Posted in musings

thoughts on fasting

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.

Father of light,
in you is found no shadow of change
but only the fullness of life and limitless truth.

Open our hearts to the voice of your Word
and free us from the original darkness that shadows our vision.
Restore our sight that we may look upon your Son
who calls us to repentance and a change of heart,
for he lives and reigns with you for ever and ever.

(Liturgy of the Hours, Second Sunday of Lent)

father of light

Posted in musings

ash wednesday

I don’t really feel qualified to write about the mystery of Lent, its call to holiness and love through suffering and confession. I’m not particularly good at any of those things, to be honest.

But Lent is not just for the saints, an exalted or esoteric road that only the most advanced in the faith can travel. The pursuit of God – the long journey of learning to love – the turning away from sin to embrace the right – those things are for all of us. And Lent is a reminder to be intentional about them, and an opportunity to take tangible steps in their direction, no matter how small.

We made prayer chains yesterday as a physical reminder to pray and a way to mark the season of Lent. Rondel especially has so many questions and a heart open to learning about God; hopefully this will help him learn to come to God and know Him in that personal way.

We pray because Lent calls us to come to God with our weary hearts and distracted minds. We fast because Lent calls us to give up the earthly things we substitute for the consolation of God. We give because Lent calls us to emulate the One who gave his own life for us. Lent calls each of us this way, wherever we are, no matter how small or trivial our steps toward God might seem to someone else (it’s not about comparing with others anyway).

Posted in musings

to the end

As the narrative of the gospel of John transitions from Jesus’s ministry into his final teachings before Passover (which in turn are the build up to His suffering, death, and resurrection), there stands one of my favorite verses in the whole Bible.

“Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” – John 13:1

With the end of Lent in sight now that Holy Week is at hand, I’ve been thinking a lot about the ends of things. So often I start with high ambitions and good intentions on a new and brightly fascinating idea, only to peter out into nothing before I complete anything (and oh, that phrase of unknown etymology calls up some interesting analogies here: the disciple who strode out on to the water in faith, only to end by sinking in doubt; who boldly proclaimed that he would never forsake Jesus, only to deny him three times not long after). The daily grind of discipline and maintenance required to see a task through to its end, after the shine has worn off and the hardship and tedium has set in, is not something that comes naturally to me (does it to anyone, really?). But eventually, the end comes. The deadline approaches – time runs out – what is left undone must still be called up and held accountable. At some point there is no “tomorrow” left to finish up the chores, to do something special with your child, to read the last chapter of your book, or to turn your heart towards God.

What do you want to be focusing on, when the end comes? What do you want to have finished, or to at least have put your best effort into? And if it is not what comes naturally, how can you give yourself the motivation and support you need to do what you truly, deeply, desire to do?

Jesus, here, was approaching the end, and he knew it, and he was most definitely not looking forward to it. The task he was about to complete was not a pleasant one. But as the end came, he held fast to the bright and beautiful idea that had started it all: he loved his people. Having loved them from the beginning, he loved them to the end. He would prove that love, on the cross, that great and terrible end towards which he was at this point rapidly proceeding.

And what happened then? He loved them to the end – the end of his earthly ministry, the end of his very life – and then he showed them, showed us, that the end is not final: that hope and redemption and life and restoration continue on. He loved us to the end – and his love did not end. Peter sank into the waves, and it could have been the end – but Jesus pulled him up onto the boat. Peter denied his Lord and Savior, and that could have been the end too – but Jesus forgave him, redeemed him, equipped him, and built the church upon his shoulders. He caught hold of that unending love, and it pulled him past the end and into the eternity awaiting.

I know what I want to be focused on, when Lent ends, when I end: that same unending love. I know what I want to have put my best effort into: leaving behind my vices and sins, into loving the people around me and fulfilling my responsibilities to them, into making my small corner of the world more beautiful and more illuminated by the light of heaven. And since it does not come naturally, most of the time? I pray that I might strive (for righteousness) and rest (in grace) both now and at the end: Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Like Peter, I stretch my hand over the raging waters to catch hold of the ever-strong grace and the never-ending love of Jesus.

