I have been on a diet for the last 35 years. In fact, when I think about it, my efforts at losing weight parallel my attempts to achieve a spiritual life. The two efforts are both exercises in ascetic self-control. They are both anchored in the need for the body and soul to change. They both take a lot of work and are slow and grueling. They test your endurance and your tenacity at sticking to a goal even in the face of disappointment and no outward gratification of results. You see, the idea that you go on a diet starts with a dissatisfaction with how you look or feel. You compare your body, Michelin-man rubber tired around the waist, chicken flaps that wobble under your arms when you walk, your turkey neck with more chins than a Chinese phone book—and you say “Enough! Something has to change! I can’t stand walking by a mirror to catch sight of my hideousness. I am going to change how I eat, what I put on my inside so I can change how I look on the outside. I’m going on a diet! I am going to keep to a strict rule of working out 3 to 4 times a week, varying cardio with toning. I have to change the way I look and feel about myself.”
This is the same realization I get when thinking about my spirit. I analyze my heart—the quick temper that recoils with rattlesnake vengeance to the guy who took my parking space, my constant grumblings and unappreciation for “poor me! I hate my job! I don’t drive a fancy car. Why wasn’t I born rich! The wallowing in my own unique brand of self-misery, the self-centeredness more vain than a supermodel’s glance into the rear-view mirror—and I say, “I need to change. I need to be more patient, more loving, more generous, more joyous and thankful even for the crosses. I will change my ways of thinking to more positive. I will adhere to a strict fast for body and soul. I will pray the Jesus Prayer as much as I can. I will stick to a strict rule of matins, vespers, and compline prayers.”
Do you know how hard it is to lose weight? You have to radically change your life. It takes tremendous will power, commitment, constancy, vigilance and WORK! From the moment you wake up, you have to keep track of what you eat and count the calories. Even when exhausted after a day of work, you have to push yourself into the torture contraption—the treadmill—and push your legs till they become Jello taken out too early from the fridge, until you can count the streams of sweat that slither down the groove in your back just above your haunches, until you can’t bear the excruciating heat in your triceps and biceps and you feel like screaming and then you actually do, “Oh my God! This is TORTURE!” gritting through your teeth and you collapse crying on the gym floor, all muscles wiggling like squished worms and expire. You feel such utter desperation. And you look at the calorie counter and all it says is “250”. And you want to give up because you can see that all your hard work hasn’t made a dent in your fat thighs. And you curse yourself again and again—“You fat f***! You will never change!” The struggle to change my soul is as hard, if not harder, as the struggle to lose body fat.
There is a deeply entrenched brick wall in all of us with the word “RESISTANCE” sprayed in graffiti bubble letters on it. Try as I might, and I really would like to, really I would, it is excruciatingly difficult to change. Especially since humans are such creatures of habit. Prayer, like 30 minutes at 4.5 speed at 11 incline on the treadmill, is hard work. You have to constantly remind and check yourself, “Was that a thought of envy about your girlfriend Helen’s beautiful body that skirted through the dark perimeter of your mind, Irene?” Your next door neighbor refuses your offer for a coffee and then you spin into hypersensitive mode: “Oh my Gosh! Did I do anything to offend her? She doesn’t return my phone calls either! Hey wait, she’s done this before. I gave her a present and she never even called to say thank you. Am I going to be the one who constantly offers? That’s gratitude for ya! I’m not going to waste my time or effort making nice-nice to her again. Especially since my kindness registers as weakness for some reason. Then the hell with her!” It is almost impossible to stop an evil thought in mid-tracks. It just slithers out of my head like the Medusa’s banana curl before I can with a swift hand chop it off at the nape of its neck. When I try to change my habits, I meet with resistance “Get up!” I goad myself at first hearing the buzzer on the alarm, that kind that signaled a fire drill in grade school. “You have to pray! You have to go to early liturgy.” Oh yeah, the spirit, it is willing alright, but heck the flesh is weak. Very weak.
“Please, just another 5 minutes and I’ll get up.” I hit the snooze. Again. And again. And again until 5 minutes have become 50 and by then, well, what’s the point of getting up? It’s too late to make it to church on time so might as well go back to sleep. The struggle to keep focused on the goal, (I must lose 30 pounds by summertime, I must get into the kingdom of God) is relentless. You have to change the way you shop for food, you must learn about the finer points of food chemistry, you have to keep a journal and daily log, you can’t forget to drink lots and lots of water, 3 one-liter bottles per day. You have to contract the help of friends and family not to tempt you with open bags of cheese doodles and not to bring host presents of white, pastry boxes ties with twine filled with sticky sweet baklava and assorted custard combos. Losing weight involves a radical rethinking of yourself, how you eat, how you burn energy. And you have to keep true to this change of plan for a long darned time. Without seeing any results for what seems like ages. And then you give up. This sounds just like making strides in the spiritual life. You want God but without the sacrifices to meet Him. You try to do right with the right hand and then erase that good with the left. To save you r soul, you have to let God do some major (de)construction in your essence. You have to pray constantly, watch what enters through your five senses, watch what comes out of them too. You have to keep a daily log of rights and wrongs. You have to attend liturgies and go to confession on a regular basis. You have to go out of your way to do good even when that good will come at a great cost to you (i.e. you might overdraft your bank account because you made out a check to a charity.) And you cannot do this alone. Because it is so hard to change, you need the help of an experienced spiritual guide just as you need a nutritionist or a friend you are accountable to or a gym buddy. Someone who will act as your life coach. You also need the help of a spiritual community just like a weight-loss support group. A community with the same goals who faces the same challenges you do, to provide you with encouragement or a candid, “Hey, have you been doing a bit too much midnight snacking?” A community who is there to give you the “lift” under your wings when the journey gets tiring and overwhelming. Salvation and fitting into a size 5 are so difficult you can’t do them alone. You need help.
