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Friday, February 15, 2013

Can a Vegetarian Take Animal-Based Medication? Giving up Candy for Lent? Thoughts on Choosing Suffering

Moses Smashing the Tablets of the Law. Rembrandt van Rijn 
Opus Dei members wear a cilice, a barbed belt, to cause themselves pain. Sourcecho
A friend just received a grim medical diagnosis. As I type this, he is in the hospital.

Google, not God, may be the first thing one turns to after a grim medical diagnosis – either in oneself or in a friend.

Google terrorized me. The first, merciless, webpage I came to felt like a series of slaps in the face. "Irreversible … cannot recover." I didn't have to scroll down once to come to this: "make end-of-life plans with your doctor now."

This is one of those diseases where it matters a lot how the person treats his own body. Daily walks are recommended. I warmed to that. I'm a firm believer in walking.

A medication is recommended. The medication is animal-based. I went out and bought some of this medication. It was expensive for me. I liked that. I liked spending what is, for me, a lot of money for the sake of my friend, and his survival.

My friend is a vegetarian.

I gift wrapped the medication. I presented it to my friend. He was smiling when he received the gift-wrapped package. He stopped smiling when he unwrapped the medication. I think he was angry.

"You know I'm a vegetarian."

I started crying.

This is one of those this-will-kill-you-eventually illnesses where it matters how the patient treats his own body. I want my friend to do everything he can to live as long as he can. If he balks at taking this simple medication because he's a vegetarian – well, God knows what else he'll balk at. Stupid. Petty. Stubborn. Perverse. One foot in the grave of his own digging.

I couldn't stop crying.


After my crying, and his anger, subsided, we talked. We're working class, from New Jersey. Our parents were Eastern European immigrants and World War II survivors. We're blunt. We cut to the chase.

"You don't respect me," he said.

"I think you suffer from scrupulosity," I said.

I love being Catholic. Catholics have been thinking about all the big stuff for a long time, and we have a term for it, usually in Latin.

"Scrupulosity is where people get fixated on trivial questions of sin and virtue. It isn't real morality. It's like obsessive compulsive disorder, but over questions of religious right and wrong. Saint Ignatius Loyola obsessed on stepping on two straws that had fallen into the shape of a cross.

Ignatius recognized that stepping on a cross shape was not a sin, but that Satan was tempting him – not with sin but with thoughts of sin. Tempting him to lose his sense of perspective and proportion. Tempting him to obsess on small matters, to be so blinded that he thought that small matters deserve the attention that big matters deserve."

My friend said that he does not want to kill.

That's good. Not wanting to kill is good.

"But we're talking about animals," I said. "God gives dominion to man over animals in Genesis. We are of greater value to God than animals. In the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus says that we are of greater value to God than the birds of the air, whom God also loves and values. In the book of Acts, God orders Peter to kill and eat animals."

My friend looked at me dubiously. I think he concluded that I was making all these verses up just to win an argument. But they are in the Bible. And while I like, and even insist on, winning arguments, seeing my friend survive for as long as he can was my real desire.

He knows I'm Catholic. He played what he thought was his trump card. "St. Francis was a vegetarian."

Now, here's my little secret. Yes, I am Catholic. Proudly so. Yes, I went to St. Francis School. But I've got some issues with St. Francis.

My friend is not Catholic. He probably didn't know what I was about to tell him. "Did you know that St. Francis used to get naked and roll around in snow?" I asked. "Did you know that he used to get naked and roll around in thorns? Did you know that he made himself sick with all this self-abuse? And what good did that do anyone? St. Francis took such poor care of himself that, after receiving medical treatment in three different cities, he died at 43. How much better it would have been for his friends if they didn't have to schlep his abused body all over medieval Italy, spending all their time worrying about this self-injuring man. How much better it would have been for the church had he lived longer."


As a Catholic, I grew up with graphic invitations to masochism. The stained glass window that we sat next to in church every Sunday featured a beautiful young woman, St. Cecilia, with a blade at her neck. She was a martyr; she may have been decapitated.

I respect St. Cecilia's martyrdom.

I don't respect elective pain.

Example: members of Opus Dei wear a barbed belt around their thighs in order to cause themselves pain.

Chosen pain angers me. I feel contempt for it.

I've suffered in my life: child abuse, chronic illness, poverty, professional sabotage.

I hate it. I don't like it. I want much less suffering in my life. I want to be happy. I want a full tummy and bright, sunshiny days and laughter. I want my life to be a Vincent Minnelli, M-G-M musical comedy. I'm so sick of suffering.

I really can't stand it when people who live blessed lives – lives of unearned good fortune – announce that they are giving up candy for Lent or going on a lengthy fast or spending an hour a week in a food bank in order to suffer, in order to share in the suffering of the world.

They can't share in the suffering of the world. They don't know the great spiritual insight that Golden Age Hollywood director Preston Sturges knew when he made "Sullivan's Travels." If you can stop it when you want to stop it, if you can return to your fortunate life at will, YOU ARE NOT SUFFERING.

Those of us who have lived unlucky lives didn't choose suffering. It was forced on us. We can't stop the suffering when we want to; that lack of volition and power, that agony of claustrophobic frustration, is part of the suffering!

Those lucky people who think that giving up candy for Lent brings them closer to the wretched of the earth – they are poseurs. They are trying to steal the definition and the experience of suffering that belongs to others, and that they do not deserve.


I am not a vegetarian. God ordained that the human body benefit from eating dead plants and animals. I believe that announcing that I am better than that plan makes me, not virtuous, but scrupulous, that is, one who suffers from scrupulosity.

One of the things I really like about Christianity – Jesus died for my sins. I don't have to. I can't, by being virtuous, make myself worthy of God's love. God handles that. I just get to stumble along, being the imperfect creature I am. God made me a creature that flourishes on food from dead things: dead animals, dead plants. I'm glad I'm not a Jain, a religion so scrupulous, Jains are not to eat roots – harvesting a root kills the whole plant.

I'm already an obsessive-compulsive house cleaner. I've never (really, never) been able to finish a meal without immediately doing the dishes. I can't write in the morning if I see dust under the desk. I recognize this as a foible to be overcome, not a virtue to be cultivated. 


  1. I like Judaism's approach to these issues: medical issues trump what would otherwise be religious commandments. You are supposed to take necessary medication on a fast day, for example.

  2. Perhaps he will find that there are vegetarian options. I'm sure he appreciated your concern. It probably seems like a natural thing to eat dead animal if you do, but he may not have eaten animal for say 30 years. It may have been the same reaction a Jew or Muslim might have if you suggested how tasty bacon is. Your "Yum" is their "Yuck".

    The story reminds me of the scene in the movie, "A Man For All Seasons", when Thomas Moore is told he can live if he recants and his response. One of my favorite movie lines.

    Not to cross blogs but ask yourself the question: Would I become a Nazi if it meant I'd survive?
    I imagine your friend treats it as that type of argument with himself.

    Stagnicum Accicido ( manure occurs), but that doesn't grant us the right or an excuse from a moral stand. Neither does the argument that animals are dumb and therefore eatable. If intelligence were the criteria then you'd probably be chowing down on "Jersey Shore Brand Sausage" from the cast members.

    I'm sure your friend is doing everything he can to figure out what his options are and will figure out a morally acceptable way of handling his issue.