Monday, February 18, 2013

Why Do We Fast?

I have been questioned at work lately about the purpose of our Lenten fasting. Why do we fast? Why is it so important. Why do Roman Catholics give up things for Lent? And why are Eastern Catholics restricted to certain foods? There are, of course, a number of answers. We have fasted from ancient times. Fasting helps us to take our attention from the things of this world in order to transfer that attention onto God. Fasting reminds us that the things of this world are good, but that as Christians we seek a higher good, a life transfigured by the indwelling of the Trinity.

During Safro/Morning Prayer this morning I was reminded of a specific element of fasting and prayer; an element that enjoys a fairly widespread emphasis in Eastern spirituality. That element is spiritual healing. In the "Mazmooro" prayers before the readings this morning we pray:

Behold the merciful Doctor comes; you who are fasting, come, let him heal you; in his loving kindness he pardons sins.

Let it be proclaimed from the mountain tops: Behold, the merciful Doctor comes; you who are fasting, covered with wounds and sins, offer him praise.

So often we think of sin as breaking some law, a law that feels exterior to us. Indeed, many of the Eastern Fathers emphasize that it takes great spiritual effort on our part before we sense the laws of God flowing up from within our very nature. In the East there is this sense that sin is a breaking of God's law. But instead of focusing on the breaking of the law itself, the East has preferred to ask why it is that we break this law. The answer; sin is not just a breaking of the law, but a sickness within us that has been passed down to us since the fall of our first parents. In order to eradicate sin from our lives, it is first necessary to treat the underlying disease of which breaking the law is a symptom.

Whenever we go to the doctor for some procedure or surgery we are told that we must fast for a certain period of time. A doctor would not dream of removing the tonsils of someone who had just eaten a donut five minutes before coming to the hospital. Such an operation would simply make the person more ill. Christ, the Physician of our Souls, asks us to fast during this time so that He may operate in our hearts and remove the disease of sin and the tyranny of death. Fasting and prayer instill humility deep in our hearts; otherwise we might be tempted to think that the eradication of sin came from our own efforts and the sin of pride, the mother of all sins, would reign in our lives.

So we trust our Divine Physician, Who has spoken to us through the Scriptures and His Church. He asks us to fast not in order to make us miserable, but in order to fully heal us from deeper spiritual ailments. May our fast be a blessed one. And may heaven consume us.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Fasting With Humility

As I was praying my way through Morning Prayer this morning I was reminded of a conversation that I had with a gentleman several years ago. I was at my place of employment and sitting down to lunch. A Greek Orthodox gentleman was visiting and noticed what I was eating. It happened to be during Great Lent and I was eating something that had oil in it (for those of you unfamiliar with Eastern Christian fasting customs, oil is prohibited throughout Lent, as is meat, dairy products, and wine). The gentleman made some comment along the lines of "You Roman Catholics..." with a clear indication that Roman Catholic fasting customs were not strict enough. Incidentally I was following the Eastern fasting customs to the best of my abilities at the time.

While thinking about this conversation this morning I also remembered that in the writings of the Eastern Fathers none of them prescribe a universal fasting custom the must be followed on pain of incurring some sin. Indeed, in the Melkite Publican's Prayer Book we are reminded that the strict fasting laws of the Eastern Churches are an ideal to which we strive, not an imposition of law that we must obey for fear of sin. The Fathers all point out that fasting - or any ascetical practice for that matter -  is not something in which we ought to take pride, but rather a practice that must lead to deeper humility. If our fasting is not leading us deeper into humility, then it has lost its purpose.

Whether you follow the strict or adapted fasting practices of the Eastern Churches, or the current fasting practices of the Roman Church, does not ultimately matter so long as we approach those practices with humility and without judgment on the practices our fellow brethren in Christ follow. While I was growing up it was considered taboo to speak of what you had "given up for Lent." Even to this day I have a knee-jerk reaction to people when they ask me what I'm doing for Lent. I don't like to talk about it. How I fast during Lent is between God and I, so long as my fasting is within the regulations of the Church (obedience to the laws of the Church, after all, lead to deeper humility).

So during this Lent, this Great Fast, let's not worry so much about what our fellow Eastern Catholics are doing, or what our fellow Roman Catholics are giving up. Let's, rather, support one another in prayer and mutual encouragement. Let's uphold one another in humility. Let's fast according to our strength and in respect for our weaknesses so that we, with God's help, can develop a deeper humility within our hearts. This way, when Lent is over, whether we've followed the strict laws of the Fast, or simply given up chocolate, we can rejoice all the more with one another for engaging in this spiritual warfare and exalt all the more when we cry out in joy, "Christ is risen!"

Monday, February 11, 2013

Joyful Beginnings

The season of Great Lent is upon us! For Eastern Catholics it has already begun. Among Maronite Catholics today is the first day of Lent. And for our Roman Catholic brethren Lent will start this Wednesday. But how often we approach Lent with a sense of foreboding and dread. Lent is not a time for us to put on sad faces because our diet has been restricted, or we have chosen to give up our favorite chocolate desert, or perhaps we have sworn off any alcoholic beverage. Lent is not about "giving things up." Lent is about new beginnings. It is the time where we "await in joyful hope, the coming of our Savior Jesus Christ" as is prayed daily in the Roman Mass. It is a "new springtime" as is prayed in Great Vespers in the Byzantine tradition. It is a time for healing from the wounds of sin and the passions as we prayed in Safro/Morning Prayer in the Maronite tradition this morning.

