New York City is fat with the pastries that are the harbingers of Lent. Greenpoint, Brooklyn’s Polish jelly-filled pączki, Danish cream-filled fastelavnsbolle at Ole & Steen at Union Square, zeppole in my Italian Carroll Gardens, Shrove Tuesday pancakes dripping with syrup in so many Protestant churches. I will eat them all. I will eat the decadence of every Christian culinary tradition. Cream and flaky dough and the singing sweetness sinks into my gums. The heart races. The punch and wave of stickiness seeping into my body. My eyes widen. We celebrate. We bake for each other. We eat together. We share the best places to go.
Seeking out the best places for pre-Lenten perfection is a personal joy. I make my annual pączki pilgrimage this very morning, before they’re all sold out. I am alive with sugar. My skin almost sparks. It’s Requiem for a Dream in my mouth. These are not desserts. Eat them anytime, because they are so fleeting. Lent is coming. Eat it all. Eat it, immediately. Have another. Don’t wait. Have another. Have too much. Don’t stop. Don’t stop yourself. I can’t stop myself. Be in the moment. Live in the moment. Live immediately. Live in the now. While we can.
Today is the hyperday before Lent, the slowest season of the Christian year. Many people understand it as a time of self-denial, a time to “give up” something of significance or distraction. Maybe social media or sweets or meat. And then with Easter comes the resurrection of old habits. My Twitter has risen! Our Twitter has risen, indeed! Some people will take on a new habit outside of oneself, to make an extra effort to recycle or help a neighbor (and who is our neighbor?).
Perhaps, the habit will stick beyond Lent. There is a desire connect to something beyond ourselves, to experience God, something felt to be “spiritual”. Increasingly, people say they’re “spiritual, but not religious.” But what is spiritual to them but that immediate aesthetic, that unmitigated bodily feeling of connection with the divine?
I am here to tell you that it is all sickness and that such spirituality is equivalent to our engorging on the sweets of this single day before everything turns to ash. Such “spirituality” is the Mardi Gras of the spirit, the Fat Tuesday of the self. Such a spiritual person is the person in self-denial. Such a spiritual person is the person in denial of their self. And in denying themselves, such people are in despair. They live in despair and they do not know it. They are self-deceiving. They deceive themselves.
But the reality is that whether we consider ourselves “spiritual” or religious or even irreligious, each and every one of us lives in despair. We all live in what Kierkegaard calls “the sickness unto death”, this thing called despair. Despair is an essential part of the human condition. It separates us from the animals. It is what makes us all too human. Deny this truth and your are in despair. Affirm the truth of your despair and your triumph is your self-awareness of the individual and collective despair that is part of being human.
My Lenten discipline this year is to write through Kierkegaard’s great work on despair, The Sickness Unto Death. It is a book for atheist and Christian, alike. It is one of the foundational influences of Existentialism. It is an essential resource for theologians, philosophers, and psychologists, alike. I believe that much of our personal, social, religious, political, and cultural anguish comes from our refusal, our inability, and our ignorance of the despair that is a part of us and the despair that we are a part of. Despair is the sickness into death. We are dying, but we are not dead. As we will discover, despair does not kill us. But it is what drives us toward self-destruction.
What is required of us is a particular kind of self-reflection, a slow turning inward into who we are and who we are becoming. We must understand ourselves as spirit, but not in the decadence of aesthetic spirituality. Spirituality will not save you. Spirituality is your narcissism at all costs in order to drown out the anxiety of your being, of your becoming. Spirituality is the lie, the narcotic of good-feeling. Spirituality is self-betrayal. Spirituality is the denial of self, because it refuses to see and understand the self as self-relating. Spirituality is about living in the now. If we are to speak about the spirit, we must reject the toxicity of spirituality, that sugar hangover of the day before.
Binge upon yourself, today. Consume every pastry. Enjoy the ephemeral, the spiritual, that saccharine connection with the sweetness of life. For tomorrow we will be reminded we are from dust and to dust we shall return. And everything in our mouths will taste of ash.