Thursday, February 21, 2013

Authentic Fasting

I have a guest blogger, today.  My friend, Marina, is an associate professor of philosophy at Boston College.  She's also a favorite with my "cloistered brothers."  In this post she is looking at "fasting."  She's talking about the real thing:

"This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke;
Setting free the oppressed,
breaking every yoke;
Sharing your bread with the hungry,
sheltering the oppressed and the homeless;
Clothing the naked when you see them,
and not turning your back on your own.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed."(Isaiah 58:6-9a)

Isaiah speaks about the difference between superficial fasting and authentic fasting. God, he says, does not want fasting where people "afflict themselves" but rather a fasting that sets others free in some way. Isaiah's wisdom is that even fasting can be self-centered. In this reading, the people are fasting in order to receive something from God. But genuine fasting, Isaiah suggests, is for others' sakes. 

Many years, the Dominicans fast at Lent. But to fast for the sake of others in a prison, where one already has limited meals (and very limited money) is challenging. One year the guys fasted by giving up the coffee they drank at Sunday and Wednesday community meetings. The money used to purchase the coffee was donated to others. The sacrifice involved in not drinking coffee is much more substantial in that context than in ours, as coffee is one of the few "extras" allowed. It was also a community sacrifice, since some prisoners have no money at all—not even enough for a bottle of shampoo—if they have been completely abandoned by family outside. The funds for coffee is pooled community money, and so is the donation. That year, their action reminded me of the example of the poor widow who puts in her two small coins, and Jesus notices her faith. 

If we ignore the poor in Lent, we are not really "doing" Lent. Augustine puts it directly:

"First and foremost, clearly, please remember the poor, so that what you withhold from yourselves by living more sparingly, you may deposit in the treasury of heaven. Let the hungry Christ receive what the fasting Christian receives less of. Let the self-denial of one who undertakes it willingly become the support of the one who has nothing. Let the voluntary want of the person who has plenty become the needed plenty of the person in want." (Sermon 210)

Isaiah's words are about being "hands-on": not only cutting a check to help others, but being present to those who are "poor" in some way. Sharing bread, breaking bread with another; clothing those in need whom we see.

Isaiah writes, "then your wound shall quickly be healed." How? Because the deepest wounds we have are those that separate us from one another:  not missing out on a new shirt, not doing without a cup of Starbucks, not even a little genuine hunger. One of the greatest wounds in our society is the division between the rich and the poor. Lent is an opportunity to overcome that division through genuine fasting that puts us back in solidarity with one another.

The Third Death

Today as I was praying and walking through the cemetery , I came across a gravestone that I couldn't see due to the overgrown bush ...