(A sermon delivered at Throop Unitarian Universalist Church in Pasadena, California on 26 February 2017. Copyright 2017 by Everett Howe.)
[Earlier in the service, the “Story for All Ages” was a reading (with role-playing!) of Eric Carle’s book The Very Hungry Caterpillar. At the end of the sermon, I make reference to this.]
The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of Oscar Wilde’s most well-known works. A reviewer at the London Daily Chronicle famously described it as “a poisonous book, the atmosphere of which is heavy with the mephitic odours of moral and spiritual putrefaction.” I’m sure the book was denounced from the pulpits of many churches when it was first published in 1890, but today it is viewed as a classic, and I do not bring it up now to denounce it; no, today I bring up The Picture of Dorian Gray for another reason.
Let me remind you of the set-up of the story. Dorian Gray is a beautiful young man who is new to the high society of Victorian London. An artist friend paints his portrait, and Dorian makes a wish: He wishes that he could always stay as young and as beautiful as his image in the portrait. Dorian falls under the influence of a hedonistic aristocrat, and he begins a life devoted to pleasure, ignoring the effects of his actions on others and paying attention only to his own desires. After heartlessly jilting and humiliating a lover, Dorian notices that his portait has changed… he sees that now his image in the portrait wears a cruel expression. As he continues to devote his life to pleasure, mindless of those around him, Dorian’s moral failings escalate, to the point of blackmail and murder; and his portrait becomes more and more disfigured with each passing year. But while his portrait ages and decays and reveals his crumbling soul, Dorian Gray’s body remains as young and as beautiful as ever.
The public at the time found Wilde’s book shocking for its suggestions of queerness and its depictions of hedonism. But I bring it up today because of an element of the story that almost passes by with no comment, an assumption that just seems natural.
Namely: Our sins, our excesses, our transgressions, our indulgences — the story assumes that they are all reflected in our bodies. And, conversely: if our bodies fail to live up to a certain standard of youth, of beauty, of physical health, then it must be because we have done something wrong, it must be because we have sinned.
It seems to me that those are the assumptions that deserve to be denounced from the pulpit.
The worship theme here at Throop Church for the month of February is “Indulgence.” This choice of theme was inspired by the fact that Mardi Gras, and all its associated carnival festivities, falls in February this year; in fact, it is this Tuesday.
Mardi gras is French for Fat Tuesday, and in some Christian traditions it is the last chance to indulge oneself before Lent, the 40-day period of fasting and penitence that lasts from Ash Wednesday until Easter Sunday. The 40 days of Lent hark back to the 40 days that Jesus is said to have spent wandering in the desert after his baptism — 40 days in which he was tempted by Satan, but resisted the temptation.
So already we see that the division between Lent and carnival, the dichotomy between asceticism and indulgence, is connected — by the story of Jesus in the desert — to another dichotomy: the one between spiritual purity on the one hand and temptation and sin on the other, between what our culture deems worthy, and what it deems unworthy.
What I would like to offer you today is a chance to think about these connected dichotomies, because they appear in our daily lives in ways that do not help us; they can create spiritual, emotional, and even physical harm.
Let me tell you a story, about the first time my back went out. It was the summer of 2008, and I was on vacation with my wife Bella and our kids. I see now that there had been plenty of warning signs. The very first day of the trip, after 12 hours of air travel, I kicked a soccer ball around with the children of the friends we were visiting, and I felt a twinge that did not go away. Over the course of the next two weeks, as we drove from town to town and slept in friends’ fold-out beds and in hotels, the twinge turned into a constant soreness that made walking painful. The night before our 12-hour flight home, we stayed in a large airport hotel. Early in the morning I got up to use the bathroom, and when I leaned over the sink to wash my hands my back hurt. A lot. It suddenly seemed like a good idea to get on my hands and knees. I crawled a few feet, until the pain in my back and in my right leg became too great, and I collapsed on the floor in the hallway, unable to move without shooting pain.
