Wednesday, February 20, 2008

My Lenten Massage

So I'm lying face down on the massage table...

Let me back up.

As all three or four Constant Readers know, I recently enjoyed an hour-long Swedish massage during my Florida vacation. This was not only muchly relaxing, but it relieved the tension-induced pain that I almost always have in my upper back and shoulders. My masseuse, marveling at my stress-hardened muscles, had remarked, "You really need more massages!" And afterward I thought, "You know -- she's right."

So I promised myself that I'd treat myself to a massage once a month, even if it meant pinching pennies elsewhere in the household budget. And today I came through for myself, down at the local physical therapy clinic, which offers massage appointments once a week.

So I'm lying face down on the massage table, air redolent of herbal elixirs and soft Latin jazz as my masseuse digs into my shoulder blades and elbows my dowager's hump, pondering the seeming irony of enjoying a massage during Lent. I think of the over-the-top physical mortifications of the saints of yore -- things that would probably get them a 48-hour psych admission nowadays, and with good reason -- as well as the much more moderate forms of self-denial that many Christians take upon themselves as a discipline this time of year. As my pastor likes to say, "Is this a good thing, or a bad thing?"

I concluded that it's a good thing. Which may be an entirely self-serving, self-justifying sentiment. But let me tell you why.

Suffering tends not to bring out the best in me. Unlike people who report finding God's special presence and empathy with others in the midst of their own physical and emotional hurts, I tend to become self-pitying, self-absorbed, crabby, blaming, mentally "fuzzy" and a whole lot of other ugly, dysfunctional things.

When I feel that I've "got game" spiritually, it's usually when I'm feeling physically and emotionally well; when I'm not distracted by my own physical or emotional aches and pains; when I can get out of my own way.

Moreover -- we Christians (and, sadly, especially women) still labor under the burden of an otherworldly body-hatred that I believe is the basis for the physical self-mortification that used to be, and I guess still is in some circles, considered to be exemplary. This isn't the life-affirming, l'chaim! message of the Bible.

There's a difference between positive, healthy discipline and dysfunctional self-denial. If we embrace Paul's metaphor of the Christian life as a race to be run, we aren't very effective athletes if we ignore the health of our enfleshed selves or, worse yet, intentionally beat ourselves up in service to some distorted notion of asceticism.

I feel much better, thank you. And after being sick and out of sorts for the better part of a week, I'm feeling more empowered and mentally grounded and ready to just get on with it, soli Deo gloria.


Rev Scott said...

"There's a difference between positive, healthy discipline and dysfunctional self-denial."

I think you hit the nail on the head there. It's one thing to bear the yoke of Christ through hard times. It's another thing to weigh it down with stuff that either isn't ours to carry or just makes it heavier so we can feel more sanctified.

I just started reading Bonhoeffer's "Discipleship" again and he would totally agree with you - "Discipline is joy."

Trish said...

About your comment regarding "especially women..." For a Pastoral Care class, we are reading, "The Body Project: An Intimate History of American Girls," and it also speaks of the way women are socialized to really put a lot of effort into their bodies; even to the extreme. It's a fairly interesting book, so I thought I'd mention it to you. See ya.

P.S. an after-thought said...

Interestingly I think in our house, it is the "man of the house" who is the one with a negative view of his body and other issues that go along with that. And he is really into self-denial, by not joylessly, but as he sees it, he doesn't need anything. Stress the literal definition of NEED . And others in the world really do have need, hence, there are people who receive his money.