If a life-disrupting pandemic had to come at any time, I am glad it chose to arrive in Lent.
Lent is the season in which the Church encourages us to make a concerted effort to strive against our vices and turn away from temptation – to go above and beyond in seeking holiness. And yet, while the practices of prayer and fasting and giving certainly help us grow in virtue, Lent isn’t about the success of our own striving, the achievements of our own strength. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Lent is about trying so hard to follow God that we reach the point where we find our strength to be insufficient, our virtue too weak, our will too easily persuaded by the siren call of sin – because it is at that point that we, pinioned between the laws of the fast and the temptations of the flesh, between God’s standard of holiness and our own weakness, have no other recourse than to cry to God for help. In brief, Lent forces us to turn to God.
And when the threat of sickness and economic instability comes tearing through the world, with all its concomitant stress on the fault lines already present in society and all its strain on each individual in their own way, that posture of turning towards God is exactly the response we need. And here we are, already practicing it, already trying to make it a habit, just in time to deal with something more! If I have learned to come to God and fill my spirit with prayer when my body is hungry from fasting, it is easier to come to God with my anxiety and receive His peace and presence when I am tempted to distract myself with the constant noise and bustle of social media or the news or games on my phone.
There is also this reassurance, of which Lent reminds me, that God also has experienced suffering and hardship in this life. He is not ignorant of the emotional responses natural to humanity; he knows them from the inside. And he chose to face them, without taking the way out of comfort or escape from men or angels, that we might have the hope of eternal life in him. It is a hope we can cling to; it is an example we can strive to emulate; it is a strength and a grace that can keep our feet from falling.
Visit This Ain’t The Lyceum for more on Good Friday and Easter, including this: “It is from the darkest and most uncertain of times that we are made new.”
The discipline of fasting, I am coming to think, is a discipline of perseverance.
The opportunity to indulge in whatever I am fasting from is continually around me; my mental routines and physical habits both bring it to my attention regularly. So I cannot be content with saying at the beginning of Lent that I will fast in a certain way, nor even with waking up each morning with that intention. Instead, my commitment must be renewed every time I am faced with the opportunity to choose otherwise.
It is a fitting type of discipline for this season leading up to Easter, because it is the same discipline Jesus would have had to have to endure the suffering beginning in Gethsemane and culminating in the Crucifixion. As God, he had the power to end his suffering at any point – to step away from the path he had started on. He had to choose, moment by moment, to stay the course, to remain committed to our salvation. The crowds taunted him, saying that if he were the son of God he could save himself, and they were right about his power and opportunity. They just failed to see that his endurance was greater: great enough to enable him to make the sacrifice his unfathomable love demanded.
Fasting cultivates in us that same kind of endurance. Through it we can walk with Jesus in his suffering (though our steps be small and halting indeed), and in him begin to develop the kind of perseverance that can hold fast to something painful – even faced with a way of escape – when love requires it.
“I observe, first of all, that, according to Scripture, the self-denial which is the test of our faith must be daily. ‘If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.’ [Luke 9:23] It is thus St. Luke records our Saviour’s words. Accordingly, it seems that Christian obedience does not consist merely in a few occasional efforts, a few accidental good deeds, or certain seasons of repentance, prayer, and activity; a mistake, which minds of a certain class are very apt to fall into. This is the kind of obedience which constitutes what the world calls a great man, i.e. a man who has some noble points, and every now and then acts heroically, so as to astonish and subdue the minds of beholders, but who in private life has no abiding personal religion, who does not regulate his thoughts, words, and deeds, according to the law of God. Again, the word daily implies, that the self-denial which is pleasing to Christ consists in little things. This is plain, for opportunity for great self-denials does not come every day. Thus to take up the cross of Christ is no great action done once for all, it consists in the continual practice of small duties which are distasteful to us.
“[…] Rise up then in the morning with purpose that (please God) the day shall not pass without its self-denial, with a self-denial in innocent pleasures and tastes, if none occurs to mortify sin. Let your very rising from your bed be a self-denial; let your meals be self-denials. Determine to yield to others in things indifferent, to go out of your way in small matters, to inconvenience yourself. […] This is one great end of fasting. […] Make some sacrifice, do some distasteful thing, which you are not actually obliged to do, (so that it be lawful,) to bring home to your mind that in fact you do love your Saviour, that you do hate sin, that you do hate your sinful nature, that you have put aside the present world. […] Try yourself daily in little deeds, to prove that your faith is more than a deceit.” – John Henry Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons, Volume 1, Sermon 5
Not quite a week into Lent, I’ve already had many opportunities to think about the nature and experience of fasting. It is a constant running up into a wall that isn’t normally present, a rebuttal of habit and comfortable patterns, a never-ending awareness of hungering desire countered by a never-ending “no.” No matter how insignificant my fast is compared to many others throughout history and tradition, it is still satisfying to reach the end of another day without breaking it, without crossing those invisible boundaries – and the crossing, the satiation of that gnawing desire, when it does happen, doesn’t feel nearly so good as it promised.
It’s an interesting demonstration of the power of our internal rules for life: of the strength that our decisions and convictions hold over us, even when we aren’t very good at holding true to them. That internal satisfaction is a deep motivation, regardless of whether anybody else knows of our success in following the path we have chosen or staying within the lines we have drawn. So Lenten fasting is an exercise in strengthening our will by holding ourselves forcibly to the (arbitrary-seeming) rules we have designated for the season; in the end, ideally, our will is then better-equipped to hold fast to the laws of God and the way of faith.
For that, ultimately, is the most important thing about Lenten fasting. It’s not primarily about the surface things we give up – alcohol or chocolate or frivolous Internet browsing, or more traditional limitations on consumption – but is rather about training our minds and emotions and wills to forego pleasure for a greater end, about focusing our pursuit of God. If I give up a certain activity, it is so that in the empty spaces it leaves I can devote more time to prayer or edifying reading. If I choose to eat less, it is so that through the physical emptiness inside I can remember in my prayers and actions those for whom hunger is not a choice; or so that I can be reminded of the spiritual emptiness I can become so deadened to, that results when I fail to feast on the Bread of Life.
Up against the wall I will come every day, for these forty days, and sometimes I will fail, and sometimes I will succeed, and in the end I will come to the cross of Christ and know that those failures will make me more glad of His grace, and that those successes will strengthen my ability to love and emulate Him more fully. In the end, having walked through the desert of self-denial, I will come to the spring of the water of life, bursting forth in the Resurrection for my refreshment and renewal, and it will taste the sweeter for the burning sands and parched lips of the journey.