Lent is a time to "gather our thoughts" which are so often scattered by the cares and allure of the world. We gather our thoughts in order to descend into our hearts, there to encounter the living God that we may glorify Him "far from the trouble of this world" (Opening Prayer for Safro of Cana Sunday).

Again, Lent is a time of new beginnings. For us Christians New Years Day ought not to be the time to be making resolutions. Rather, our resolutions, our spiritual resolutions, are made for Lent. Is your prayer life suffering? Dedicate more time to pray during Lent. Develop the habit of prayer during Lent and let that habit continue on even past Easter Sunday. Do you feel you need to read more Scripture? Devote yourself to reading/praying Scripture for ten, fifteen, or twenty minutes a day during Lent and then continue that practice even when the fasting has ended and the feasting has begun. Do you have one habitual sin that keeps cropping up in your life? Devote yourself to uprooting that sin from your life during Lent and then continue to uproot it throughout the rest of your life.

To many Roman Catholics today the fasting rules for Great Lent among Eastern Catholics may seem strange and severe. Ideally we eat no meat, no dairy, no fish, no oil, and we drink no wine (or other alcoholic beverage). Basically during Great Lent Eastern Catholics and Orthodox become vegans. This is not in order to make our fasting more severe than others. Nor is it to deny the good that these other forms of food present to us. Rather such strict fasting is  o remind us of the days prior to the Fall of mankind, when Adam and Eve truly only ate the fruits and vegetables of the Garden of Eden, and existed in peace with the animals therein.

During Lent we look to that time prior to the Fall. We attempt through our own efforts to restore that pristine relationship with God, creation, and one another that we enjoyed prior to the Fall. Inevitably we fail. But we must struggle. Our salvation depends on it. We do not work out our own salvation. We act in synergy with God and His grace. Although we may fail along the road, God wants us to work with Him, to show Him that we take His gift of salvation seriously. That is why we have these forty days of Lent. We do our part so that when we celebrate the Resurrection of Christ we recognize that it is ultimately through God that our salvation comes, and through Him that we are recreated and restored to that pristine relationship we enjoyed prior to our Fall. We reach for the gift of recreation, but ultimately it is God who places the gift in our hands.

So let's start afresh. May this Lent be for all of us a time of spiritual renewal. May we all strive to re-enter the Garden, so that at the close of Lent we may glorify God for restoring us and sing out "Christ is risen!!!" May heaven consume us.

Friday, February 1, 2013

From the Wreckage Comes Salvation

In the recent podcast from Fr. Tom Hopko that I posted this past Sunday a point was made that I wanted to expand upon a bit. Fr. Tom mentions that in The Arena St. Ignatius says that God will use any means necessary to save us. Our salvation may not be neat and pretty, but He will do everything He can on His part to ensure our salvation. Fr. Tom then gave the example of St. Paul and his companions whose ship was wrecked, but they all made it ashore alive, some by swimming others by floating on the wreckage of the ship.

This last image is what set my mind to thinking. Often in the Church Fathers the Church itself is compared to a ship carrying its passengers to safety while the storms of the world crash around it. I've heard the Church referred to as the "Ark of Salvation," and many of the Fathers found typological connections between the ark of Noah and the Church. But we who are members of the Church (whether it be the Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, or any of the Oriental Orthodox Churches) know too well that the Church oftentimes resembles the sinking Titanic more than it does the ark of Noah.

Particularly in our own day and age we hear far too many reports of various scandals that have gone on in one or another Church. We hear of monks and priests who have behaved unchastely with others. We hear of bishops covering up the sins of the priests and monks entrusted to them. We hear of disputes over land or even parish churches. I've even heard stories of monks breaking out into fist fights in the shrine built around the birth-place of our Blessed Lord because they couldn't determine who was responsible (or rather who got the honor) of cleaning what areas!

As Christians of the Apostolic Faith (again, whether we are Catholic, Orthodox, or Oriental) we believe that the Church is indeed the ark of our Salvation in Christ because the Church is Christ's Body, His continued existence here on earth. St. Teresa of Avila probably put it best when she said that Christ has no hands but yours, no feet but yours, no voice but yours, etc., etc., etc. (I'm paraphrasing, of course). But how do we reconcile this image of the Church with the brokenness we encounter in the trenches? I think a good answer lies in the words and imagery of St. Ignatius in The Arena. Christ promised to save us. He even gave us His Church as the ark of salvation. But he didn't say that our salvation would be picture perfect. In some ages our salvation comes amidst the wreckage. God gives us some driftwood to  cling to, or the strength to swim on just a little further. It may just be one board from the ship that proves to be our salvation, but it is still a part of the ship. The Church, despite her weaknesses and sometimes all-too-human existence, is still divine as well as human. It was instituted by Christ, and despite man and Satan's best efforts to destroy it (even from within), it will still be the ark of our salvation even if only one board of that ark remains.

So if you are loosing heart at what you see going on in the Church. If you are fed up with liturgical and clerical abuses, luke-warm Christians, relativism, etc., etc., etc. I hope you find hope in this image. Cling to Christ and His Church. The road may be rough, but He will see to it that we make it safely home one way or another. May heaven consume us.