It was 5:00 a.m. Our flight was scheduled to leave six hours later.
I called out to Bella for help, and she called the front desk. Soon, a man we had never met before — but who said he was a doctor — showed up at our door with a little black bag. He injected me with anti-inflammatories and painkillers, and gave me a small supply of pain medication and Valium. A half hour later I could move again, and we were able to get to the airport and onto our flight home.
But over the next weeks and months my thoughts returned again and again to those moments that I had spent immobile on the hallway floor. Lying there on the floor, I had been worried about many things. In addition to panicking about whether we would be able to get home that day, I wondered: How badly was I hurt? What if I had damaged something seriously enough that I would not be able to walk for a long time? How would that affect my life?
And underneath all of those worries and fears, there was another — deeper — fear, a fear that I could not put into words, a fear that I did not even really recognize until much later, after I had had time to reflect on the incident.
The fear was that Bella would not love me if I were disabled.
This was not a rational fear. This fear was not based on how I knew Bella to be; it was not based on the realities of our relationship. Even more, this fear contradicted my theology; it contradicted our Unitarian Universalist understanding that worth and dignity are inherent in every individual.
So where did it come from, this fear?
It came from the deep connection that our culture makes between our worth as human beings on the one hand, and the state of our bodies on the other. This is a cultural connection that we need to recognize when we see it; this is a cultural connection that we need to fight against.
But what does all of this have to do with indulgence?
Well, what does indulgence mean? How do people use the word?
For example, what do you think of when you think of an indulgent parent? An indulgent parent is one who does not restrain their child when the child is doing something wrong; an indulgent parent is one who gives the child rewards that are undeserved. This is a first hint that the idea of indulgence is tied up with the idea of things that we deserve, or do not deserve.
In Catholicism, the Church grants an indulgence when it reduces or removes the temporal penalties that someone must pay (in the Church’s theology) for having sinned. If you’ve studied European history you might remember that in the 16th century, one of the criticisms that Martin Luther had of the Catholic Church of the time was that indulgences could be purchased from the Church. That is no longer the case, but indulgences are still a part of Catholic theology; they are usually granted for performing prayerful actions. So this is an example of the word indulgence meaning “avoiding a punishment that one deserves.”
Indulgence can also mean a pleasure that one doesn’t deserve. It is very easy to find examples of this usage just by looking around you. Almost anything physically pleasurable will be described in advertising as indulgent. You can buy “indulgent” bath salts, you can buy “indulgent” make-up, you can buy “indulgent” massages. In Long Beach, there is a day spa called, simply, Indulgence. But to really hit the indulgence jackpot, you have to consider what our culture tells us about food.
Indulgent ice-cream. Breyer’s has a whole line called “Gelato indulgences.”
Indulgent mac and cheese.
Indulgent desserts of all kinds.
Now, why would an advertisement say that “This chocolate cake is indulgent” instead of “This chocolate cake is delicious”? I think that these foods are called indulgent because we are encouraged to believe that we do not deserve them, that we are getting away with something if we enjoy them. Our culture overwhelms us with shoulds: We should be devoting our energy to counting calories, we should be watching our cholesterol, we should be eating food based on whether it supposedly contains anti-oxidants and is dense enough in vitamins. All of these shoulds, with no room left for asking, “Do I enjoy this?”
Instead of “Do I enjoy this?” we ask “Do I deserve this?”
And the time and emotional energy that we spend worrying about our self-worth and our body image takes our thoughts away from parts of our lives that could really use more attention: How do I treat my neighbors? How do I fight for my values? How do I create justice? Instead, we ask: Am I a bad person if I have some dessert?
That’s what our society says about indulgence: that all of our bodily pleasures should be guilty ones.
What about the opposite of indulgence? What about asceticism?
The word asceticism comes from a Greek word meaning, essentially, “acting like a monk.” And in many cultures, “acting like a monk” means denying oneself bodily pleasures.
