Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A digression on fasting

As Eastern Christians, Orthodox as well as many Eastern Catholics, enter the Nativity Fast (this is not a Roman Catholic observance) it seems a good time to reflect again on the necessity of fasting.

Prayer, fasting, and alms-giving are absolutely indispensable for leading a Christian life, for living as a disciple of the Lord. By itself prayer can easily become self-absorbed. In and of itself alms-giving can turn into do-goodism, into a form Pelgianism by which you seek to multiply good works and tip the scales against your sins, thus saving yourself. Fasting is necessary to bring the opposite poles of prayer and alms-giving into balance within yourself. Fasting, when done in the proper spirit, serves as something of a reality check.

The purpose of fasting is not how I once heard it described by a Protestant minister in an ecumenical setting- "starving yourself for Jesus." Rather, the purpose of fasting is to focus on what really matters, God’s Kingdom. We do this by putting aside for a time even the good things of the world. Fasting frees us from dependence on worldly things. The one who fasts faithfully, that is, in accord with how our Lord taught His disciples, fasts secretly, not judging others, nor holding himself up as an example of righteousness, not thinking himself better in any way.

It is necessary to mention some of the reasons that do not give rise to Christian fasting. As with all the spiritual disciplines, fasting is neither an end in itself nor is it a means of pleasing God. We are not asked to fast as a punishment for our sins, or as any kind of atonement. Christ atoned for our sins and offers this to us freely as a gift. Hence, salvation is not something earned through meritorious effort, which is the same danger as reducing to faith to orthopraxis (i.e., doing good things- "If I serve two hours weekly at the food pantry, I don’t have to go to Mass") at the expense of orthodoxy (i.e., right belief). I know some readers choked on these words the last time I used them in a post. I am Catholic because faith does not mean checking my intellect at the door of the sanctuary.

Jesus’ two great commandments remain: "love God with all your heart, might, mind, and strength" and "love your neighbor as yourself." It is also true that the one who says he loves God and despises his neighbor lies. However, the two are not the same. Loving our neighbor is a necessary, but not sufficient condition, of loving God. There is a tendency in Western Christianity, the most prevalent sign of which is people who identify themselves as Christians and who say, "I am spiritual, but not religious." As Pope Benedict XVI powerfully demonstrated in Deus Caritas Est, only right practice that arises from right belief is truly caritas. This is yet another example as to why veritas ("truth") comes before caritas (i.e., "charity," agape). In this context a seeming digression is necessary.

According to Fr. Divo Barsotti, Romano Amerio, author of the very important tome Iota Unum, held that after Vatican II the Catholic Church came to adopt one of "the most serious ills present within Western thought today"- placing caritas before veritas. It is here that the necessary relationship between orthodoxy and orthopraxis comes into bold relief. Reversing this relationship creates a disorder that, according to Barsotti, "turns upside-down the proper understanding that we should have of the Most Holy Trinity."

In a letter he wrote to philosopher Augusto Del Noce, which was the genesis of Iota Unum, Amerio explained his purpose: "to defend essences against the fickleness and the syncretism of the spirit of the age." Above all this required "defending the three Persons of the Most Holy Trinity and their processions, which, as theology teaches, have an unchangeable order." He notes that Scripture unequivocally teaches that "In the beginning was the Word." In the Credo we solemnly profess "Filioque procedit" (i.e., and also proceeds from the Son). Hence, Amerio noted, "Love proceeds from the Word, and never the other way around."

Recitation of the Creed can easily become for us a vaguely comprehensible sentimental profession instead of an accurate description of reality. Truth is what makes love concrete instead of abstract. Years before he became pope, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger stated this quite plainly by insisting that you can only really love people individually because an imagined love of all humankind, no matter how sincere, remains abstract.

It is precisely from this seeming digression that the question arises, "Why do we fast?" It is here that we see fasting is what holds prayer and alms-giving in balance, it is the discipline that unites orthodoxy to orthopraxis, truth to love, in our very person. We fast to be delivered from carnal passions so that God’s gift of Salvation may bear fruit in us. In fasting we turn our eyes toward God in His Holy Church. Fasting is not obsolete or irrelevant today, but more necessary than ever. Fasting is not something to be done by someone else, like monks, nuns, and those more “religious” than you are.

To be clear, by fasting I mean fasting from food altogether and from certain foods, likes meat, dairy, seafood, for set periods of time and for specific intentions. Fasting is not incumbent on pregnant and nursing mothers, on anyone who is seriously ill, or one who has a health condition that makes fasting dangerous. Above all do not fast without prayer and without alms-giving.

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