Thursday, March 22, 2007

Faith Watchers

I've mentioned it here before, but I suspect that there are many readers who don't know that I am a proud alumnus of Weight Watchers. When I was a sophomore in high school, I think I tipped the scale at around 210 lbs. At 5'7" or 5'8" I did try to convince myself that I was big-boned or husky. Ultimately, however, I was able to recognize that, plainly and simply, I was fat.

This led me to join Weight Watchers. Each week I would attend meetings, I'd pay a $10.00 fee, and I would get weighed. As a group we would laud those who had lost certain increments of weight (every 5 or 10lbs) and our leader would give us advice about healthy eating and exercise. Our leader - Juan - was a successful attorney who had himself struggled for years before joining Weight Watchers. His way of expressing his gratitude was to act as a guide and resource for others who wished to lose weight.

I remember how nervous I was each week. I really did try to watch what I ate, skipping candy bars and ice cream and sipping water rather than soda. Instead of three helpings at dinner, I learned to be satisfied with one. Instead of watching television, I'd go for a walk each night. When I grew listless or bored, I'd practice music rather than bake brownies.

As I look back upon it, I realize that I could not have lost weight on my own. I needed the support of a community, the wisdom and resources of others who had gone before me and who had experienced success and failure. I needed that weekly accountability, I needed the weekly grind of losing 1 or .5 lbs. I needed people around me who could celebrate with me when I moved from a size 36" to a 34" waist; I needed the encouragement I found there to lose almost sixty pounds in six months. I needed to know that I was not alone.

On some level, I'd love to see the Jesuit Weight Loss program called 'Faith Watchers' that would couple weight loss and spiritual practice. This might be a few years in the offing. But if the Jesuits can carve out an Irish music niche on YouTube, I suspect anything is possible!

I think the model of Weight Watchers resonates well with and offers a challenge to our own Christian praxis. As sinners, we do realize that we cannot heal ourselves, that we cannot craft our own salvation. This insight highlights a still small voice calling us forward, calling us into relationship with the Holy Other who is and has been waiting for us. It is a call that invites us as broken and sinful. It is a call that proffers healing and rest. It is a call issued to all who will listen and who will respond. It is a call, consequently, to community.

But do we support each other? Do we know those who sit each week with us at Mass? My family pretty well sat in the same pew each week but I don't know that I ever knew very many of those who sat around us. I spent several months with "Mary" and I know her entire narrative of weight loss; I spent years praying with members of my parish community and I still don't know their names!

I think Weight Watchers operates out of three moments that Christians should take note of:

1. The recognition that one is fat. (I am a sinner)
2. The recognition that one cannot lose weight alone. (I need outside help)
3. The entrance of a community called together for a common purpose.

The analogy limps at points, but my point is this: Weight Watchers is successful because it is community of persons who are journeying together toward a common goal. They support one another, they challenge one another, they aide one another. The weekly "confession" of the scale keeps us honest - it acknowledges our failings and our successes. The periods of plateaus that frustrate us parallel the spiritual aridity that plagues so many of us. The failure of those around us recall our own failing and lead us deeper into solidarity; the success of others inspires us to re-double our own efforts.

If Weight Watchers is successful, it is because it isn't a crash-course diet. It trains you to see eating and health and fitness as an integrated whole. It calls you to moderation and to balance. So, too, does the spiritual life! If the Weight Watcher imagination trains you to see your lifestyle anew, then the Catholic imagination does much the same. Balance and moderation (ascetism), failure and success (Paschal Mystery), aridity (Dark Night), and the day-to-day discipline of prayer (the work of dieting) all contribute to the way you see the world, the way you see yourself, and the way you come to know God.

I mention this because I think that our Christian communities have much to learn from the success of programs such as Weight Watchers. Joined together as pilgrims in search of Living Water (not Living Soda) we are called upon to be our "Brother's Keeper" and support and challenge our fellow journeyers. We are fed on the Eucharist, a table set with bread and wine that become the Body and Blood of Christ who invites, challenges, encourages, and nourishes us.

I'd love to write more on this, but I have to go and buy several wheels of Brie cheese. I'm making Baked Brie (three types) for our social gathering this evening. Delicious Brie, slathered in preserves and baked in puff pastry served with fresh many Weight Watchers points do you think that is???
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