Thursday, February 26, 2009

Lenten fasting

I held off reading the Holy Father's Message for Lent until yesterday. I am glad I waited until Ash Wednesday to read it. Sadly, it is one of those that will go largely ignored. He focuses his reflection on the spiritual benefits to be derived from practicing the spiritual discipline of fasting. While it is good to take breaks from things that consume too much of our time and attention, those things to which we may have an inordinate attachment, like television, Internet, to include blogging, and, indeed, all material goods, voluntarily abstaining from food is a truly biblical fast. As His Holiness writes:
"The Sacred Scriptures and the entire Christian tradition teach that fasting is a great help to avoid sin and all that leads to it. For this reason, the history of salvation is replete with occasions that invite fasting. In the very first pages of Sacred Scripture, the Lord commands man to abstain from partaking of the prohibited fruit: 'You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die' (Gn 2, 16-17). Commenting on the divine injunction, Saint Basil observes that 'fasting was ordained in Paradise,' and 'the first commandment in this sense was delivered to Adam.' He thus concludes: '"You shall not eat" is a law of fasting and abstinence' (cf. Sermo de jejunio: PG 31, 163, 98). Since all of us are weighed down by sin and its consequences, fasting is proposed to us as an instrument to restore friendship with God."
Fasting aids us in both avoiding sin and in repairing our relationship with God, which we break through sin. Frankly, I do not see how anyone is able to spiritually discern anything of any consequence without fasting about it. In order to fast, is has to be a discipline. For most people going 24 hours drinking only water, or with nothing at all, is just not possible if you are not used to it. Therefore, one has to start reasonably, fast for 12 hours, then 18, then 24, and even beyond. Of course, people who have health conditions, like hypoglycemia, are exempt from fasting. After all, we do not fast to harm ourselves. Fasting is a discipline, a practice, like prayer. Face it, if you only prayed when you felt like it, how often would you pray? Or, maybe more accurately, how often do you pray? Is it as often as you think you should? If not, why?

Pope Benedict states forthrightly that in our day, fasting seems to have lost something of its spiritual meaning." While fasting does benefit our health, the primary reason we fast is as "a 'therapy' to heal all that prevents [us] from conformity to the will of God." Along with prayer and alms-giving, fasting is one of "three penitential practices that are very dear to the biblical and Christian tradition." Because they are practices modelled and taught to us by our Lord, there is a unity and integrity to doing all three. Fasting without prayer and deliberate and intentional acts of charity is a healthful body purge. Charity without fasting and prayer is welfare that fails to take into account what the human person needs most, the sustaining love of God. Prayer without fasting and charity all too easily descends into a dry monologue, a grocery list, or even silliness. On the unity of these spiritual disciplines, the Holy Father quotes Saint Peter Chrysologus: "Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to others, you open God’s ear to yourself."

Fasting is a penitential act by which, to quote St. Augustine, as Benedict does, "I will certainly impose privation, but it is so that he will forgive me, to be pleasing in his eyes, that I may enjoy his delightfulness." So, think about the practice of fasting during Lent. Perhaps, fast each week on Friday. Start out by not eating from supper on Thursday to lunch on Friday, eat a very slim lunch, and a minimal supper, then build from there. During your fasting set aside more time to pray, and make plans to do something good, even if it is to merely give what it would have cost you to eat to a good cause, especially if you are in the habit of eating lunch out at work. Be generous, donate the $10 or $15 you would really spend and not the $2 you give in a stingy manner as conscience money. Another way to do this is whenever you would otherwise buy a snack or a soda during Lent, make a note and give that money to a good cause. Perhaps you can put all of this money in your Lenten Rice Bowl. If you did this, you'd be amazed at how much you give. So, instead of getting fat on snacks and sodas, give the money you would spend to someone who daily struggles to eat her/his caloric and nutritional minimums.

As more food for thought for Lenten observance and even beyond, I draw attention an older post: I'll have the filet o' fish with no tartar sauce, please.

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