Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Why Fast?

Every year the Catholic high schools in our area have students collect canned goods for the local food pantries.  Every year they also have the students engage in a day of fasting.  They get a cup or so of rice and water.  Every year I hear the same litany of questions/gripes/complaints. 

"If we have to fast, how is it a sacrifice?"
     "Are you complaining?"
      "It is not easy even though they do it for you?"
      "Then it is a sacrifice." 

Or this one: "What is the point of my not eating?  It's not like it gives someone else food. It doesn't make them less hungry." 

"You get to understand that while you are temporarily put out, others have this ache without end."

 I've heard similar rants against mandatory volunteer work, where the requirement in their minds, undermines the spirit or true purpose of the act itself.   Now I know it is the contrary nature of children to fight and chafe at limits, at lessons, at lectures.  I see the eyes roll when I launch into the "Sometimes not having helps you be grateful for what you do have...bit." All the reasonable reasons in the world do not penetrate the mind or heart if the mind or heart are more set on being annoyed. 

But the deeper question of why fast flitted about and kept resurfacing.  Why fast? Of what good is denying one's self a good or at the very least, a neutral item?  How does that affect the soul?  How is it a prayer?  How is it important to God? Why is it important to God?  

I'll start with why fast? Is it important for Catholics? 

Yes.  It is important. It is a vehicle of prayer that reminds one all day of the sacrifice.  Mindfulness is something a full belly or sated appetite ignores.  We are much more sleepy in our thoughts and words if our stomach is full. Fasting can take all forms, but it is always about self denial.  It brings us closer to the virtue of humility, because our wants are not paramount. 

How does fasting work?  We live in a world of plenty, which is also filled with invisible want.  Denying our own visible wants, allows us to see better, the invisible needs around us.  Our vision becomes clearer.  I could point out that in scripture, every time fasting is prescribed and tried, grace overflows.  Who does not need overflowing grace? 

We understand boycotts for justice, we understand Gandhi's hunger strike.  If we can understand these worldly fastings to address worldly issues, we can comprehend fasting for others. If we understand fasting before receiving the Eucharist, then we can understand fasting in ordinary time as a means of making ourselves less attached to that which is not the Eucharist.  We fast to grow our own souls, while becoming mindful of those tangible constant blessings we take for granted every day and the lack of them in others' lives. 

So now we come to the means/spirit of fasting.  If fasting is involuntary, is it still a means of grace? Yes.  All suffering, voluntary and otherwise, is a path to grace.  The issue is being open to that grace. Being fallen creatures, we constantly shut the doors of our hearts to grace, our ears to wisdom, our lives to miracles because it is much easier to stay angry, stay fearful, stay annoyed, stay focused on our own pain, our own lives, our own troubles.  We do not understand how much good would come from being willing to suffer even the slightest of inconveniences to our lives, and we endure such trivial nuisances with poor spirit.  You should hear me when I can't find one of my kid's shoes and we were running on time up until then. 

But there is this image of fasting which denies reality.We understand setting ourselves during a diet, setting the will to refuse things which will sabotage our progress. This does not mean we don't crave or don't want or don't sometimes complain/rant about the lack.  Holiness is not the absence of want in our heart, it is the soul being willing to override that want, even as it wrestles with the wanting.   Fasting is a training of the soul to be more capable of enduring want.   Fasting involves allowing one's self to endure want, even when it would be soooooo much more comfortable/pleasant in the moment, to indulge or submit.  

Finally, Jesus fasted. If the Son of God understood the need not to be ruled by the appetites of the body in order to do battle with powers and principalities, then why do we not get that being lesser beings, we would need to do this more, not less.

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