Lent

Unconventional Ways to Fast that Will Cleanse Your Body and Soul

We are a few weeks into Lent, and if you are anything like me, Lent starts off strong but then I start putting in less and less effort as life and habits catch up with me. This year, I decided to challenge myself in my least favorite Lenten exercise: fasting.  There are a few new ways I decided to try because I felt my Lenten exercises needed a boost, because it is never too late to make this Lent the best yet!

When I was a kid I always dreaded the season of Lent, because that meant no sugar until that glorious Sunday, when I could blissfully dive into my Easter basket full of sugary delights.  As I grew older, I continued to give up sugar for Lent through the force of habit, using it as an opportunity to lose weight.  I totally neglected and missed the point of fasting in the Lenten spirit.

Here are three ways to fast, besides the Lenten requirements of fasting from meat (and denying myself confectionary pleasures), that challenge my self-discipline and accountability, fortify my concentration and enforce positivity. They also force me to be mindful of the habits and the mentalities that make up my life and create new opportunities to foster the Christian spirit. These alternative methods may help you take some time to exercise self-control, reflect and be generous. 

1. Fast From Screen Time: My phone is always in my hand and my computer is often directed to Facebook, or YouTube, and though it’s diverting to indulge in constant screen time, it’s also very harmful to productivity.  I decided to restrict recreational phone and computer usage to one hour and fast the rest of the day, dedicating my time to reading, writing, cleaning, or any other productive behavior.

Deciding to fast from screen time showed me how mindlessly addicted I was. While sitting in the car waiting for my husband, I restlessly and automatically picked up my phone, unlocked it, stared at the home screen for a couple of seconds, remembered I was fasting, and then put it aside.  Grimly, I realized that I automatically go to my phone looking for inane and constant distraction every down moment I have or when I pause during my work. Now that I have a controlled time to browse through the internet, and stash my phone under a pillow, my workflow is no longer easily broken up and tasks get done in a more prompt fashion.  In addition, I pay more attention to the world around me and free up brain space for actually thinking or praying about my day, instead of endlessly distracting myself during odd moments. 

2. Fast From Negative Thoughts: Sadly, I have to admit I’m a negative Nancy.  Everyday I struggle with negative thoughts, particularly about myself.  I look in the mirror and hate the way I look.  I get down on myself for everyday failures.  I think that I’m not strong enough, or not good enough, to accomplish anything worthwhile and that other people don’t think I’m capable. Now, although I can’t completely banish these thoughts from my mind, I refrain from validating them.  I tell myself that life is a work in progress, that I have a healthy, strong body.  That I’m doing my best to help my family and I’ve been able and will continue to be able to accomplish things in my life

3. Fast From Clutter: This is a great way to tie in with the Lenten requirement of almsgiving. This season, I’m going to resist buying anything that is not absolutely necessary; instead that money will go to a worthwhile cause, like a crisis pregnancy center. Also, I’m going to go through my items of clothing and donate items I no longer use. Going through my clothes, accessories and things makes me realize how unnecessarily attached I am to items that are not even part of everyday life or are necessary. It’s also revealed to me that it’s easy to impulsively buy something-or look to acquire something-when I’m feeling down or bored, instead of turning to God.  Getting rid of clutter and abstaining from purchases is a great way to introduce self-control and evaluate what is really needed in life, particularly in regards to spiritual needs.

Building a habit actually takes about 66 days and the 40 days of Lent is a great way to begin new habits that will bring God to the forefront of my mind.  It’s easy to get caught up in the monotony of Lent and slip up because I never really challenged myself. I pray that these types of fasting help me grow in ways that I have never previously explored and give me the boost I need to finish this Lent off in a strong and prayerful way.

           

 

Living with Ashes

Like most of us, I adore Advent—the darkness of mid-winter, the flickering candles of the Advent wreath, the anticipation of the Incarnation, hope of the world. Even my impatient heart can enter in. But Lent? Its starkness is not even hidden by the dark of winter, but revealed for the barren reality that it is. 40 days of self-sacrifice, accountability and the anticipation of the gruesome and beautiful reality that ushered in our Salvation. This season is not for the faint of heart.

