A Spirituality of Sweets

I owe someone an apology.

You know who you are. The one everyone calls “Little Debbie”. The girl whose picture graces a vast collection of inexpensive delights!

For years now – for some unfathomable reason – I regarded myself as being somehow “above” your sweet treats.

I would pass by your smiling face without so much as a wave. How rude! I never, ever, bought a single box from your display. I would hurry on to desserts from the Big City, with exotic names like Tiramisu or faux-folksy names like Ben & Jerry. But Little Debbie? Never. 

It wasn’t always this way.

As a child, I had no uppity feelings whatsoever about sweets. Twinkies, Devil Dogs, Yankee Doodles, Suzy Qs – all found me to be a very welcoming host. I didn’t mind taking in an immigrant or two – flaky strawberry-filled puff pastries from Canada called, in French, “Carré Feuilleté”. I still think that very few foods surpass the aroma of a strawberry Pop-Tart just out of the toaster! If I liked something, I ate it. It didn’t matter if it was the “in” thing or not. It didn’t matter who else liked it or didn’t like it. If it was good, it was good. That was enough.

Well, there is a happy ending to this little saga. A few people unwittingly brought me back to my senses (at least as far as desserts go). Three times in the last month, I was offered a Little Debbie goodie of some kind by someone I know. Every one of them was good. I even bought a box of Zebra Cakes today. Thanks for being patient, Little Debbie! You’ve won a new fan for yourself.

What is the point of this little story? Some folks may find it surprising that someone with hermit aspirations is talking about sweets – and not long before Lent, of all times. Whatever happened to good old-fashioned fasting and asceticism? Shouldn’t hermits be into hair shirts and pebbles in their shoes? Don’t they live on water and two slices of Wonder bread each day?

There is certainly a place and a time for fasting and asceticism. Jesus himself fasted, and taught his disciples about fasting. However, as a rule, Jesus had the reputation of someone who ate and who dared to enjoy it. The Pharisees accused him of being a “glutton and a drunkard”.

The challenge with asceticism is that we have forgotten what it is for. In years past, I often picked something I liked – such as chocolate – and gave it up for Lent. That ended, however, on Easter morning, with the first bite off the chocolate bunny! What did that ‘fast’ accomplish? It only fed my ego. See, I can give up something I like for forty days. See how good I am! How strong! How ascetic!

Big deal!

Did giving up chocolate make me closer to the Lord? If it only fed my ego, it actually got in the way.

When the Pharisees noted that Jesus’ disciples did not fast, they challenged Jesus on this. He replied that they could not fast as long as the Bridegroom is with them. When the Bridegroom is taken away, then they will fast.

This incident gives us a valuable clue as to how to fast. Don’t fast from things that connect us to the Bridegroom. We cannot fast while we are with the Bridegroom. Rather, fast from those things that separate us from the Bridegroom. When we are separated from Him, then we should fast.

In my case, acknowledging my love for Pop-Tarts or Little Debbie cakes might actually bring me closer to the Bridegroom. It brings me back to earth – my roots. It humbles me in the fullest and richest sense. It teaches me to enjoy all God’s gifts in simple gratitude and joy.

So, let me have my Little Debbie, and thank God that I am human like everyone else after all. Let me fast from whatever really does separate me from the Lord.

In his justly famous book The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis has Screwtape, an experienced devil, write to Wormwood, an apprentice tempter, about the dangers of this very thing (from Screwtape’s point of view). The “Enemy” is the Lord, of course:

The deepest likings and impulses of any man are the raw material, the starting-point, with which the Enemy has furnished him. To get him away from those is therefore always a point gained; even in things indifferent it is always desirable to substitute the standards of the World, or convention, or fashion, for a human’s own real likings and dislikings. I myself would carry this very far. I would make it a rule to eradicate from my patient any strong personal taste which is not actually a sin, even if it is something quite trivial such as a fondness for county cricket or collecting stamps or drinking cocoa. Such things, I grant you, have nothing of virtue in them; but there is a sort of innocence and humility and self-forgetfulness about them which I distrust. The man who truly and disinterestedly enjoys any one thing in the world, for its own sake, and without caring two-pence what other people say about it, is by that very fact forearmed against some of our subtlest modes of attack. You should always try to make the patient abandon the people or food or books he really likes in favour of the ‘best’ people, the ‘right’ food, the ‘important’ books. I have known a human defended from strong temptations to social ambition by a still stronger taste for tripe and onions.

Might it be that a better Lenten penance – for some of us, at least – would be to eat a few Little Debbie cakes? Or French fries? Or baked beans? Just because you and I like them, and for no other reason whatsoever? There are such things as innocent pleasures. Do we allow ourselves to have them, and to enjoy them?

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t give something up for Lent. And not only for Lent, but for the rest of our lives. What separates us from the love of Christ? What habits, attitudes, or activities get in the way of Christ’s love and grace? What sins still cling to us? What temptations do we still cling to – and feed? These are the things we need to give up, so that our lives can more closely reflect Christ. It’s much easier to give up chocolate than to face these questions! Lent is about conversion. It reminds us that our entire lives as Christians are about conversion – a constant turning to the Lord. It’s not an easy thing to do, even with God’s help.

But the Lord gave us an important clue as to how to go about it. He encouraged us to be like children.

Start by being childlike. Feed your inner child. Have a Little Debbie, or whatever else you like. Enjoy its goodness. Be grateful for it, and for all that the Lord has given you. Feel the tender care of your Father in heaven. You have all that you need. Let go of any pretense, any need to “be somebody”. Then, in gratitude, you will be open to grace. You will be better able to see where you really need to fast in your life, and you will feel the encouragement to begin. You will know yourself as a child of God. You will want to be as close to the Lord as you can. Fasting from sin may be hard, but love will draw you forward.

So, then. Pass the Little Debbies. Let’s get started!