Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Why we intentionally live this way

As the second day of the Nativity Fast commences it is important to start again, as we do each day. Starting again during this holy season means thinking about why I am doing what I do. The first thing I need to be reminded of is that to live this way, which can mean nothing other than doing these things, is a free choice. After all, I can choose not to observe this season. Should I choose not to observe it I would not be less of a Christian, or less loved by God. I am not obligated ecclesially to observe this season in the traditional way. This would be true even if I were a Byzantine or Melkite Catholic, which I am not because I am a Roman Catholic.

Fasting is spiritually useless if prayer is not intensified and almsgiving is absent. I see fasting as the connection between prayer and alsmgiving between the interior and exterior. So, I am re-reading St. Paul's magnificent Letter to the Romans. Today I reached chapter six, in which Paul writes about the meaning and effects of baptism. Baptism, the apostle writes, makes us dead to sin "but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (v. 11). "Therefore," he continues, "do not let sin reign in your mortal body, that you should obey it in its lusts" (v. 12).

In my experience, nothing is more anti-climactic than the moment immediately following giving into a lust. I will illustrate by sticking with the topic of fasting. As I mentioned, I am free in this regard. To fast not only means to be hungry, but oftentimes to never desire food more than when I am intentionally and freely doing with none, less, and/or eschewing certain foods. If I obligate myself on pain of sin, that is, I fail to see myself as free this regard, it becomes a true temptation, a giving into moralism, which is seeking to keep the rules for the sake of keeping the rules and not for a greater end. So, the most important thing, when I feel like giving up, is to remind myself that I am doing this because I choose to do it, which has a way of bringing me back to why I am doing it, that greater end. However, whenever I give in I am beset by remorse because the fulfillment I seek, even through my body, is certainly not to be found in a Little Debbie's snack cake, or a McDouble cheesburger!


The power of sin over our bodies is not an inevitability. Rather, "it is something we allow by our free will." According to ancient Christian tradition, to which we turn to learn the truth about God, ourselves, and the world, the aspect of human nature most damaged in Fall and "the first thing Christ heals" is our will. Christ's "healing enables us to make right choices, especially against sin." Our mortal bodies demand pleasure, at times our bodies scream for pleasure, pleasure for its own sake. Even these burning desires, if we examine them, are nothing except our desire for what is ultimate, our metaphysical rebellion against the contingency of the world, pointing us to what will truly satisfy.

Spiritual disciplines, like fasting, but only when undertaken freely, allow us to direct our bodies instead of being directed by them. The only power sin has over us is the power we give it. Hence, "[o]nly our own listlessness, dejection, indifference or laziness can defeat us." Christ, in and through the sacraments, beginning with baptism, restores our human nature to what God originally intended us to be (all quotes in the above paragraph are taken from the footnote on Romans 6:11 in the Orthodox Study Bible, pgs. 351 & 353). Belonging to Jesus Christ is what allows us to live this way.

All holy men and women, pray for us

8 comments:

  1. Good reflection, Scott, as it gets to the heart of the matter.

    It is a challenge for latin rite Christians, accustomed to legalism, to see fasting and abstinence in a negative light; that breaking the law is seriously sinful; instead of the positive light of a covenental relationship so that the opportunity to fast and abstain, done with our free will brings us into something.

    the way to see both of these in tension is that;

    If we do not freely participate into that covenental relationship expressed necissarily through fasting and abstinence leads our love to grow cold so that we do cannot fully experience that mystery of God's inner life.

    Covenental fasting leads us into a healing and wholeness directed toward our eschatological end, instead of merely a judicial view of breaking the law.

    It is much easier, I think, to view this as a free-will entrance into something that leads to wholeness rather than doing something out of "obligation" of the law.

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  2. Many, many thanks for this.

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  3. I am curious if you are Eastern rite catholic? The Latin rite has a different way to prepare for Christmas and the nativity fast has never been a part of Advent.
    There were the traditional ember days of advent but advent was not seen as a penitential season like lent.

    Do you also celebrate the advent season of the Latin Church? Or do you combine the two into your own thing?

