Confessions of a Failed Ascetic
I have a girlfriend now, myself, which is weird, because I’m probably gay based on the way I act and behave…. I think like in heaven they build like three-quarters of a gay person, and then they forgot to flip the final switch. And they just sent me out, and it was like, “You marked that one gay, right?” and it was like, “Oh, no–was I supposed to?” and they were like, “Oh, man–well, this will be a very interesting person!”
–John Mulaney, New in Town
Mutatis mutandis (a fancy Latin phrase meaning “All appropriate changes having been made), I have sometimes thought this applies to me. Change “gay” to “ascetic” or “monk”, and it strikes me as appropriate to an extent. In heaven, someone made three-quarters of a monastic and then forgot to flip the final switch and just sent me out. I did turn out to be a very interesting person (or “eccentric as hell”–take your pick).
As regular readers know, I grew up as a non-churchgoing cultural Protestant in small-town Appalachia. The only churches I even knew existed until I was nearing my teen years were “Baptist” and “Methodist”, and I was none too sure about the differences. I remember seeing some nuns outside the Catholic hospital in the next town south from my hometown. Nuns, let alone a Catholic hospital, were anomalous there; and this random memory must be from when I was no older than six or seven (1969 or 1970), since most nuns abandoned habits by the early 70’s. In any case, aside from that one sighting, nuns–and monks–to me were mostly something you saw in Robin Hood stories or histories of the Middle Ages. I didn’t have any clear concept as to what they actually were, nor did I have more than a vague notion of what the Catholic Church was. In fact, as I grew older and learned a bit about the Middle Ages and the Reformation, I developed a mild, somewhat genteel, anti-Catholic attitude–the “I have nothing against the Church, but it’s good that the Reformation swept away all that superstitious Medieval folderol!” type. In any case, the point of all this is to note that, far from having a vocation to monastic life, I didn’t even clearly know what it was, let alone having sympathy for the church with which it is most closely associated.
That makes the following somewhat bizarre.
As I’ve said before, I first was inspired to read the Bible by my freshman science teacher in high school. I didn’t actually carry out that inspiration until after my senior year. Starting sometime in the summer after high school graduation, or the fall of my first year in college–I don’t clearly remember which–I read the Bible in the King James and then in the New English translations (the latter with the Apocrypha) in full. I had read bits and pieces of various parts of both testaments before that, but only very small portions and in a very haphazard way. One example was reading the opening chapters of the book of Ezekiel to see if they really portrayed a UFO account, as Erich von Dänken claimed!
The point is that any reading of the Bible I had done before graduating high school was very much unsystematic, if not outright random. Aside from Ezekiel, I don’t actually have any specific memories of reading the Bible at all, even in bits and pieces. Despite, this, I was somehow aware that Paul, in 1 Corinthians 7, says that it’s better not to marry, if possible. I don’t know when or where or in what context I had read or heard that. Nevertheless, it somehow made a profound impression on me. I can recall somewhat regretting that I would probably get married someday, as I would be failing to take what was evidently, to Paul, at least, the higher road. I wasn’t opposed to marriage; and I actively wanted to get married eventually. For reasons that aren’t clear to me, though, I thought that was indicative of a defect in myself–something keeping me from being the ascetic that somehow or other I thought I should be.
Asceticism continued to fascinate me. I’ve discussed the profound effect that reading the Dhammapada had on me in my freshman year of college. The notion of the rugged monk who leaves society for a life of privation and meditation, dedicating himself to enlightenment, come what may, had a romantic appeal to me. Of course, it was also a very naïve appeal, too. As I’ve noted before, reading about the drama of the quest for enlightenment didn’t motivate me in the least actually to set off on that quest! Admittedly, there were no Buddhist organizations in the area at that time that I was aware of; and I didn’t have any resources that explained how to meditate. Still, even had I had these things, I don’t know that it would have made a difference. Later in my college career, I actually discovered a Buddhist organization not far from campus, which I could have attended. I thought about it, and dismissed the notion of checking it out. To this day, I’m not quite sure what my thinking on the matter was. I don’t doubt, though, that more than a bit of it was a reluctance to commit when the rubber actually hit the road. Nice to read about and admire ascetics–but to do it? Quite a different thing….
