body is good. The body is beautiful. And it’s most beautiful when it is used as a vessel of divine love. I remember feeling this way when observing Bernini’s statue of Teresa of Avila in Rome. Her experience of love very much involved her body. Her dangling foot demonstrated that extent to which her ecstatic experience of Christ’s love penetrated not just her heart, her soul, but every inch of her body.