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.)