08 March 2019

On Fasting: Attending to Our Deepest Needs and Hungers

Today's readings are all about fasting: proper fasting, improper fasting; fasting that pleases God, fasting that does not; fasting that causes fights and grumbling, fasting that is a genuine and fruitful sacrifice and leads to reconciliation with our deepest selves, our God, and others. When I was a student my major professor was quite emphatic that, "Fasting is not intrinsic to Christianity" or "Fasting is not essential to Christianity" or "There is nothing about fasting that is essentially Christian." At the time I didn't realize John intended to provoke reflection; my conclusion re fasting was instead something like, "Oh, well, in that case toss the practice out!" But of course the question and nature of fasting is much more nuanced than that and while it not essential to Christianity, it remains an important piece of spiritual growth.

Let's be clear though. Fasting does not make us holy; it makes us hungry.  It is what we do with our hunger that can lead to holiness. Specifically, fasting can help put us in touch with our deepest hungers, our most profound needs. Turning to God with these and then in gratitude to our hungry world is what can make us holy. But we need to pay attention! We need to approach fasting as a tool which can make us a bit more vulnerable and open to knowing ourselves, a bit more open to turning to God with and in that vulnerability, and a bit more committed to listening to the rumblings and murmurings of hunger that make themselves known not merely in our stomachs, but in our hearts. Only after we have attended to these signals within us can we become better able to hear the murmurings and pain of others, the deep cries of their hungers and yearnings. Only then will our compassion be awakened and grow to allow us to sacrifice for these others in the ways Isaiah (and Jesus!)` calls for.

Fasting thus has two purposes: 1) to open us to our own deepest needs and to the God who meets them --- whether in prayer or through the mediation of others, and 2) to sensitize us to the needs of others and empower a compassionate solidarity with them which may help us meet their needs on many levels. It falls along a three point arc which defines Lenten praxis in Catholic parishes all over the world, viz., fasting, prayer, almsgiving. We begin with fasting to awaken our minds, hearts, and bodies to the needs that define us in part; we proceed by bringing all of ourselves, but especially our deepest needs for fulfillment and healing to God so that God may work within us and touch us wherever and in whatever way God wills (we pray so God's own hunger to be God-for-and-with-us may also be met). We then act in gratitude to and compassion toward those whose lives are similarly fraught with the need to hear the Word and touch of the Merciful God who is Love-in-Act.

In today's Communion Service I passed on something my director brought for me when we met earlier this week, namely, a list Pope Francis put out a couple of years ago under the title, Do You Want to Fast this Lent? Here it is:

Fast from hurting words and say kind words.
Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude.
Fast from anger and be filled with patience.
Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope.
Fast from worries and trust in God.
Fast from complaints and contemplate simplicity.
Fast from pressures and be prayerful.
Fast from bitterness and fill your heart with joy.
Fast from selfishness and be compassionate to others.
Fast from grudges and be reconciled.
Fast from words and be silent so you can listen.

But the move, for instance, from hurting words to kind words is not automatic. There is a reason (even numerous reasons!) for bitterness which needs to be addressed in some fashion. Thus, between the terms in each of Pope Francis' sentences something more than an act of will is required. I suggested folks take some time to get in touch with the feelings and needs underlying the hurting words, sadness, anger, pessimism,. . . bitterness, etc, take these to prayer and prepare themselves with the grace of God to move to the alternative: kind words, gratitude, patience, and so forth. I make the same suggestion here. In this we will find over time that fasting prepares for and gives way to feasting as God's love, in whatever way that comes to us, heals and empowers us to mediate that same Presence to others. All those years ago Prof Dwyer was correct: fasting is not essential to Christianity. But John, I think, was not encouraging us to throw the practice out; he was provoking us to think and pray and find the proper place fasting does hold in our faith, viz it is a means toward growth in compassion that can nourish and heal our whole world.

All good wishes for a fruitful, nourishing, and healing Lent!