Posted in musings

meditation on lenten fasting

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.

Posted in sqt

{sqt} – what I learned from Lent

I’m linking up with Kelly at This Ain’t the Lyceum today for Seven Quick Takes! I couldn’t come up with an SQT topic at all this week so I’m thankful to her for suggesting this one… it turned out to be a good way for me to wrap up the season for myself and prepare for the upcoming long stretch of ordinary time.

  1. Lent is for us – it is something we need, as sinful people, not something God needs for some obscure reason. In Lent we willingly give up something good as a sacrifice to God, a way to tell Him, remind ourselves, and train our bodies to remember that He is more important than even the good things He has made and given us. So there is beauty in the intentional, thought-out abstinence from something meaningful during Lent. However, I did not do that this year, being caught in the throes of PPD for the months between Christmas and Ash Wednesday. So, all of that being said…
  2. God can still use Lent for your spiritual growth even if you don’t plan anything, or just attempt the bare minimum. The point of Lent is to grow closer to God by separating ourselves a bit from the pleasures and conveniences of the world. So if life is beating you over the head to the point where it takes all your energy just to get out of bed and pray, you don’t need to pile on more self-inflicted hardships. Just seek God in your suffering.
  3. As a corollary, God knows the Lent we need, and He’ll make it happen if we are seeking Him. An unplanned Lent, catching me in the midst of an illness that made it hard to do more than the Friday abstinence, was probably far better for the condition of my soul than one where I chose all these difficult fasts and followed my self-imposed sacrifice to the letter: because my deepest temptation is to pride, and the success of a “good” Lent (at least in outward appearance) would have fed that pride and self-righteousness. This Lent didn’t really look very devoted or disciplined at all, and that was hard for me to accept for a while.
  4. Speaking of pride, Lent is (ideally) a humbling time. We impose our fasts and determine our sacrifices, and usually fall short of our goals, and in so doing realize once again how very much we need God’s grace to actually follow Him in any real way! Our inability to hold fast to even a small sacrifice for the sake of drawing closer to Christ gives us the opportunity to confess our weaknesses and stretch our roots deeply into His strength as we try again to live for Him in holiness. When I realized early in the season that my Lenten sacrifice was going to be admitting my inadequacies and seeking help for my mental health, that was a seriously humbling challenge. That’s not the kind of Lent I had wanted; it seemed so small and pathetic, and it forced me to face my weakness head-on and leap blindly into the unknown, trusting that God’s hands would catch me.
  5. Another thing I learned this Lent was the intensity of the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary. To be honest, I had never before prayed through the Sorrowful Mysteries, and never even attempted a serious meditation on the Passion of our Lord. To think about His suffering, for our sake, for the joy of our redemption, was so uncomfortable for me that I avoided it as much as possible. But for Lent this year, I decided to pray only those mysteries in an attempt to prepare my heart for the seriousness of Good Friday and the joy of Easter Sunday. And it was unbelievably hard. To look long and hard at the suffering of another, when that person has entered into that suffering willingly and on your behalf, for your healing or life or freedom, is not easy. But it honors them and their sacrifice to take the time to remember it in its fullness, with reverence and gratitude.
  6. In the combination of these two main aspects of Lent (suffering in some way ourselves and meditating on the suffering of Christ) I found myself falling deeper in love with God and drawing closer to Him in dependence and prayer than I have been for a while. In the depths of my depression I remembered how Jesus faced the agony of fear and emotional pain in the garden, and was comforted to know that He could understand my emotional distress and stand by my side through it. When I wished that I could fight the depression on my own and overcome it without help, I remembered how Jesus Himself was unable to carry His cross, but needed the help of another man’s strength, and realized that needing the help and support of others is part of being human, not a sin or a cause for shame.
  7. Finally, I learned that the spirit of Lent – the desire to draw closer to God, and the willingness to sacrifice certain good things towards that end – shouldn’t end when the season of Lent and its specific sacrifices end. It just takes on other forms. If in Lent I learned how to draw near to God in my suffering, through Christ’s suffering for me, in Easter and beyond I can learn how to draw near to God in my joys and in my boring, everyday routines. He is there also, inviting us to walk with Him through suffering into endless joy and eternal glory.
Posted in musings

meditations on the season of lent

“Beloved, I beseech you as aliens and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh that wage war against your soul.” – I Peter 2:11