Lent is here. It was marked yesterday by the most widely-attended holy day of non-obligation on the Church calendar.  Amidst the ashes, this phenomenon gives me hope each year. The hope of Easter, yes, but more than that, the signal that as a society there is a need to publically set ourselves apart and be reminded of our humble existence and radical dependence on God’s mercy. A small gesture perhaps, but absolutely an opportunity for grace to enter in.

I have no light to shed on this statistical anomaly and what it says about the heart of where we find ourselves, culturally.

What I can tell you is that my husband and I have been helping to teach a course on Marriage prep at our parish over the course of the past four weeks and it has been a preparation for Lent of sorts. If there are grounds for self-sacrifice and death of selfish desires, some of their most humble beginnings can be found in honest preparation for and the living out of the vocation of marriage. I mean this in the most positive of ways.

Our preparation starts in Genesis—the same readings we reference as we receive our ashes: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.”  The story of our humble beginnings in the two creation accounts have become some of my favorites in all of Scripture. I love hearing the account of God lovingly calling all of creation into being—into communion, relationship with himself. Beyond that, over and over, the whole of creation is named “good.”

If I can let my hackles down about this Lenten call out of my comfort zone, then I can admit that essentially this is what I am being invited into in this season of Lent, too. Not just relationship, but right relationship with God as well as my spouse and my neighbors—all of them. As a spouse or participant in the Christian life, I am being re-created. I am living with the ashes that are my human limitations and the remains of my selfish desires, and it is good.

Then he said to all,
‘If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself
and take up his cross daily and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.
What profit is there for one to gain the whole world
yet lose or forfeit himself?
— Luke 9:23-25

The God Who Languishes

Was it not too many days gone now that we called him Emmanuel, God with us? And now a few months later, brief as I am sure the years seemed to Mary, here is Jesus, Our Lord and King, wondering off into the desert, seemingly away from us. Thus begins the holy season of Lent, Christ hiding seemingly just after He appeared to us. 

But friends, in all truth we are the ones in the desert hiding, the dried out cavity of our hearts our dwelling place. When God became God with us in Jesus, he knew it was the desert caves that awaited him, to the scorching sands he must trod. Here in Lent, God languishes with mankind in the many man-made wastelands we have wrought for ourselves and one another.

Behold then the Son of Man, Jesus, desiccated and alone. Behold now the gaunt rib cage of God, empty from a weeks-long lack of food. Behold this God who was and is and always will be all fullness, all fruitfulness, all over-flowing fecundity, here in the sand hungry, something an alarming few of us in the West have ever truly felt. We stumble our way through a single day of light-eating, and here sits the God of all creation with a gnawing absence in his belly. We hem and haw whether to put a five dollar bill in the hand at a street corner lest we appropriate some unseen germ, and here is God letting the acidic burn of dissipating fat, the common dis-ease of all wasting flesh, wash over him as he makes it truly his. 

On this day of fasting, we who have plenty to eat think excessively of food, but what about Christ's thirst? Can any words be more truly said of Our Lord than those on the Cross, "I thirst," as if his life is one unquenchable draught from the drink of mankind's misery? When we think of the Chalice whose bitter dregs he willingly drank, the Sacrifice of the Altar, do you not realize my friends that all altars are thirsty, as any rudimentary survey of pagan literature makes good and apparent? In Lent, this thirsty God calls us to quench his seemingly endless thirst with souls, our own indeed, but others as well. Sitting in the desert alone, wretched from hunger and thirst, Our Lord calls out to all mankind, imploring us to join him, not merely as some sort of retributive punishment, but as a justice to quench his thirst for mankind. 

And lo, in his kindness Our Lord presents before us two altars* in which to quench his love for his fallen creatures, one the altar of Sacrifice, but the other the altar of the hands of the poor. For the first altar we fast and pray, so that we may be a worthy oblation to approach this God-in-the desert, so we can join ourselves to his life. But it is in the second altar that we share this God with others, that we poor out our excess to quench their lack. With the first altar we join the Son of Man in the desert of his sacrifice, and with the second altar we imitate in the smallest way the profuse charity God has shown us in finding us in our desert caves. Such love for us does our God have that he provides all that we need to empty ourselves this season, just as he emptied himself in the desert. He provides us the means to make room for his coming 40 days from now in glory.  

