Monthly Archives: March 2020

The Unlikely Fast

I remember a number of times over the years when a good friend and I had a sort of running joke. It was, at best, a wry humor, but one befitting the season of Lent.

Both of us have always been serious observers of this beautiful season of repentance. However, there were times when enough difficult things occurred unbidden that it was more than enough to get through them without adding some additional act of asceticism. As the saying went, “I didn’t have to go looking for penance; penance came looking for me!”

There was an important lesson that came with this experience: the most profound sacrifices in our lives are not the ones we choose. They are given to us to embrace and offer back to God as gifts born of broken, humbled hearts. These are, of course, the gifts God will never spurn.

Although I have followed the traditional fasting rules of the Church (which are not difficult in the west), I find that the fasts that have been given to me have often been more meaningful. An example from nearly 40 years ago comes to mind.

I was in my mid 20’s and working at an nontraditional community counseling service. In addition to the professional services offered, we had a drop-in lobby with free coffee that was well patronized by the mentally ill of the inner city streets. We had a staff-only area but just a curtain of a door to separate the spaces.

One day, I went to retrieve my lunch only to discover that someone had stolen it! And, while it would have been possible to come up with something to eat, I saw it as an opportunity to fast. I had so much and they have so little. What is one lunch not eaten?

Later, John, the prime suspect for the lunch-theft, committed suicide while hospitalized in a psychiatric unit. As I think back on him – for I still remember him – I hope my lunch brought a little comfort to his otherwise tortured life of mental illness and life on the street.

Yesterday, a different sort of fast was asked of me – a fast from my comfort zone. I had to pick up a medication refill at my local pharmacy. More times than not, as I approach the entrance there is someone waiting to ask me if I can spare some change. I confess that I often want to duck and pretend I don’t see them. Yesterday, my unspoken thoughts were, “It’s cold out. I have a migraine. Can’t I just walk into the store without being bothered?”

I fought this temptation as I saw a tall, slender man standing near the door. His clothes were mismatched layers. His braids were unkempt and a remnant of snot was frozen to his nose. When he made the anticipated request, I stopped, introduced myself and asked him his name. “Maurice”, he mumbled. I asked him, as I often ask people, what kind of troubles he was having to be in this position. His response, a single word: schizophrenia.

I could see in his face, in his manner of dress, that he was telling the truth and I gave him something. As I walked into the store, I immediately regretted not having given him more. He had disappeared by the time I left. I can only hope that my little donation to his life eased the pain of his poverty and confusion. I am sorry, Maurice. I should have given you more. I have so much.

So many of these unsought-after fasts are so mundane that they may hardly be noticed as such. Food not eaten because of nausea or work crises that leave no time. Plans cancelled when migraines, patient needs or other unavoidable hassles get in the way. I have even been given fasts from icon painting, as time or energy runs out or God sends me off in another direction.

What seems important is that I recognize these as opportunities to fast, opportunities given to me by God to embrace the way of the Cross, accepting His way over my way. When so embraced, each little sacrifice becomes a gift I can offer my Father, uniting it to the gift of Christ our Savior.

Do I always do this? Do I recognize these opportunities as such? Sadly, most of the time I do not. But I am on a journey and each step offers a lesson. If I miss the message, it will be given again and again until I get it. God sets no limits on His invitations to love.

Amidst these minor challenges, some Lenten seasons I encounter much greater calls to fast, the kind that show me how stingy were the offerings I had chosen for myself.

Lent this year has been one of those times.

Such an unlikely fast. I would never have anticipated being asked to fast from the Sacraments, of all things. Nor would I have guessed that I would be called upon to fast from the company of my community, my colleagues, my friends, from their handshakes and hugs.

Still, unlikely as it seems, each dimension of these restrictions imposed from without are fasting opportunities from God, to be embraced and returned to Him. The evil which is the pandemic is redeemable in my own heart – in all of our hearts – when we embrace this fast out of love for God.

It is easy to forget how many people routinely experience these deprivations when infirmities confine them to private dwellings or nursing homes. Or when they live under oppressive governments that restrict their freedom of movement and worship. Or when war or gang violence makes them refugees, disconnected from any security they ever had.

It is easy to forget the Johns and Maurices of this world and to avoid helping them carry the crosses they never asked for. It is so much easier to choose my own sacrifices, to give up some trifle, to say an extra prayer or read another book.

