“To be trained in renunciation is almost necessarily to be trained to ill health, since the human animal’s first and strongest urge is to his/her own survival, pleasure, assertion.” – Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar, Madwoman in the Attic
In my latest effort to retrain myself in indulgence, I have been taking baths, and I have been amusing myself with my childlike curiosity about my own body. My body isn’t something that I look at often and certainly not as closely and all at once as a quiet, lightly scented bath allows.
Recently, as I soaked and lazily surveyed my body, I remembered that St. Jerome once declared that young women—or rather, the ideal young woman devoted to virginity—should abstain from bathing out of shame “at the very idea of seeing her own unclothed body.”1 The difference between bathing as a child or adolescent and bathing now is that I don’t seem to feel any shame, only curiosity, wonder, and occasional moments of affection.
Jerome’s prohibitions didn’t stop at bathing. He was obsessed with virginity and believed it could only be attained and maintained through prolonged fasting, for “watered ground puts forth thorns of lust.”2 Jerome wrote to many women, beseeching them to fast daily, presenting to them his image of the ideal woman: “No other could give me pleasure but one whom I never saw eating food.”3 He advised a young woman named Eustochium to find companions who were “thin from fasting” and “of pallid countenance,” who could be heard saying, “I desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ.”4 Per Jerome’s advice, all sources of nourishment and comfort are to be avoided, even to the point of, well, dissolution.
In The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense, Anna Freud likened the asceticism of adolescents to that of “religious fanatics,”5 as such self-denial is a “manifestation of the innate hostility between the ego and the instincts.”6 This hostility toward the instincts has “a dangerous tendency to spread,” extending “to the most ordinary physical needs.”7 However, when these kinds of strict prohibitions are followed by a period of excess, in which the adolescent (or the religious ascetic, presumably) begins to partake of all that she had previously denied herself, there is hope. While such excesses may not be good per se, Freud believed that they “represent transitory spontaneous recovery from the condition of asceticism.”8 The alternative is dissolution, or at the very least, ill health.
It is for this reason that I am always coming up with “spiritual disciplines” that probably don’t sound like spiritual disciplines: I started drinking sugared soda and eating meat, with an emphasis on the rich, red kinds; I stopped shaving; I recently started wearing shorts, exposing weakness and softness and almost-curly calf hair. Someday, though it is unlikely, I may feel ready to implement the spiritual discipline of wearing a bathing suit.
My partner will tell you, most likely with an affectionate eye roll, that my favorite spiritual discipline is the practice of eating “treats.” It is significant to note that when I demand a treat, or voice my desire for one, I am rarely interested in the treat itself; it is the idea of a treat that I want. I have a new and almost daily urge to do something that feels indulgent. In other words, I wish my need for treats was about having a hearty appetite, but it isn’t.
Several months ago, a doctor both affirmed and lamented my need to restrict my food intake in order to avoid symptoms. I didn’t realize until after the appointment that I should have corrected him. I have to avoid certain foods until I figure out why I am in so much pain, but I haven’t experienced this avoidance as restriction. Part of that is because it is natural to avoid what makes you sick, not much regulation is required, and part, I think, is because I make a point to treat myself. If I do not yet have a hearty appetite, I aim to cultivate one. My goal is to eat freely, indulgently, and heartily.
Robert Burton, a seventeenth-century religious scholar, wrote of the affliction that proceeds from “too much fasting, meditation, precise life” and advised the person so afflicted to “ease the soul by all honest recreations, refresh and recreate [their] distressed soul.”9 While Burton likely had a narrow view of what honest recreation entails, his advice holds its value.
With this in mind, I try to remind myself daily that it is okay to enjoy myself and seek pleasure. Every movement toward pleasure and recreation is a movement away from restriction and control. Every treat is a reminder that nothing is off limits. Every indulgence is a sign that I am well now. And so, even when I don’t enjoy my treat, I do.
- Rosemary Radford Ruether, “Misogynism and Virginal Feminism in the Fathers of the Church,” in Religion and Sexism: Images of Women in the Jewish and Christian Traditions (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974), 170. ↩
- Jerome, The Letters of St. Jerome, ed. Thomas Comerford. Lawler and Charles Christopher Mierow (New York: Newman Press, 1963), 148. ↩
- Jerome, Select Letters, trans. F.A. Wright, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1933), 183. ↩
- Jerome, The Letters of St. Jerome, 148. ↩
- Anna Freud, The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense (London: The Hogarth Press, 1937), 167. ↩
- Ibid., 172. ↩
- Ibid., 168. ↩
- Ibid., 170. ↩
- Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, ed. Floyd Dell and Paul Jordan-Smith (New York: Farrar and Rinehart, 1927), 970. ↩