Beyond My Comfort (Food) Zone

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Ash Wednesday (Carl Spitzweg)

It is very appropriate, I think, that I received my diagnosis of wheat and milk allergies during Lent, three years ago. After all, I was already in a mode of Lenten sacrifice, and it felt good and natural to cut out these foods from my life and stick to a very basic diet. Also, I had been very sick and was relieved to find a way to start feeling better. The only difference was that instead of giving up gluten and dairy for Lent, I was giving them up forever. Easter came and went, and I still couldn’t eat any Cadbury eggs or dinner rolls. I tried not to think too much about what I would miss in the long term—that I’d never again enjoy gelato or my favorite pizza—and instead focused on one day at a time. There were still foods I could delight in, like avocados and peanut butter and Chipotle burrito bowls. It was a big lifestyle shift, but it got a little bit easier the more I got the hang of it.

Initially, when I started to see that I could go without some of my favorite foods, I realized that there are so many things in this world that we become so attached to, so many “needs” that aren’t really needs at all. This, of course, is why people give things up for Lent: to detach from the things of this world that are tying us down and holding our attention away from God, to offer a small sacrifice in light of God’s ultimate sacrifice. Before my diagnosis, I would never have dreamed I could live without bread. But of course I can. Any of us could, if we really wanted or needed to; it’s surprising how much we can live without. And honestly, I should consider myself lucky: lucky to have plenty of gluten-free, dairy-free food options, lucky to have found the root of my sickness and to start feeling better.

The one thing I didn’t anticipate was the full extent of my emotional attachments to favorite foods. Not only did I love bagels and Oreo milkshakes, I identified as a lover of bagels and Oreo milkshakes. I realized the extent to which food becomes a part of our identity, how we define ourselves: our regional, cultural, and individual tastes represented in our favorite meals. What Philly-born Jersey girl doesn’t eat bagels, soft pretzels, cheesesteaks, and pizza? What Irish girl refuses a buttered scone? What person who has ever lived in the Eternal City doesn’t long for a cone of Giolitti or a plate of good Roman carbonara? Me, apparently. I was willing to do whatever it took to change my diet and cleanse my body of allergens, but I wasn’t yet fully comfortable being the person I must become: the kind of person who brings salads for lunch, who shops at Whole Foods, who double-checks every ingredient label and asks twenty questions of the waiter at a restaurant. I was more of a SpaghettiOs girl than a salads and vegetables girl, and my cooking skills were laughable. I never had a problem with that before, but now I had to change. I had to speak up at restaurants and tell waiters very clearly about my allergies; I had to send entrees back to the kitchen after realizing that they contained cheese. As someone who is very shy and mild-mannered, this put me totally out of my element, and I had to learn to be less embarrassed about speaking up.

What I began to learn is that my “sense of self” really didn’t matter in the way I thought it did. Lent is a dying of the self to make room for new life in God, and giving up my favorite foods was very much a Lenten process for me. We have tendencies to latch onto certain characteristics of ourselves—likes and dislikes, the traits that we think make us “unique” or “special” and seem inextricably part of who we are, but aren’t really what’s important. The truth is, these arbitrary preferences are part of how we experience the world, but they don’t ultimately matter in how God sees us. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying and appreciating the good things around us, but we need to remember that in the end, they are only things, and there are much greater spiritual riches to be tasted. Sometimes God asks us to put aside certain things—things that are good in and of themselves—so that we don’t become fixated on them, so that He can help us to stretch and grow beyond our own self-imposed definitions and limitations, beyond our comfort zone.

In losing my favorite foods, I lost the ability to re-taste the memories embedded within them. And this is the hardest part for me: to know that I will never again taste regular yellow cake with chocolate icing and be transported to all my childhood birthday parties once again, that I will not again consume the Sant’Eustachio chocolate-covered espresso beans that sustained me during my European travels, that even if I were to go back to my college dining hall, I wouldn’t be able to get the same old yogurt-and-granola mix that I used to eat every night as I laughed with my friends at dinner. Because I am so drawn to memories, this is especially difficult.