But it is in the Cross of Christ – and only there – that suffering becomes sacrifice and takes on meaning as an act of love.

His way, the way of the Cross, is not something I can follow only when it is fits into my plans. I do not get to choose my fast, my sacrifice, my cross.

There is but one choice for me to make: will I follow?

As weak and beset by sin as I am, there is only one possible response to this question. This is what it means to be wounded by love (Songs 2:5).

+++

(Dear Readers, my prayers for your physical, emotional and spiritual health during these difficult times. Prepare for lighter posts from this blog! April is National Poetry Month in the US which means a poetry contest is in the making! No experience or talent required and there will be prizes for all. More to follow.)

The enemy at work…

It has been quite a while since I posted anything here. I’ve been too busy painting icons ­čÖé

But the time has come for words – strong words.

Last week, the decision was made by the Catholic bishops of Ohio to temporarily lift our religious obligation to attend Sunday Liturgy. This move was made, of course, as part of the worldwide effort to stem the spread of COVID-19, the highly contagious and deadly coronavirus. We could attend if we wanted to but people at risk were especially encouraged to stay home.

Today, late in the afternoon, the bishops decided to temporarily suspend all public celebrations of the sacred liturgy throughout the state.

Without a doubt, this is the work of the evil one.

By no means am I suggesting that the bishops were acting inappropriately. On a human level, they made a sensible decision to try to protect us – as much as it is in their power to do so.

But who is it that creates pandemics? People, in their fear and suffering, often assume that it is God. Haven’t we been told that He is the Creator of all things? Who could have created the viruses (not to mention the bacterias) if not Him?

To understand this, we must return to the story of Creation for it tells us many truths.

In the beginning, as the Spirit, the breath of God (Ruah) swept over the waters, the Word was spoken. All things were created through Him and for Him. The love within the Trinity gave birth to all things and everything born of this love was pronounced good.

Hence, we know that all of God’s creation was good from its inception. Are viruses then good?

On the level of science, we do not know how viruses came about, though their origins appear to be ancient. So insidious are they that they left no footprint in history that we can study. While considered “living”, viruses seem to be a perversion of life, existing only to reproduce and yet able to reproduce only through parasitism.

And we know who has introduced the perversions we see in Creation. It was not God.

While sometimes obvious, it is often not easy to see how sin leads to such tragedies as pandemics. We know the evil one sows the seeds of sin in us – but how does this lead to illness? Is it our fault?

I am not suggesting, of course, that succumbing to illness is the fault of any individual nor is the development of a pandemic the work of any one generation. It is more the fault in our nature that has grown and developed through hundreds of centuries during which time the seeds of the enemy have grown.

We were given dominion over the earth, to be the loving caretakers of all of the life in it. Need I say that we have not done a very good job? With the perversion which is evil embedded in us, we have brought the planet with us into our death-producing state of sin.

Were it not for Christ our Savior, our situation would be beyond hope. Not only do we kill each other with our rages and our wars but we draw the rest of creation with us.

Yet Christ has given us the antidote: Himself. He has given us Himself in His life, death and resurrection. He has given us Himself sacramentally in Eucharist, the bread from heaven, that nourishes us unto eternal life.

And so now the enemy thinks he can starve us out. Create enough suffering, enough fear – then take away our Food – surely we will despair and defect to his side.

But he is wrong.

Even though I participated in the Sunday liturgy yesterday, something moved me to go to my church for Mass again this evening. I had not heard the announcement this afternoon but I sensed that time was growing short.

I would have expected myself to feel sad or dejected upon hearing of the suspension of public liturgy but that is not the case. Receiving Him one more time was immensely joyful, as His love came crashing into my heart.

In a new way, I realized that He is here to stay, whether it be weeks or months before I can commune again.

The sacraments are a great gift – far greater than we understand. I need them – but God does not. I will hunger for Him but I know He will continue to feed me. He will not leave my heart.

And my hunger will make me desire Him even more.

The enemy can indeed wreak much havoc upon us but we must not be afraid. He cannot win. The victory has already been won by Christ Jesus our Lord.

Take courage, my friends, and do not be afraid. Let us pray for each other daily that we might be strong in battle, strong in the certainty that our Savior’s love will conquer all.

All praise and glory to Him.

Amen.