Every day I take a cold shower. It is not such a trial now, but through the Jamaican winter, when temperatures with the wind chill dip down into the sixties (we have not adopted Celsius here yet), it is an act of will. I do this not to protect a precarious celibacy but because water heaters are luxury items here. So are washing machines, and I sporadically panic about clean clothes for the next day and pull out the scrub brush and an overflowing tub. When there is no water in the pipe, as regularly happens, the whole process of cleaning body and clothes becomes considerably more difficult.
Leaving behind a culture devoted to comfort for one where my personal comfort level seems to be a very minor consideration has been the most jarring cultural change I have experienced in coming to Jamaica. In North America, I am guaranteed the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of comfort. The good life means the comfortable life. Complex forms of social organization have developed to ensure that I can get where I want to go with a minimum of time and inconvenience, find what I want to buy when I want it, discard my detritus down a drain or on the curb and never think of it again, turn a tap for hot or cold water, and cook and wash with devices that will save my labour and convert it to the leisure I need to truly appreciate the comfort I deserve in a La-Z-Boy chair in front of an entertainment system.
Here in Jamaica I am grateful to get water of any temperature out of my faucet. In fact, I am grateful for the faucet itself when I pass people carrying water from the river on their heads. When I occasionally go to the fanciest local restaurant, I eat my choice of three of four menu items (if I arrive early enough) on a bench that makes McDonald's seats feel like the softest of armchairs. I voluntarily avoid the local version of an entertainment system, a video store stocked with old kickboxing and karate movies. And travel entails bouncing through potholes, which at least I can do in my own vehicle, sparing me the necessity of packing into a compact car with seven other people for a taxi trip.
On occasion, especially while toiling over my clothes, I feel sorry for myself. But I have a suspicion that if I survive the culture shock, forsaking the Comfortable Society may not be a bad thing. As I step shivering into the cold shower, I sometimes think of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha saying the rosary in the middle of the St. Lawrence River in winter. I think of St. Thomas More's hairshirt when I am woken up in the middle of the night by the activities of ticks, mosquitoes and other carnivorous insects. And as I toil up steep and rocky mountain paths, I find some comfort in the recollection of St. Francis's barefoot and bloody walk up to the cave in Mount Alverna.
Such accounts of heroic abnegation are suppressed in contemporary hagiography. In a comfortable society, they can only seem pathological. Once considered an obstacle to union with God, comfort is now the motor-drive of the western economy and the keystone of its culture. It justifies grabbing up the earth's resources. It allows keeping most of the rest of the world in destitution. It prevents any rational consideration of western lifestyle. It is a value so basic to western society that we are hardly even conscious of it. If we suffer inner discomfort, we are sick. If we suffer outer discomfort, we are poor. There are few, even in the religious world, who will stand up and kick away their plush furniture, dishwashers and nice restaurants to say that comfort is an idol that has blinded us, that has brought spiritual death to the West and threatens physical death to the rest of the world.
My own little bit of asceticism is certainly not heroic. In fact, it is hardly even voluntary and carries little virtue. In my better moments, I'm glad for it. But sometimes I find myself longing for the chance to take a warm shower and then settle down in an easy chair with a nightcap and some junk food in front of a good movie. I guess my soul is not strong enough yet, if it ever will be, to face the creature comforts of home.
© 1996 Compass, A Jesuit Journal and Gail van Varseveld