I already mentioned the example of Jesus wandering in the desert for 40 days, resisting temptation. In the Christian scriptures we also have the example of John the Baptist wearing clothes of camel hair, living off of locusts and honey in the wild trans-Jordan area between Jerusalem and Galilee. Later on, we have Christian saints like Simeon Stylites, a fifth-century Syrian who lived for 49 years on a small platform on top of a pillar. Jainism, and some forms of Buddhism, derive from a Śramanic tradition in India that includes a harsh asceticism. And in America, we have the Puritan tradition, from which our own Unitarianism is descended.
So across many cultures there is a tendency for people to associate holiness and piety with doing without. The tension between asceticism and indulgence is connected to the tension between spiritual purity and bodily desires, the tension we see between Lent and Mardi Gras; and as Dorian Gray shows, all of these conflicts are written out on our bodies.
It doesn’t have to be like this.
Today, there is some movement in popular culture towards removing the ideas of morality and sin from our thoughts and discussions about our bodies and about the food we enjoy. Early this January — right when people are traditionally most anxious about the condition of their bodies, and are making resolutions framed in terms of goodness and evil, of sin and redemption — early this January the New York Times profiled an up-and-coming British food writer named Ruby Tandoh, whose new cookbook is subtitled Eat What You Love. It’s a good sign when the Times profiles an author who speaks out against the January diet industry, who speaks out against fat phobia, who speaks out against the corporations whose profits depend on body-policing and on socially-enforced body insecurity. Tandoh is part of a broader movement of body acceptance and fat acceptance activism that is getting more powerful year by year. The activist Lesley Kinzel powerfully expresses the goal of these movements. She writes:
Fat acceptance doesn’t simply advocate in favor of fatness. Fat acceptance is also about rejecting a culture that encourages us to rage and lash out at our bodies, even to hate them, for looking a certain way. It’s about setting our own boundaries and knowing ourselves, and making smart decisions about how we live and treat ourselves, and ferociously defending the privacy of those choices. It’s about promoting the idea that anything you do with your body should come from a place of self-care and self-love, not from guilt and judgment and punishment. It’s about demanding that all bodies, no matter their appearance or age or ability, be treated with basic human respect and dignity.
More than a century and a quarter has passed since Oscar Wilde wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray, and in many ways society has changed dramatically. But our culture, like that of late Victorian England, still connects the condition of our bodies to the condition of our souls. So I wonder, what would happen if we followed Lesley Kinzel’s suggestion? What would happen if we removed the ideas of guilt and judgment and punishment from the idea of “indulgence”? What is indulgence without guilt?
We have a word for that. Indulgence without guilt is called, simply, pleasure.
In the coming weeks, I would invite you to think about how your perception of food and of your body may be overlaid with ideas of morality and sin, of purity and defilement, of self-worth and self-loathing. Can we transcend these dichotomies, and simply think of our bodies — and of other people’s bodies — as our homes for the decades we have on earth? Can we think of our pleasures as simply pleasures, and not indulgent sins that we should feel guilty about?
As for myself… I know now to pay more attention to what my body — and my back — is telling me. With attentiveness, and yoga, and regular exercise, I’ve avoided serious problems for now. But as I progress further into my 50’s, and as I experience the changes to my body as it ages, I know not to view these changes as reflections of my character.
And, on some evenings, I may decide — like the Very Hungry Caterpillar — to have a piece of cake. It may not always be wise choice. I may find — like the Very Hungry Caterpillar — that I will end up with a stomach-ache. Or I may find — like the Very Hungry Caterpillar — that eating cake will change my body in unexpected ways. But whether or not it is wise, and no matter what it does to my body, I know that my choice to have a piece of cake is not a question of sin.
This Tuesday, on Mardi Gras, what if we don’t “indulge”? Instead, what if we simply do something we find pleasurable?
We live in our bodies for as long as we are on this Earth. May we live in them with joy.
Blessed be. Amen.
Image credit: Christ Tempted in the Wilderness, by John Martin, 1824.