Last year, as I noted in last week’s 7 Quick Takes Friday post, I posted some thoughts on fasting -- you can read those thoughts here.
Looking back over what I wrote at that time, I don’t think I would change much of what I wrote then, at least in terms of practice and theory. Fasting should be done out love, in union with prayer and almsgiving.
Seems fairly simple, no?
But a year’s reflection and reading – especially some recent reading about St. Thérèse of Lisieux – has me thinking about some of the motivations and practices of my fasting. I’m concerned about the violence that is often at the heart of fasting, the wrong sort of violence that seeks to answer sin with rage against the self and the body, the violence that seeks to remove God as judge and replace it with one’s own self.
Will this post be against discipline, then? Not at all. Discipline is good for the body, mind, and soul. Part of growing in virtue is to reorder one’s desires and appetites properly, towards God, neighbor, and self. Such discipline is not at all what I’m challenging.
It’s the spirit and practice of the discipline that I’d like to consider for a bit.
Certainly, one does not have to look far to find discussions on examining the motivations for fasting. Simcha Fisher, for example, has a great look in her column in last week’s National Catholic Register. And I don’t want to get into some psychoanalytical exploration for every deep motivation, so as to avoid getting paralyzed into inaction.
Instead, I’d like to suggest that, between the schizophrenic duality of the Scylla of our culture’s hedonism and license, which says to give in to every desire and indulge, and the Charybdis of its Gnosticism, with its hatred for the body and all things material, there is a middle path through the sea. It’s not any easy path to row through, and there will be suffering involved (as for Odysseus), but, then, living the Gospel is not for the faint of heart or for dilettantes.
The path is the one of non-violence, especially towards one’s self.
It’s a hard path to follow and to embrace fully. I believe that I am so evil and so corrupt, and that my body is so vile and nasty that I must beat and punish myself severely if I am to be pleasing to God. Note the complex roots of this motivation: Gnostic hatred of the body; perfectionism of the wrong kind; the Pelagian view that, by my own efforts, I will make myself on my own pleasing to God; trying to battle – even here, violence – vice with vice, evil with evil; Jansenist views that I am so utterly corrupt that there is little hope and reason in my trying, etc. And so I’ll fast this Lent, furiously, in order to combat this evil…
It’s a combination that creates, at least as I see it, a self-defeating situation.
And the combination gets it backward. God loves us first. He created us, delighting in us, loving us, wanting to be with us, to come to us as we are, not waiting until we are perfect. (Whatever that means.) This realization alone, finally penetrating into the core of my being, is part of the reason for my own reexamination of fasting and penitential practices of late.
But it’s really this quote from St. Thérèse that shook the foundations of my own bad understanding of penance and fasting:
If you are willing to bear serenely the trial of being displeasing to yourself, then you will be…[for Jesus] a pleasant place of shelter.*
How? Too often, I’ve undertaking fasting as some sort of means of punishment towards myself, that I’m so bad that I need to be beaten and put into my place, if I am to be worthy of God’s love. (False.)
Or: my fat body needs to learn discipline; it’s so ugly/I’m so ugly that if I don’t fast, I’ll never be loved/be worthy of love/etc.
Whatever the origins of my beliefs, they aren’t in line with the Gospel, with, as the Little Flower calls it, the Science of Love.
What the Lord calls us to is love, non-violence, true gentleness born of strength, towards others and especially towards ourselves. While we cannot be more merciful than the Lord, neither can we be more just than He. Judge not, lest ye yourselves be judged – that applies as much to ourselves as to others.
The point of all this is not to obsess over my motivations, but, rather, to be gentler towards myself. Yes, indeed, fast and abstain this Lent. But do so knowing the intense love that the Lord has for me and for every person, that He truly does desire us to be truly joyful, and that fasting helps to put things into perspective and to order our lives, desires and appetites properly. The practice may help us to be more mindful of and loving towards others, as we consider the food choices we make every day, the ways we eat and cook and shop.
As I wrote above, none of this is easy. It’s a bit of a balancing act, one that I will need to learn and practice, humbly and gently, for many years. All part of the adventure of living the Gospel, eh?
Do you have any thoughts to add, readers?
Update: The Anchoress has some great stuff for Lent on her blog. Check out Fr. Pontifex as well.
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*Quoted in Schmidt, Walking the Little Way of Thérèse of Lisieux, p. 181