Sunday, February 22, 2015

More Musings on Fasting

Keep in mind that many people have died for their beliefs; it's actually quite common. The real courage is in living and suffering for what you believe. 
~ Christopher Paolini in Eragon 

I read these words as I was re-reading a book that I'd pulled of the shelf just for fun. Eragon is not a deep, philosophical book, but it does offer lots of food for thought, and the above words really jumped out at me. Perhaps they gave me pause because I had the news of the recent martyrs of Libya fresh in my mind. At first I wasn't sure what to make of the above statement. Is it true that dying for one's beliefs is a common thing? Is it more courageous to live and suffer for one's beliefs than to die for them? 

I'm not convinced that Mr. Paolini got it quite right, but he did make one great point: it does take courage to live and suffer for what we believe in. I would amend his words by saying that those who are willing to die for their beliefs are the ones who have already lived and suffered for them. 

Tomorrow, on Clean Monday, begins the Great Fast. We spend the period of time between now and Pascha (Easter) abstaining from certain foods, and increasing our time spent in prayer and alms-giving. This is a time given by the Church for us to live the faith and suffer for it. We have the opportunity now to reject those things we cling to for comfort instead of God and to put our focus where it should be in the first place - on our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. The life of repentance is a life of suffering. The way to Christ is the way of the Cross.

Fasting is a way to learn how to suffer. But we do not fast to punish ourselves for our sins, or to focus on how sinful we might be. The self-denial that comes with fasting is what forces us to turn toward our God and His mercy. It is painful to let go of those habits and indulgences that we hold dear, sometimes without our even being aware of it, but it is precisely in letting go of self that we become able to turn toward God and our brother.

To uproot the sins in our hearts we must step outside of self and learn to serve those around us. Fasting gives us the opportunity to practice putting God and our neighbor first, before self. The problem, though, is that pulling things up from the roots out of the soil of our hearts is not a pleasant task. It is hard, sweaty, dirty work. It requires the courage to face what we have allowed to grow in our hearts, and to see the weeds for what they really are.

But once we are able to see into our hearts more clearly, the work of true repentance can begin. The suffering we experience is not a morbid, debilitating or despondent suffering that leads to despair. Rather it is a joyful suffering, a "bright sadness" that leads us to joy instead of sorrow.

We say the Lenten prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian and we learn how to put our focus on the Lord and Master of our lives. This is where the focus of the 21 martyrs was: on Christ. Some of their last words were "O my Lord Jesus!" Their lives of faith in Christ led them to their deaths. And while the choice to take their lives was a truly tragic choice for those who made it, the martyrs' death was not a tragedy - for them the suffering led to Life.

As we begin the fast now, let us remember why we are fasting. Let us embrace the suffering that comes from turning away from sin so that we may keep our focus on Christ, in order that our suffering might lead us to joy!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Wednesdays with Words :: See thy speech be sweet and rare

I came across this beautiful poem in Charlotte Mason's fifth volume, Formation of Character. I don't know if these are Miss Mason's own words, or if she was quoting someone else, but this poem is a beautiful reminder of the duty that parents have in their behavior toward their children. I encourage you to read it slowly and carefully.

Weigh his estate and thine; accustom'd, he,
To all sweet courtly usage that obtains
Where dwells the King. How with thy utmost pains,
Canst thou produce what shall full worthy be?
One, 'greatest in the kingdom,' is with thee,
Whose being yet discerns the Father's face
And, thence replenish'd, glows with constant grace:
Take fearful heed lest he despised be!
Order thy goings softly, as before
A Prince; nor let thee out unmannerly
In thy rude moods and irritable: more, 
Beware lest round him wind of words rave free.
Refrain thee; see thy speech be sweet and rare:
Thy ways, considered; and thine aspect, fair. 

~ Charlotte Mason
Formation of Character

Linking up with Dawn for Wednesdays with Words

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee and some thoughts on humility and fasting

Today is the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee. It came up quickly this year and I have only just fully realized that Great Lent begins in 3 weeks!

I have been spending some time thinking about fasting recently, and thinking more carefully about it than I have in the past. There are many reasons given for why we should fast

:: fasting is an important way to practice self-denial

:: fasting helps to simplify our lives so we can focus on what's important

:: fasting helps us to learn self-control

:: fasting helps us to prepare for the feast

:: fasting helps us learn to depend on God

:: Christ expects that His followers will fast (Matthew 6:16-18)

:: fasting is a wonderful way to practice obedience

All these things are good and they are all true. I think though, that all too often when the focus is on the good things to be gotten from fasting, it's easier (for me anyway) to get caught up in talking about the reasoning and the rules and the final "product", so to speak, and I forget the underlying reason behind all the explanations. Paying more attention to the benefits of fasting leads to a utilitarian approach that begins to calculate and speculate on the ins and outs and outward manifestations of the practice. It becomes all to easy to forget that the why behind fasting is much more important than the how, and this can lead to fasting becoming an end in itself, rather than a means to something else. It can become a burden and an imposition and a legalistic "requirement" that leads us into thinking that we can save ourselves by our own efforts.

The focus therefore, should be on the reason why we fast. Once we truly understand why we are doing it, then the details become less burdensome and indeed can be welcomed rather than cast aside as too strict .

So, why do we fast?

When we are fasting we are deliberately choosing Christ over the other things that can take our attention away from Him. We are purposefully pursuing relationship with Him and by choosing to abstain from the foods we've been asked to abstain from, we can give more of our attention to being with Him.

When we fast we are more free to pray. Fasting is not a burden; it is a freedom.

What freedom to live in prayer and to be closer to God! What joy! What a wonderful gift God has given through His Church, when He asks us to fast. He wants to be in relationship with us and so He makes it possible. He provides the opportunity, and if we somehow forget, or refuse or simply are unaware of the fasts, He has been gracious enough to give us plenty more opportunities throughout the entire year. But if we know, there's no reason to wait until next time. Why not take advantage of His gift now? Why put off being nearer to Him whom we claim to hold dearest of all?

One of the problems with forgetting the why behind the fast and concentrating on the how, is that this can make us miss out on the crucial element that is needed during the fast: humility.

Humility involves allowing oneself to be open to receiving what comes. It is a state of being that is aware of one's fallen-ness and brokenness and that is present in reality - right here, right now. The reason that humility is so important is not just because it's a virtue, but because the awareness of who we are and Whose we are is what allows God's grace to come to us.

God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.    

Humility involves not only being aware of who we are, with all our flaws, but it also involves being open to what God allows in our lives. It is laying oneself down to be trodden upon and trampled, allowing the soil of the heart to be tilled so that it can bring forth fruit.

Fasting does not make any one of us more deserving of God's grace than another. It does not make any of us more virtuous or more pious or more holy. Fasting, done with a spirit of humility, is a way for us to be raised up, not by our efforts, but by God's grace, to the heights of heaven. Humble fasting is a way for us to open the door of our hearts, so the the King might enter in.