    I am just curious, the latin rite has such a deep spirituality for its advent season that it just hits me as strange to follow the eastern rite (as it would an eastern rite to celebrate the Latin advent season), it comes across as “cafeteria spirituality”

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  4. Reading this enlightens me, a Roman Catholic, about what the practice of fasting means. I think this is an area of the Christian life that gets little or no catechesis. Yet, I am aware that saints fasted. I hope you will write more often about the positives of this spiritual practice.

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  5. Patrick, you are incorrect that a season of fasting in preparation for the Nativity of Our Lord is unknown among Christians in the West. The idea that Advent is not a penitential season, is a relatively new idea even the Christian West. Have you never heard of St. Martin's Fast? This fast, like St. Philip's Fast in the East, was a Nativity Fast. Observance of it began in the 4th century and lasted until the late Middle Ages. It was observed throughout most of Western Europe. It went from the day following Martinmas (11 November- my birthday) to Christmas and was known as Quadragesima Sancti Martini. So, this is a beautiful Western Advent tradition, too.

    We could live without casting aspersions, like cafeteria spirituality. Spirituality, unlike liturgy, dogma, and doctrine is always personal and so is always idiosyncratic to a degree. Any authentic Christian spirituality is built on the three pillars of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. How do you pray? To whom or what do you give alms? When and for what do you typically fast or abstain? These are properly speaking always personal questions. I make it clear that one is free to choose to observe or not to observe and set forth my own reasons for so doing. If you don’t find this helpful, then so be it. Among Eastern Catholics one is not bound under of pain of sin to observe the Nativity Fast. So, legalism, even when slipped through the back door, has no place in this discussion.

    To the extent that there still is a Latin discipline of fasting (i.e., fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, as well as Friday abstinence year 'round) I observe it to the best of my ability. It should concern us all that fasting and abstinence are almost non-existent among Western Christians as regular practices. Consequently, both have ceased to have much meaning. Latin Rite Advent spirituality does, indeed, have very many deep and beautiful expressions. It is more important that ever to nuture those and strengthen them, especially in the face of the cultural rush to Christmas.

    I am unequivocally Catholic. As far being Roman or Eastern, I am both, which is not unusual because in many places there aren't enough Eastern Christians of the same rite to form a community. So, in my parish community, which is a Roman Catholic Cathedral, we have quite a few Eastern Catholics, mostly Byzantine, for whom I bear a lot pastoral responsibility. One of my foremost responsibilities is to insure the continuity of their traditions and praxis, from which I derive a great benefit. My wife also comes from a largely Eastern Christian (i.e., Orthodox) background.

    Do you also find it objectionable that devotion the Most Holy Rosary of Blessed Virgin Mary is so widespread and deep among Eastern Catholics, even though it is a thoroughly Western way of venerating our Blessed Mother?

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  6. Dan, as usual, you're right on. Thanks for helping to unpack what I wrote even more.

    Sean- I'm glad this helps

    Ruth Ann, my point exactly. As Christians we have much to learn from one another. It is important that our ancient practices are maintained, which always requires an updated understanding

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  7. dear deacon,
    I am sorry my questions must have come across in an abrasive manner. but you can relax, I will not visit your blog again. i wish you many blessings.

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  8. Patrick:

    You are are welcome to return at any time, or just to stay. After years of experience in the blogosphere I will be the first to admit that it is a format with limitations. Sadly, in my experience there are many who live to criticize others and who do not feel they need to make a positive contribution. Also, over the history of my blog, I have made it a point to interact with readers who comment and I make no apology for offering robust responses and always remain open to continuing the discussion.

    The reason I offered such a lengthy response to your comment was not primarily because you came across as abrasive, though accusing me of practicing a "cafeteria spirituality" and asking me if I just do my own thing when it came to Advent, certainly came across to me as criticisms, but because the questions you asked were rather good ones. So, instead of heading for the hills at the first sign of trouble by telling me to relax and making a non-apology apology (i.e., I am sorry if you took my crictial comments critically) I invite you to stay and continue to comment and ask questions. If you are interested, I encourage you to take some time to look around and get a feel for where I am coming from. I perfectly comfortable with the fact that I am not everyone's cup of tea.

    My own experiences of being passive aggressive have taught me two things: that the cyber world makes it easy to act this way and tempting to act this way and that passive aggression, as it were, is an enemy to charity.

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