In this holy season, God is most assuredly with us, dear brothers and sisters, in the hungry and thirsty body of Jesus in the desert and in the hungry and thirsty bodies of his poor. There is no question he is Emmanuel. Indeed, the only real question we have for ourselves these 40 days is, are we with Him?

 

*I first encountered this idea in Gary Anderson's incredibly insightful book, Sin, A History, a book I would wholeheartedly recommend for Lenten reading.

 

 

 

Did Mercy Happen This Lent?

I’m not much interested in evaluating how well I did with my Lenten commitments. Some years I’ve done well, and others I didn’t even make a commitment to break. Life went on and Lent ended only with gladness that the sacrifices would let up, or that the guilt of ongoing failure would relent. But there’s a new question for me this Holy Week: “What happened to me despite what I did or didn’t do?” This question has the capacity to change me; its answer will help me “do well.”

This question began growing in me after Fr. Kieran, an 89-year old monk of St. Benedict’s Abbey in Kansas, passed away two weeks ago.  I began remembering my time with him while I was part of that community. He was blind and I, along with the other junior monks, had the privilege of helping him with some basic needs throughout the day.

Fr. Kieran spent his life serving God in the poor in both Kansas and Brazil. He knew that Christ was in the flesh of those he encountered. I remembered how it was assisting him with his needs, such as finding the right chapter in his audio books: I was startled, again and again. The man gave his life to Christ and his people, and I was asked to give to him. I knew who I was and, frankly, I wasn’t impressed. But no matter what I’d done or not done, no matter how much I neglected charity or doubted my vocation, I was asked to be by his side toward the end of his remarkable life.

This was a mercy. Nothing I could have done, no failing, prevented the invitation to be with Fr. Kieran. I was asked to do it, despite myself. I grew in love and friendship, despite myself. I was given a gift, despite myself. Despite myself, mercy happened. I’d look at the photo on his wall of him in front of a church while on mission in Brazil and think, “How the hell am I here with him?”

When this mercy came, it was neither grand, nor extravagant. It was a quiet conversation about a book he was listening to, or planning what time he’d have me get him for Mass. It was subtle. You might have called it mundane: A young guy helping an old guy, often because it was his job. It was easy to miss. But the grace to see the whole reality with Fr. Kieran, that I was a sinner receiving a gift, alerted me to mercy.

That memory got me paying a more attention to where mercy happened to me this Lent, rather than where my successes and failures rested. Despite everything I am or do, what has happened? This Lent I was given opportunities to love. I was forgiven again and again. I was surrounded by friends. Challenges confronted me. Through this I’ve desired to pray, to give, to sacrifice, even to “do well.” I’m being given life. I don’t know how much my Lenten sacrifices contributed to these happenings, or how much those sacrifices have helped me to see them. But I did see mercy happening.

Mercy happened to me this Lent. Nothing awesome, just mercy in the flesh. Nothing loud or grandiose, but the “silent whisper” Elijah heard, which could have been drowned out by preoccupation with Lenten success and failure. It is a mercy, too, that I can end this Lent with a judgment that he who is mercy touched me. It’s much better than being glad only that life (viz., my diet) will return to normal… but I’m glad about that, too. 

Forgotten Fruits of Suffering

The forgotten fruits of suffering,
The anointed spouse of loving.
When I run from you,
I flee my greatest friend.
Instead I keep my pleasures queued,
and follow to a bitter end.
I shun love’s cross.
My soul descends into a frost.
Alone and lost I grasp about.
Rains of grace have turned to drought
Twisting and writhing in comforts,
I let out muffled shouts,
The lies I live subverts
The truth I know inside.
I cling to hope, my guide,
Pray for grace to cast aside
the damning pleasure’s chains
For in these labor pains,
It is grace alone that reaches down,
and grasps me from the barren ground,
To walk the path of Calvary,
The only path on which I'm rightly free.
I beg the mercy of the lover,
that I may share in suffering,
to bear the lovers burden,
to know the fruits of love,
and to be fruitful too.
For by the gentle Dove,
gliding down from up above,
I find the strength to encounter all anew,
and bid the barren past adieu. 