In a related manner, I encountered the classic Diet for a Small Planet, by Frances Moore Lappé, at some time during my high school years. I became fascinated with the concept of vegetarianism, and began to explore it. Explore, but never actually practice. Much later in my life, as a Catholic, I have occasionally given up meat altogether for Lent. There were also two times of my life, one a period of about two years and another of about three or four, where I went pescatarian, with seafood as my only animal source of protein. Both attempts petered out; and I’ve never tried full-bore vegetarianism for longer than the forty days of Lent. As a matter of principle, I actually believe that a vegetarian diet is ethically superior, both because of issues of animal suffering and exploitation, and because of the negative environmental impact factory farming has on the planet. As sincerely held as these beliefs are, they can’t seem to motivate me to make the switch–one could call into question, then, just how sincere these beliefs are, admittedly. An ascetic ideal with a failure to put it into practice once more!
Despite these spectacular failures of asceticism, there has nevertheless been a subtle monastic cast to many aspects of my life. Ever since young childhood, I have always tended to be a loner. I have had friends on and off; and I have a few of long standing. I also can be surprisingly outgoing on social occasions–work, church, parties, etc. Nevertheless, when it comes down to it I’m not at all a “people person” and often need some time to recover from excess socializing. When I’m really in gear to do something, I have an almost laser-like focus. I can read or write or whatever all day, hardly noticing the time, and even (at least when I was younger) forgetting to eat. I certainly have never had much trouble in finding things to do by myself, as a child or as an adult, or on focusing my attention on them once I’ve found them.
I’m hardly neat by any definition of that word; but I do have little quasi-OCD quirks, such as the order in which I hang my clothing, the way I prefer the kitchen layout, etc. Though I have far more material possessions than I need, I hardly even notice most of them (many of which have been stored away for years), and I do well in small spaces.
I have noticed, since the early 90’s, a gradual withdrawal from pop culture and a preference for a relatively quite ambience. I do keep up in a general way with pop culture, as is evident from many of the posts here. However, for a very long time now, I have not felt the need to keep up with the latest hot TV shows, even if I think I might like them, or buy the latest CD’s, even by my favorite artists, or to go out to many movies. I enjoy music as much as ever; but my preference always used to be not to have it on just as a background (except when driving), but to go into my room by myself, put an album (or later, CD) on, and actually focus my full attention on listening to it. I seldom have the time or context to do that much these days, so I don’t listen to as much music as I used to (once again, driving excepted).
Of course, against all those monk-like, quasi-ascetic things, I am married with a child; I work as a teacher, so I’m in a “people” profession; I volunteer at church in other “people” oriented contexts; and alas, barring Divine intervention, I will probably be overweight for life. So, a bit ascetic? Yes. Successful at it? Certainly not. And at this point in my life, I’m OK with that paradoxical status. As Whitman said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself.” Or as John Mulaney might put it, at least I’m an interesting person.
*The guy on the left is Siddhartha Gautama, the historic Buddha, during his ascetic phase, before he discovered the Middle Way, recovered his health, and gained enlightenment. He is supposed to have eaten no more than a single bean per day, and to have been able to place his hand on his stomach and feel his spine. After passing out and nearly dying, Siddhartha realized that this was definitely not the way to go. The guy on the right is known as “Bùdài” in Chinese and “Hotei” in Japanese. He is based on a semi-legendary Chinese monk, who was said to be the incarnation of the bodhisattva Maitreya, the Buddha to Come. He is popular in China and Japan and is invoked for good luck. In the United States, Hotei is frequently mistaken for the historical Buddha; so this is one small attempt to set the record straight!
Part of the series “Religious Miscellany“
Posted on 16/07/2019, in religion and tagged asceticism, celibacy, Frances Moore Lappé, John Mulaney, monasticism, practices, religion, vegetarianism, Walt Whitman. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.