Friday, October 6, 2006

I'll have the filet o' fish with no tartar sauce, please.

In November 1966, on the heels of Pope Paul VI's Apostolic Constitution, Paenitemini, in which Paul proposed to renew "penitential discipline with practices more suited to our times", the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops set forth a Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence. This statement by the U.S. Bishops still constitutes the normative application of the Holy See's directive for Catholics in the United States. Today being Friday, let us explore this a little and see what fruit it bears.

Some preliminary notes are required before wading in to what our bishops teach. In the early Church, Sunday was the day on which Christ's Resurrection was celebrated. Of course, it remains so today and has throughout the Church's entire history, but even observing Sunday as the Lord's Day seems to be imperiled (see Pope John Paul II's Dies Domini). Appropriately, elements of the Jewish Sabbath are observed by faithful Christians on Sunday, the Lord's Day, just as Christian fasting finds its roots in Jewish practice. Another early Christian observance, in addition to the little Easter of each Sunday, was a little Good Friday, a memorial of the day on which Christ died for us. While we feast on the resurrection, we fast and abstain in solidarity with Christ's suffering as an act of penance and solidarity with each other and those who suffer, on the crucifixion.

Fasting is one of many ascetical practices that is currently poorly understood and, hence, little practiced. Ascetical is derived from the Greek word askesis, which means "exercise, training, discipline." This is the kind of thing St. Paul is writing about in passages from his letters, like 1 Corinthians 9,24b-27, in which he writes: "Do you not know that the runners in the stadium all run in the race, but only one wins the prize? Run so as to win. Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one. Thus I do not run aimlessly; I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified." The ascetical life, writes Fr. Thomas Ryan, CSP, in his book The Sacred Art of Fasting: Preparing to Practice, "is either the project of appropriating the divine gift of grace or, more frequently, the work of purification." He continues in his recovery of the word ascetic by stating that ascetical "practices are methods designed to restrain the influence of sin and maximize union with God". If there is one area of the work of Richard Foster and Dallas Willard, both of whom I admire very much, I take issue with, it is their unbending criticism of asectism, seeing it and writing about it as if it were a dirty Catholic word. Just as many evangelical Christians devalue the word religion, so too with ascetism- those nasty old practices of monks and nuns in the Dark Ages, that are a distortion of Christ's teachings. Nothing could be further from the truth, as Foster's and Willard's work goes on to show.

Fr. Charles Cummings, O.C.S.O of Holy Trinity Abbey in Huntsville, Utah (just a little North of me, a community that has nurtured and strengthened me over many years), writes in his book
Monastic Practices, as quoted by Fr. Ryan, "The more I try to make Christ the center of my life and thoughts and actions, the more I feel every pull and tug that draws me back from the radical, loving surrender of myself. I am not totally free to run toward the one I love. Instead, I feel enchained, entangled by a thousand little threads that together form a strong rope binding me to myself. Detaching myself from these bonds is largely a matter of self-discipline and asceticism. Paradoxically, [the spiritual life is fraught with paradox]self-discipline sets me free for God. Self-discipline is a training in freedom. I am free to take something comfortable and pleasurable, or to eat and drink more, or to sleep longer, but I am also free to refrain from these things and not let myself be held bound by them" (bracketed words are mine).

I hope that lays a little necessary groundwork before returning to the issue of Fridays as penitential days. Last Friday I quoted from a recent document by the U.S. Bishops on penitential practices and provided a link to their pamphlet. Today I want to return to that point in time when Friday abstinence from meat was rescinded as a requirement of Church law in order to show that what the bishops, and the Pope, were hoping for was for Catholics to freely enter into Fridays with a renewed fervor, not to abandon penitential practices altogether. With no further adieu, let us see what we have been taught.

"Christ died for our salvation on Friday," begins the 1966 statement. "Gratefully remembering this, Catholic peoples from time immemorial have set apart Friday for special penitential observance by which they gladly suffer with Christ . . . Since the spirit of penance primarily suggests that we discipline ourselves in that which we enjoy most, to many in our day abstinence from meat no longer implies penance, while renunciation of other things would be more penitential." We might well ask, What other things? Here are few suggestions, alcohol, television and movies, desserts, or, for married couples, by mutual agreement, sex. Those are just for starters, try giving up one of those things, thus whittling away at the threads of the rope that binds us, as described by Fr. Charles. Do these things with prayer and almsgiving. As an example, if you typically spend $10 or $20 having a few cocktails on Friday, give that money to the poor. Fasting and abstinence undergird prayer and almsgiving, these practices do not replace them. In fact, fasting and abstinence are incomplete without praying and giving because the practice, the discipline, is not an end in and of itself, is a means to an end- loving God and neighbor.

"For these and related reasons, the Catholic bishops of the United States, far from downgrading the traditional penitential observance of Friday, and motivated precisely by the desire to give the spirit of penance greater vitality, especially on Fridays, the day that Jesus died, urge our Catholic people henceforth to be guided by the following norms.

"Friday itself remains a special day of penitential observance throughout the year . . . Friday should be in each week something of what Lent is in the entire year. For this reason we urge all to prepare for that weekly Easter that comes with each Sunday by freely making of every Friday a day of self-denial and mortification in prayerful remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ. . . Among the works of voluntary self-denial and personal penance which we especially recommend to our people . . . we give first place to abstinence from flesh meat. We do so in the hope that the Catholic community will ordinarily continue to abstain from meat by free choice as formerly we did in obedience to Church law . . . Our deliberate, personal abstinence from meat, more especially because no longer required by law, will be an outward sign of inward spiritual values"
[sounds quite sacramental...hmmm].

The bishops continue, "Fridays, please God, will acquire among us other forms of of penitential witness which may become as much a part of the devout way of life in the future as Friday abstinence from meat . . . Let it be proved by the spirit in which we enter upon prayer and penance, not excluding fast and abstinence freely chosen, that these present decisions and recommendations of this conference of bishops will herald a new birth of loving faith and a more profound penitential conversion, by both of which we become one with Christ, mature sons and daughters of God, and servants of God's people".

All emboldened words are my emphasis. So, this Friday let us ask ourselves, how are we doing? How well are we exercising our freedom as children of God in Christ by virtue of our baptism? Are we achieving the maturity that God, through the Church, calls us to, or are we still children waiting to have rules imposed on us? Are we lazy, waiting to grow spiritually with no effort? Would we expect to be able to run a marathon, play professional sports, build a beautiful table, with no training or effort? Just a few questions to ponder.

No comments:

Post a Comment