And then there’s the treachery of temptation which is the same for both endeavors. You cannot give in, not even to the slightest provocation—“Why don’t you shove it where the sun don’t shine?” the nasty teacher who shares my room tells me when I ask her to change the seating arrangement. I want to send her to hell in a handbasket with her room chart flapping behind her. Instead, I bit my tongue and manage a cold but cordial—“Alright, let me see if I can change rooms.” And when I see the fat bottle of Nutella waiting for a victim to plunge an engorged finger into its depths, I excuse my nibble and say, “It’s not made of real milk but some chemically test-tube concocted processed milk why something. It’s not the same thing.” The pangs in my stomach keep me up at night. I swear there is a furry overgrown blue muppet the likes of the Cookie Monster that grovels about in the pit of my stomach and yells up from the depths—“Cookies! Cookies! Feed me! Feed me! I want ice-creams! Give me! Give me!” And so against my better judgment, I throw down a half dozen chocolate donuts to appease the monster. “Gee!” I think, “ I just blew my diet. I went back not one or two but maybe three days of grueling workouts at the gym. That means I have to make up for it by going 5-6-7-8 times next week.
It’s no use! There are not enough days in the week to work out that much. I give up!” I hang my hands up in despair and curse the cookie monster in my stomach. “I’ll always be a fat slob no matter how much I try.” I’m cool and non-chalant with my favorite person to tempt one with—my adorable, ego-maniacal big baby of a 45-year-old brother-in-law. Until he walks into the house without knocking after 9:30 at night and demands that I move my car from my driveway so that he can park. And that’s when I blow—“Get the hell out of my house you miserable piece of turd before I call the cops!” Let’s face it—I can recite the Jesus Prayer forever and a day, I won’t ever become a saint. I’m the same undisciplined, grouchy, self-centered nag I have always been. I cannot change.
And then I glance up at the size 8 chiffon dress I used to wear—the one with the scooped neck and the dainty lace around the cuffs adorned with the softest pale blue flowers. I see an old photo I have in my 20s basking on the beach of Santorini. I was hot back then. I look up at my icon of the St. Mary of Egypt. She is skin-thin, her eyes deep-set in black kohl outlines but teary and wide. Her hair as disheveled and wild as the scraggly goat-hide covering her privates. She used to be a prostitute. She tempted a boat load of young men on the voyage to Jerusalem. She engaged in group orgies. She too came from a dysfunctional family. The love she never got from her father left an emptiness so deep in her she tried to fill it with the embraces of thousands of strangers. And then there comes the time when I face the wall.
What is it that keeps me from living my authentic self? Is it what Marianne Williamson says, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
Are we less afraid of failure than our ability to succeed. Why do I run away from what I most want to become? Every time I open the refrigerator door, I’m looking for happiness. Every time I skip services, I have cheated my soul of its fulfillment and that deep inner peace that cannot be found in any other place. Why do I search for peace in the hustle and bustle of the mall when I know where I must go to find it? Why is it that we most shun what we most need? Why do we starve ourselves of the very elixir that we, starved and emaciated, require? It is because I am afraid of change? Am I afraid of the latent power within me? Am I afraid to shine? To be the gorgeous, 125-pound bombshell. To be that beautiful soul radiating with compassion, patience, love.
In your heart of hearts you know the absolute necessity of losing weight to keep healthy and seeing to your salvation are non-negotiables. These are the most vital acts you must accomplish. Changing your body can save your life and bring enormous benefits, emotional, physical, and psychological. Good health is one of the worthiest aims somebody can strive for. Saving your soul leads to eternal life. This is the soul’s ultimate quest to unite with its Maker. God calls us to change. Radically change. The kind of change needed to lose 45 pounds and temper your soul is the kind of change that happens from the inside out, not the outside in. It is the only real change worth striving for. For through the groans and creaks of this change, there is a transformation of body and soul into a creature of glory and brilliance. It is the only type of change we should be striving for as Christians. To become beautiful like our Maker, for our bodies to shine with the uncreated light of the universe, this is our destiny. Our bodies twinkle with stardust and our souls with a hard gem-like flame. How can we stand to be anything but the true stunningly beautiful creatures we were meant to?
This is the gist of the anecdote related by the Desert Fathers. Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said: “Abba, as much as I am able I practice a small rule, a little fasting, some prayer and meditation, and remain quiet, and as much as possible I keep my thought clean. What else should I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched out his hands toward heaven, and his fingers became like ten torches of flame. And he said: “If you wish, you can become all flame.” We must never be shortsighted about the goal of our Christian life with all its efforts. It is nothing less than theosis, union with the Living God, becoming “all flame.” Whether to lose 45 pounds and fast for righteousness’ sake, for body or for soul, we do everything for the love of God, to achieve perfection through and by Him alone. For the spirit to conquer the flesh in both dieting and fasting, so that we may burn without burning with a hard gem-like flame. Let us burn calories and passions and become as Abba Joseph said, “all flame.”