Beer in a Time of Lent

While plenty of folks give up beer for Lent, there is also a long history of specific beers being  particularly consumed during this season as well.  What we should do about beer (or any of the good things of God's Creation) during Lent is not obvious one way or the other, and should be prayerfully considered based on individual circumstance and the state of our spiritual life. On this first Sunday of Lent, I take a small break from the series on drinking to share this quick guide to our practice of Lent (I wrote this up for my Parish). I hope it proves beneficial in deciding how you approach beer--and penance in general--during this Holy Season. Many blessings this Lent!

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We begin Lent this week, the 40 days of preparation before the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Why 40 days? Beyond the number being symbolic to the Hebrew people (remember that it rained for 40 days and 40 nights in the time of Noah, connecting this season to a time of great cleansing in Salvation History), our Gospel reading puts it very plainly for us. “The Spirit drove Jesus out into the desert, and he remained in the desert for forty days, tempted by Satan.” Through this act, Jesus shows that he not only became a human being like one of us, but faced the temptations of human life that we face every day. In thanksgiving for this great gift of solidarity, we join Jesus for 40 days in a spiritual desert, hoping that, in the end, we too may be ministered by angels.

In St. Matthew (4:1-11) and St. Luke’s (4:1-13) account of the temptation of Christ in the desert, we are given more detail about Satan’s attempts to try Our Lord. First, he tempts the hungry Jesus to turn rocks into bread. Second, he tempts Jesus with endless political power if Christ would only bow down to him. Finally, he tries to persuade Jesus himself to do the tempting, suggesting that Our Lord throw himself from the Temple, quoting scripture that God would send angels to catch him “lest he dash his foot on a stone” (Psalm 91). Jesus responds to each in kind, that we do not live by bread alone, that we will worship God alone, and that we will not put God to the test.

In looking through this sequence, Our Lord gives us an important guide in accessing our Lenten practice. The three temptations (bread, power, testing God) correspond to what Catholic tradition defines as the three principle temptations we will face in life (the flesh, the world, and the devil). When we are hungry (and we can be “hungry” for many different things, not just food), our bodies are tempting us to hold the passing things of this world higher than our souls. When we yearn for power (and political power is not the only power we seek to have), we puff ourselves up with pride, thinking we hold our own fate in our hands. Finally, when we are tempted to put God to the test, the Devil himself is rehashing his oldest tricks—remember what he told Eve in the garden? These temptations are especially difficult to fight, because the devil is crafty. Notice that in each case (the garden and the temple mount), what the devil says is “technically” true: Eve and Adam did not immediately die, God did send Angels to minister to Jesus, etc. The devil himself knows scripture well! When we see ourselves twisting the word of God to our favor, we know the devil is involved.   

So knowing that we would face these three temptations, Christ willingly faced them representatively in the three temptations of the Devil. Our tradition also gives us three specific practices during Lent to counter these temptations. First, we are to fast in order to counter the flesh. Second, we are to give alms in order to counter the world. Finally, we are to intensify our prayer in order to counter the Devil.

Each of these practices will help us gain the virtue necessary to counter the temptations we face in life. In fasting, we learn temperance. Temperance is not the avoiding of bad things, but the well-ordered appreciation of that which is good. We give up good things in Lent not to despise God’s creation, but to approach it in a well-ordered way. In almsgiving, we learn justice. The strong owe it to the weak to provide for them out of their abundance. In this, we imitate Christ, who though He needs nothing, came among us in order to die for our sins. Finally, in prayer, we learn courage. If we know that Christ Himself fought the same fight we did, and if we draw near to Him in prayer, then even the devil cannot frighten us. If we have so great a Savior, then 40 days in the desert is nothing to be afraid of, but an honor, that we may share it with Our Lord!