One of my favorite prayers begins, “Lord Jesus Christ, take all my freedom, my memory, my understanding, and my will.” When I first started to say this prayer, I used to wonder why memory was included in the list—it seemed a little out of place. Freedom, understanding, and will—sure, these were great things to submit to God, but why memory? What does it even mean to offer one’s memory, and why would it be important? I reasoned that my memory was part of myself and I wanted to offer my whole self to God, but I didn’t fully understand why it was included in the list.

Now I’m beginning to understand a little better. When I offer Jesus my memory, I am handing over the lens through which I perceive the events of my life and asking Him to replace it with His own view. I am giving Him something to which I am very closely attached, something I cling to out of the desire to know my own story. I am recognizing the fallibility of my own memory and the perfection of His; I am recognizing that He, as the One who transcends time, is the ultimate Memory-Keeper, the ultimate Storyteller. So instead of living in the past and instead of resenting the need to undergo these sacrifices, I can trust in Him to tell my story, and He will shed light on the path ahead of me.

1. Ash Wednesday by Carl Spitzweg / Public Domain
2. Photo by pfctdayelise / CC-BY-SA-2.5

Erin Cain

Erin Cain

Erin Cain is a writer and editor living in New York City, drinking lots of Earl Grey tea, and attempting to grow in virtue and love. She writes at Work in Progress.

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7 Responses

  1. Slow, incremental self-denial in relatively small things is the way I normally tend to go,and I don’t change that too noticeably for Lent. So, I enjoyed this article and its theme.

    Perhaps, partly because their civilizations have been less materially-focused and generally affluent, and partly because their religions tend to discount the reality and value of the material world, eastern religions have seemed to me to be more ascetic in their outlook. Not only in terms of the material, though, but also abnegation of the personal will.

    I was moved to return to Catholicism by an essay on comparative religion by Aldous Huxley, which was fascinating in these regards. However, I found in the course of time that a better balance was afforded by the asceticism of our Christian faith, relying on God’s grace and the oddly comforting notion that at the end of the day, we will always still be unprofitable servants.

    That prayer has always interested me, since I believe the memory, will and understanding, according to our catechism, are the principal faculties of the soul, but technically interesting.though I find that, I find it more interesting with the ‘memory’ aspect fleshed out by Erin’s article, here. It was puzzling; is puzzling, otherwise, isn’t it? Instead of food, my indulgence was betting on the horses – very much a memory thing, form-wise, but also the ups and downs; particularly the ups!

  2. “When I offer Jesus my memory, I am handing over the lens through which I perceive the events of my life and asking Him to replace it with His own view.”

    This is essential for those who have been abused. Our memories torment us; we see ourselves through the eyes of those who harmed us. Learning to see through Jesus’ lens is a vital part of the healing process, of discovering that the deluxe Imago Dei operating system has not, as we think, been corrupted in us.

    Thank you for this excellent piece.

    Drusilla Barron
    http://lovedasif.com

    PS: “The deluxe Imago Dei operating system” is copy written.

  3. So beautiful. As a baker who was diagnosed Celiac 8 years ago, I greatly identify with your story. The priest who gave me spiritual direction at the time asked me to offer up the ongoing sacrifice for priests. It has been an incredibly blessing to do so. That priest has passed on now, God rest his soul. Not a day goes by that I don’t miss him, even more than the gluten. 🙂 A fine lesson in detachment it has been indeed.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and views. Until now, I had not really considered the *memory* offering. It really resonated with me. I realize how much I have held onto memories and food associations to help define myself as well. I now have a renewed focus this Lent.

  5. Ah, the joys of having to eat gluten-free – and in your case, dairy free. I hadn’t thought of it exactly like this, but you’re right. It was a blow to pride: pride in being “not picky or particular,” pride in being “not a hipster and not a food-trend follower,” pride in being the person who can blend in the crowd. It was blow to self image, feeling self-conscious about my grocery cart full of gluten free pasta and vegetables and meat. It’s a blow to self image when I have to send back the salad with croutons (which I asked to be without) and explain that no, I can’t just pick them off, please fix me a new one. I always want to yell “I really have to avoid it! I’m not wearing a scarf or big glasses, see?” It’s so silly.

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