March 07, 2005

Vegetarianism as a Spiritual Practice.

You are what you eat. Quite literally. No longer merely a motherly lecture, modern science has shown us that on a cellular level, "your entire body replaces its tissues and cells every one to seven years." If we appreciate our physical bodies as "temples of the spirit" and part of the interwoven natural world which reveals the immanent Divine, then how we maintain our bodies takes on a new level of spiritual significance. Our diet connects us to the world not only because what we eat passes through us, but because it actually becomes us. Furthermore, what we choose to eat has a political and social effect; it shapes the economics and social institutions needed to support food production and distribution. In a sense, what we eat is our most direct connection to and influence over the very reality we live in, both our own bodies and our culture.

Obvious, right? You would think so. Unfortunately, the consumer mindset of modern Western culture has trained many of us to shovel food into our mouths as carelessly as if we were pumping gas into a car. (Drive down any highway and notice the odd proliferation of gas stations and fast food restaurants at all the same intersections.) This disengagement from one of the fundamental processes of sustaining life is, like many other aspects of consumer culture, a symptom of a larger problem. Part of a healthy spiritual life is bringing our beliefs to reflect in our daily actions and lifestyle, and understanding how our actions in turn affect and shape our beliefs and assumptions about the world. A big part of living and acting in the Catholic Craft is respecting the natural world and appreciating it as a creation of God. It is not only a gift, but an essential part of us: an ever-extending, infinitely complex and beautiful temple of the spirit, in which our bodies are only one particular manifestation of the whole. Caring for the earth is a natural implication of our journey in, through and towards the Divine. And, as already mentioned, our diet plays an important part in how we care for and interact with the earth.

Below are some thoughts on diet in terms of spiritual practice realized both through political and social involvement, and in one's personal life. I have come to believe strongly in the value of vegetarianism both for the discipline and awareness it requires, and for its cultural and environmental implications.

  1. Meals as Meditation : Take saying Grace before each meal to a whole new level--or, if you don't say a prayer before eating, consider starting! Think about it. Christianity is full of references to meals and food as highly charged symbols of sustenance and our relationship with the Divine as Creator and Mother. The Eucharist is itself this kind of symbol, reminding us of how what we eat brings us into a community with one another and with the fruit and grain of the earth, as well as with God. Neopaganism, too, often incorporates fertility rituals and symbolic meals to remind its practitioners of our connection with nature. The first step in understanding diet as spiritual practice is to start paying attention to our meals as opportunities to reconnect with the Divine. Each meal can be a moment of meditation.

  2. Seeking the Source : When we start paying attention to what we eat, we inevitably start to think about where that food comes from. Do we take for granted that food is prepackaged and readily available on supermarket shelves? Do we thank God for Her bounty and blessings without considering the cashiers, shelf-stockers, and factory workers who packaged, delivered and sold us that food? What about the people who gathered the fruit or slaughtered the animals? What about the ranchers who raised those animals or the farmers who grew that grain or corn? Do we gloss over them and romanticize their jobs, or do we face the often brutal reality that their services entail? If we don't think about these things, our gratitude may amount to little more than lip-service. Do we really believe in the interconnection of nature and the impact our choices have on others and on the earth?

  3. Participating in the Process : Move beyond the role of consumer and become a participant. Take up gardening. Get dirty. Nurture and learn from the plants you grow. Appreciate that direct connection with the earth. Remember that connection when you later eat the fruits of your labor. Then, take it further. Remember all those other people who helped bring food to your table. Was their work as fulfilling for them as your gardening was for you? If you had to work in a slaughterhouse 10 hours a day, slitting throat after throat as carcasses swung by you at dangerous speeds, how would this lifestyle affect your spiritual life, let alone your mental and physical health? What about farmers who must constantly cross-breed and genetically and/or chemically manipulate plants in order to keep up production levels? Do they feel connected to and appreciative of the natural processes of the earth, or could they become disengaged from it in order to prosper in a consumer culture? Do your choices in the supermarket encourage others to engage in activities and lifestyles that may be hurtful or unfulfilling?

  4. Research and Responsibility : Look into it. Find the answers to those questions. Research views about the effects of vegetarianism on a political, environmental and moral level, as well as its health benefits. Learn the impact of factory farming versus that of organic farming. You'll begin to see how many wonderful alternatives are out there that take both human and animal rights into consideration, as well as the impact on and the future of the earth as a whole, interconnected system.

  5. Bringing it Back to One-on-One : Remember that one of the fundamental ideas in the Craft is that we as individuals can affect our reality and change our world for the better. This is common in Neopagan and Catholic Craft. Remember that the CCC encourages us each to act in accordance with our personal conscience, recalling that we should always work for the common good. We may think, "It won't matter if I don't eat meat, since so many other people do it anyway." But we must remember that each social condition is the result of billions of personal choices made by millions of individuals. The more often we act in a way that affirms that our individual actions and choices really do matter, the more we will come to honestly believe they make a difference, and the more optimism, hope and commitment we will have. And, of course, the more hope and commitment we have, the easier it becomes to pursue actions which really do make a difference. Bringing our lifestyles to reflect our beliefs about the world and God will not only benefit the world, but it will align our own lives with our spiritual journey. We will grow as a result of the discipline, awareness and sacrifice that our religiously-guided actions demand--we will grow closer to God, closer to one another, and closer to ourselves.

  6. Learning from Lent : A good time for a Christian to make the transition to vegetarianism or another change in diet might be during the season of Lent (although we certainly don't need to wait to change until this season). Lent is traditionally a time of sacrifice, abstinence and private meditation, imitating Jesus' 40 days of prayer and testing in the desert. But we mustn't treat Lent as merely a time of self-imposed suffering, as if mere personal suffering without purpose is enough. Lent is essentially a time of transformation, it is a time to focus on change and to adopt practices which we can then incorporate into our daily lifestyles and choices. It is in some ways a weaning period--once we have given up certain addictions so encouraged by consumer culture (like television, junk food, or shopping sprees), we might find that our lives are better without them. We can make these changes permanent. Changing our diet, in keeping with traditional religious fasts found in many cultures, can be a great way of keeping Lent. Consider going vegetarian for the Lenten season.


At 10.3.05, Blogger Kabbalah Boy said...

Beautiful suggestions Ali. A quick prayer or quiet moment of reflection is one I will definitely try to incorporate into my life style. Taking time to really notice you are actually eating is also a great practice for the over eater such as my self.

I am not a vegetarian and unfortunately enjoy a good steak far too much to ever give it up completely but simply respecting its source should be a must. As a kid I was always struck by the Indian hunter in the movies that thanked the spirit of his prey for so generously giving its life for another.

As our culture bends more to fast food and cheap snacks we lose the solemnness and togetherness of meal time.

At 13.3.05, Blogger Ali said...

I'm glad my suggestions were helpful. :) I mostly wrote it to try to explain to my friends why I gave up meat starting last year.

You know, there are "primitive" cultures that are entirely vegetarian except when sacrificing and eating their culture's holy or totem animal in ritual fashion--I find it strange how people look down on ritual sacrifice like this, but then they consume animals thoughtlessly and in a way damaging to the animal (obviously), the environment and other people... How odd.

I think ideally people could develop a relationship with animals that would benefit both (I used to fish when I was little, and that was almost a spiritual practice for me, being out in nature just sitting quietly). It's unfortunate that the system right now is just so damaging in so many ways. I do think it's important to think about. (You should check out the recent movie Super Size Me--it's gross, but so informative! :) And that guy isn't vegetarian, either, though he addresses a lot of the issues.)


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