Today begins a season of abstinence in the Church – a time set apart to deny the flesh and aim for holiness. While we should of course be seeking to live our best for God every day, the changing of the seasons brings us a reason to say “today” and implement a change or a discipline that will draw us nearer to Christ, similar to how the arbitrary changing of the secular calendar year naturally leads us to make resolutions and changes in our lives. But while our New Year’s resolutions often focus on things like diet and exercise that will make us healthier, happier, and more successful, our Lenten intentions should focus on changes that will make an eternal difference for our souls: changes that lead us to God, that point our hearts and our minds upward.

Lent is a time for setting aside the things that we turn to instead of to God for solace, distraction, or pleasure. It is not a time for denying the goodness and value of those things, but rather a time for remembering the greater goodness and value of God Himself, and for pursuing that greater good. So, traditionally, we fast throughout Lent, and abstain from certain types of food, not to say that food is bad, but to say that we will sacrifice even this basic bodily comfort for God, that we will endure the discomfort of a few missed meals in order to break away from our bondage to the flesh and set our wills toward holiness. Where we would find ourselves snacking in a moment of boredom or anxiety, we are instead faced with an open space of time to turn toward God in prayer or meditation. Where we would typically satiate our hunger immediately and unthinkingly, we are instead given an opportunity to offer up our discomfort to God and remember His inordinate, extravagant, willingly-borne suffering for us.

Food is the universal fast of the Church because it is a universal need of human beings, and as such touches each of our hearts and bodies in various ways. But as individuals, it is also good to examine our lives and see what thing or practice might be serving a similar role, and which would thus be a good spiritual practice to abstain from. For me, this year, it will be sweets and iPod games, because I have noticed myself turning to both those things for pleasure, entertainment, comfort, and distraction instead of taking the needs and desires of my heart to the Lord. Instead of playing a game while I wait for the light rail, I can read the Bible on my iPod, pray, or simply meditate on Christ. Instead of turning to cookies in the evening to wind down and relax, I can turn to Jesus and give Him my worries and struggles from the day. So these are small things, and simple things, but things that will be difficult for me and that will force me to cling to the grace and presence of God – which is ultimately the whole point of Lent.

We serve a God who is holy, and He calls us to be holy as well. And yet our inherent tendency is to enjoy the feasts and festivals of the faith – the high celebrations of Christmas and Easter, the joyful commemoration of the Resurrection each Sunday, even the expectant hush of Advent – while ignoring the fasts. Is it any wonder that the celebrations themselves tend to lose their power and their wonder for us, when we have sought to fill every day with pleasure and never let our hearts meditate on the sorrow and suffering of our Lord and His call for us? Is it surprising to us that we can no longer feel the exquisite piercing joy of celebrating the Incarnation and the Resurrection when we have closed our ears to the darkness of Good Friday and the hard road of obedience that Jesus modeled for us? We need a time to look upon the evil in our world with open and unflinching eyes, to mourn the sin and suffering in our families, communities, and nations, to sit with the bereaved and the broken, to understand the burdens of injustice and oppression, without instantly drowning our uncomfortable feelings in platitudes or mind-numbing distractions. Lent is that time.

Come with the Church into the heart of the world’s pain. Come suffer with her as she seeks to understand and bear the hurt of all the lost and broken souls wandering through this vale of tears. Come walk with our Lord through His sorrowful Passion, which He endured for our sake. Come, enter into Lent.