My veganism this year has been an unexpectedly spiritual experience.
What started out as an [admittedly ambitious] “Label Swap Project” has slowly evolved into something more lasting. While I still don’t consider myself a full-blown, strict vegan (ex: I consume fish/dairy at the occasional catered wedding plus have made no no effort to “veganize” my clothing and make-up), I’ve adapted to a daily herbivore diet. Overtime, I’ve witnessed these new food decisions quietly permeate my social life, family dynamics, and daily routine. To my surprise, veganism has also interacted with and informed the most important, overarching area of my life - my faith.
While Catholicism and veganism aren’t at odds or incompatible, it certainly isn’t a common label combination. In my mind, it’s still hard to separate cultural tradition, family, and food from religious gatherings or celebrations; I naturally think about grace before meals, breaking bread around a table, the Italian food at weddings, donuts after mass (duh), the delicious meat and egg-filled dishes at my Filipino family reunions, and even the abundance of pizza at college ministry events. So, even though there is nothing wrong with being a Catholic who eats vegan, you just don’t hear about a lot of people who simultaneously embrace such a traditional, conservative faith with nontraditional, rather liberal eating habits. Where do Judeo-Christian values and secular eating choices intersect, anyway (if at all)?
Sadly, I don’t know any other vegans (let alone Catholic ones…), so I couldn’t benefit from aquantainces’ insight or advice on this topic. So, once I realized that my veganism wasn’t exactly temporary and trivial, I felt the need to snoop around the Internet to see if I was truly alone in the world. Fortunately for me, I stumbled across this really great blog called The Lenten Vegan. This Catholic blogger gave up animal products for Lent in 2011 and, as the 40 days unfolded, recorded some really insightful daily thoughts about simplicity, compassion, stewardship, and respecting the body that was made in His image and likeness. It’s definitely worth a read. This post in particular is a great summary.
I’m very grateful to this anonymous blogger; he or she unknowingly and oh-so-eloquently articulated many of the same connections I’ve made this year between food and faith. For instance…
1) Making any sacrifice – whether it’s in your diet or not – isn’t just about denying yourself for the sake of punishment or discipline. On a deeper, personal level the action can also be about gaining self awareness and becoming more mindful of the habitual comforts and luxuries we’ve all folded into our lives without notice. If you had asked me last year whether I needed to eat dairy or meat I would’ve said without hesitation, “Of course! Are you crazy?” But that’s the thing – the line between need and want can be so blurry. The fact that I can look back now and realize that those products - foods I used to consider necessities in my life – weren’t necessities at all, is both humbling and empowering. As a result, my perspective has shifted on a larger level. What else do I not need in my life – really and truly? Now, I certainly haven’t starved or fasted as a vegan (see pictures of vegan cupcakes here – ahem), but I will claim that I’ve become more aware of the excess that I used to dismiss as normal. Meat at every meal? Even if I stop being vegan, I doubt I will ever go back to that…
2) Creation is abundant and beautifully varied. Despite the fact that I cut out two whole food groups (essentially Jenga Failing my USDA-prescribed food pyramid…), I ironically eat a greater variety of foods now than I used to as an omnivore. Changing up my diet in such a radical way forced me to quickly adapt and try new things like kale, mustard greens, rainbow quinoa, plumcots, lentils, garbanzo beans, nutritional yeast, tempeh – just to name a few. I strangely loved it. The whole experience re-tuned my taste buds and re-taught me the concept of abundance. Abundance is no longer synonymous with the traditionally envisioned steak dinner or turkey roast. Abundance suddenly means everything else – simple, delicious whole foods I’d never bothered or needed to try before! I’m honestly still in awe of the variation that was designed into creation and, to be honest, I feel kind of silly for not appreciating it and taking advantage of it before this point in my life. God really knew what He was doing when He made the world…and frankly, I had no idea He’d made so much of it for me. I’ve never felt more geniunely nourished in my entire life and, for what feels like the first time, I have a heightened sense of awareness and gratitude for the source of that holistic nourishment.
3) If I believe that creation is a gift to be cherished (see above), then it’s only logical that such a gift deserves my respect…and that respect should be transferred into action. Now, I still don’t think that eating animals is inherently wrong (Shhhh! Don’t tell other vegans!), but I hate wastefulness and I’m not a fan of the strain that the excessive demand for meat has placed on both the farming industry and the environment. So, hey – if I’ve discovered I can get along without animal products happily, then cutting it out (or, at least, cutting back on it) can be my personal way to convey that respect. There are tons of other ways I can do this, of course ; I could thrift, recycle, start a compost pile, bike instead of drive, clean up/beautify parks and public spaces…you get the idea. I just choose to do this because right now I’m at a stage of my life where I only shop and cook for myself. Why not embrace unconventional, but healthy eating habits?
4) My body is a temple of the Lord, a piece of His creation. It is a gift I can use for myself, but – more importantly – it is a gift I can use to serve and love others in His name. I shouldn’t take that gift for granted. Every week I go to a Theology of the Body discussion group (Warning: Catholic Nerd Alert…bare with me). These discussions along with my seemingly unrelated veganism have somehow combined to shift the way I look at my own body. You see, sometimes Christians have a tendancy to paint the body with an overly simplified, negative brush. The body is sinful. The body should be punished. Deny your body. Don’t you know your body is bad? John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, however, rounds out that 2-diminesional pessimism. Though Theology of the Body is mostly discussed in terms of human sexuality and the sacarament of marriage, I’ve taken some broader lessons from the little bits I’ve studied (Please note – I am no expert on this dense and complex theological topic!). I take comfort in the fact that our bodies are not enemies or obstascles to salvation, but tools; our physical actions are an extension of prayer and charity, our senses are paths to empathy and connection, each body a medium made in Christ’s image capable of echoing His divine love on Earth. I wasn’t quite aware of it before this year, but I think I used to fall into that negative mindset when it came to my own body. Instead of appreciating it as the gift it was or understanding the potential goodness I could bring to the world through it, I felt trapped in it. Like most girls, I didn’t love my body and, like other Christians, I sometimes unfairly blamed it for holding me back. It was as if I chose – or, even preferred – to see my body as something separate from myself; it was something that didn’t matter or shouldn’t matter. To be honest, that’s a much easier philosophy to adopt, but it’s a much harder life to live.
About three weeks into going vegan, the simple truth set in – I felt great. I had no idea God had designed my body to feel this good. Once I started properly nourishing and appreciating the physical part of myself, the ripples spread to other areas of my life. Suddenly, during Theology of the Body discussions, everything started to click. I am made in God’s image and likeness and every aspect of my body’s design has a purpose. I have inherent worth and human dignity because I exist in this state. How could I have ever hated my body? Each body has so much hidden potential. I can use mine to worship, serve, love, and - as a woman – I even have the ability to bring new lives into the world. I sort of marvel at the fact that my random vegan label experiment ended up forcing me to respect, appreciate, and listen to my body in a new way. My body doesn’t have to feel bad and – more importantly – I don’t have to feel bad about my body. Also, as the scripture passage above says, each body has been purchased at a price. To understand and honor the scope of that price, the least I can do is appreciate and take care of my own body while I have it.
It’s funny how this all happened. I started this vegan journey for completely random and trivial reasons. Then, it suddenly became about me (in a good way). Then, it suddenly became much bigger than me (in an even better way). Did I need to adopt veganism to learn these lessons? No, of course not. I think could’ve easily arrived in the same place through a different path. Still, I’m so grateful that I tripped into this lifestyle. If I ever choose to abandon the label, I hope the lessons I’ve learned stick regardless.