I thought last night about my dream of the suffering hart, the one I told you about this week— the very silly nightmare my brain conjured up out of random religious images, that I realized was a great illustration of my trauma and of how I’m learning to think about Christ. I’ve been using that image of Christ as a hart, a giant male red deer, locked up in a basement as a meditation prompt, because it speaks to me. I like to go for hikes so I like watching deer. I hated my Catholic school so my idea of a bad broken place is a dirty school bathroom. That’s the way I’m praying right now. I would never in a million years tell you you had to pray this way. You do what works for you.
I felt I had to get that disclaimer out of the way before I described how my first day of Lent is going. It’s not going to make any sense if I don’t.
I’ve set my theme for Lent: invitation and accompaniment. Jesus can invite me and I’d love to come along, but I won’t jump through a hoop to avoid a punishment anymore. Jesus can suffer here with me and I will be glad to see Him.
I’ve tried to pray by meditating on images of Christ that don’t trigger me or make me have a panic attack. Sometimes I talk to Him on the cross, an abuse victim, a traumatized person like me. Most often, lately, I imagine Him as that dying hart trapped in that terrible makeshift jail cell from my nightmare. I tried to imagine myself going into the filthy bathroom, trying the sinks to get Him a little water, something like that. But last night, as I meditated, all I saw in my mind’s eye was a new set of bars across the door, with a mesh of metal wire stretched between the bars, and I shuddered. I tried to imagine the bars opening, or being strong enough to bend them and tear the mesh, but I couldn’t. No matter what I did to envision that, it didn’t take. I asked the hart what I’d done to earn the new set of bars and what penance I could do to get them off again, but He didn’t answer. So I just reached a finger through the mesh and petted Him on the head, and told Him how I felt.
I fell asleep contemplating that image, the bars separating me from the hart. It wasn’t a very nice way to fall asleep.
I woke up on Ash Wednesday and immediately started to panic about breakfast. I have to stay strictly in ketosis most of the time to control my PCOS. No more than twenty net carbohydrates– that’s grams of carbohydrate minus the grams of fiber and of sugar alcohols. Between a hundred and a hundred twenty grams of protein, depending on how much exercise I get. A hundred and sixty grams of fat or so, and keep as much of it as possible “good” fat from avocadoes and almonds and salmon and such instead of the less nutritious kind. That plus progesterone if my cycles go too long is the only treatment that has even budged my symptoms. I eventually get disabled by severe fatigue if I take more than one cheat day every so often. Each morning I have coffee with whipping cream and a scoop of bovine collagen plus two bare hamburger patties, broiled. That keeps me going until late afternoon.
I knew, intellectually, that the Catholic rules for a day of fast and abstinence didn’t apply to me. Sick people are always exempt from fasting and abstinence. Bovine collagen doesn’t even count as “meat” because it dissolves in water and doesn’t taste like meat. But I balked. I wanted to follow the rules so I wouldn’t be in trouble. On pain of mortal sin, I was only to eat one normal-sized meal and two little snacks today, with no other solid food between times, and no meat but only fish.
Of course, that’s not really what canon law says about a fast day, as has been pointed out. It’s more like “eat only one meal, but you may take a little food in the morning and the evening to maintain strength,” on pain of sin.
How is that fair?
How is that a rule?
“The library books are due before the close of the library, at any branch of your local library system, twenty-one days after checkout” is a rule. “Try and bring the books back soon as you can” isn’t a rule.
“The speed limit is thirty-five miles per hour, with no penalty if you drive under thirty-nine and a fine of so many dollars if you drive forty” is a rule. “Don’t drive too fast or we’ll hurt you” is not a rule.
“Eat up to six fish sticks but don’t you dare eat a seventh or you’ll burn in hell” would be a rule. “you may take a little food to maintain strength” isn’t a rule.
And it’s certainly not a mortal sin. A hamburger patty isn’t grave matter unless you beat someone to death with it. The very idea is spiritually abusive in the extreme. If you’re going to condemn somebody to hell for stepping outside the line, the line had better be drawn in the brightest possible color and there’d better be a very good reason to draw it. If God is going to turn from Doctor Jeckyll the Good Shepherd into Mr. Hyde the sadistic emperor, I’ll need to know exactly what to do to keep him from going that way. “take a little food” isn’t a rule. Tell me how many net carbs I can eat to stay in spiritual ketosis and avoid a spiritual blood sugar spike.
I ate some scrambled eggs cooked in butter, instead of my usual beef, wondering how many eggs would constitute a mortal sin. The eggs weren’t nearly as filling as my usual breakfast and now I’m hungry again.
I was too terrified to go to a Mass and get ashes smudged on my face, with the anxiety I’ve been having lately. I don’t know when I can stop having panic attacks and see the sacraments as something nonthreatening. I would like to, but I can’t right now. My brain just doesn’t go there. And I’m going to continue to ignore people who peskily keep telling me “just forget about ritual and fasting and liturgy and only do nice things for the poor,” because I’m already trying to do that as hard as I can. That’s not a religious practice, that’s one single vital and unavoidable piece of a religious practice. I want a whole religious practice.
Somewhere along the line today, I remembered that this Lent is about invitation and accompaniment. I have decided not to worry about mortal sin. I’m going to pretend mortal sin doesn’t exist and do things that bring me closer to Christ instead. The Church is an abusive mother who makes up cruel rules, but every spiritual experience I’ve ever had tells me that the actual theology she taught me is solid. Christ exists, Christ is love, and I’m going to let Christ be with me and see what happens.
I think I can see that hart in my mind’s eye again.
I think the weave of the mesh on the door is a little looser. I can reach my whole hand through. You can’t exactly hold hands with a deer, but I tried anyway just now, and holding onto one shank felt right.
That’s the first day of my Lent this year.
We’ll just have to see where we go from here.
Mary Pezzulo is the author of Meditations on the Way of the Cross, The Sorrows and Joys of Mary, and Stumbling into Grace: How We Meet God in Tiny Works of Mercy.