Lessons from a Not-Too-Perfect Lenten Fast

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday, a day when millions of people from the world’s major Christian traditions receive an ash cross on their foreheads. The ash cross symbolizes repentance and humble recognition of our weakness, faults, and ultimate dependence on God, even for our very existence. When I received my cross, the lay minister who marked it upon me spoke the formula: “Turn away from sin, and believe in the Gospel.” I appreciated that “turn away from sin” was chosen instead of “repent,” which in American society carries more than a twinge of unfortunate Puritan baggage. A disconcerting mental reel of Jonathan Edwards banging his Bible and screaming “Repent!” is not particularly edifying (or spiritually productive). “Turn away” — which is really just a less archaic equivalent of “repent” — is also an exact modern English translation of the biblical Hebrew verb shuv, which is the most common Old Testament way to refer to the action of repentance.

But there is more to Ash Wednesday than ashes. It’s also a day of fasting and abstinence for some Christian traditions. In Catholicism, fasting is defined as an able-bodied adult taking only one full meal, plus two smaller snack-like quantities in the rest of the day, “sufficient to maintain strength.” Beverages are not excluded. Abstinence is defined as abstaining from meat, and Ash Wednesday combines both abstinence and fasting. The purpose of this is multilayered: (1) Our fast is meant to be a sacrifice, our offering to God, on a day that especially acknowledges our faults and our gratitude for God’s love; (2) The practice of self-denial helps to teach us detachment from (over)consumption; (3) Fasting teaches discipline but also bring us closer to God, since prayer makes fasting more tolerable; (4) Voluntary fasting gives us a taste of the involuntary hunger that millions of our fellow humans suffer, and should lead to our almsgiving out of responsibility to them, as well as a heightened sense of gratitude within those of us who have enough.

I began the day determined to carry out the fast and abstinence without blemish. I decided to schedule my one full meal for dinner. Now, I was doing pretty well with the fasting until about 1pm, when my empty stomach told me in no uncertain terms that the small cup of Greek yogurt I’d had in the morning (my first snack) had just about given all it could. Not to be cowed, I decided to down two tall glasses of milk. That bought me about another couple of hours. By the time 2:45pm rolled around, just about all I could think about was how hungry I was. At that point, nothing could distract me from it. My second “snack” turned out to be a medium-sized bowl of Cheerios. OK, not so bad, I said to myself. I haven’t really blown it yet. Sure, maybe a bowl of Cheerios is a little on the high side, but hadn’t a small cup of yogurt been a little on the small side? They probably evened out, I reasoned. Plus, the bowl of Cheerios will definitely make it until dinner!

And it would have. The only problem was that I couldn’t eat dinner — my one full meal — at my normal time of roughly 6 or 6:30. This was because I was sitting beside an indoor pool at a local health club between 5:30 and 6:30 for my daughter’s weekly swimming lesson (as a child, she of course was not expected to undertake fasting and abstinence). By the time we got home, it was 6:55, and I was now so hungry that I would swear there were big metal claws raking against the walls of my stomach. Famished, I eagerly scanned my mind for what would make a really satisfying full meal and last until bedtime. I hit upon the answer in an instant. Of course! One of our favorite meals: penne alla pastora, a recipe that blends crumbled sautéed Italian sausage with pasta and a small amount of ricotta cheese. It would be perfect!

And it would have been. Except just as we began dinner, my little daughter piped up, “But Mommy! You’re not supposed to eat meat today.” And there you have it. Having become so hungry from the fasting (the hard part), I had utterly forgotten about the meat abstinence (the easy part). It had fled from my mind like a flock of pigeons from a running fox. And my husband, who at the time was sitting in a night-school math class dreaming of a Wendy’s burger (and abstaining from it), had not been there to remind me earlier.

After my mind’s ears stopped ringing with the silent sound of my internal primal scream, I said to myself that — lesson learned — I would simply eat the meal and shut down the metal claws that were still scraping at my stomach.

What meaning did I ultimately make from this pitiful affair? For a little while, I felt very disappointed indeed that I so badly botched what I’d decided would be a perfect fast and abstinence. But then I realized that in my blunder, I had actually hit upon the whole purpose of the thing — the whole point that Lent is supposed to bring into focus for us. Had my fast been perfect, I likely would have missed it. Yet as it happened, my not-too-perfect fast threw into sharp relief the meaning of Ash Wednesday itself. We are such limited beings; we inhabit (for now) such limited bodies; we have so many weaknesses; we are prone to make so many mistakes, even when we try valiantly not to make any; we so often fall short of what we could be; and sometimes that falling short is willful and deliberate and even flagrant, and other times it is accidental and even unconscious.

We are flawed; we are imperfect. Yet we have God’s love anyway, and God’s grace too, if we are open to receiving it and letting it make its effects within us, to working with it and letting it change for the better the kind of people we are. Does the fact that we have God’s love despite our imperfection and weakness mean that we should just give ourselves a free pass not to become better people? Give ourselves a shrug of the shoulders and a careless self-assurance that “I’m just fine the way I am”? Of course not. That would be doing both ourselves and God a disservice. If anything, recognizing the presence of God’s love and grace should make us want to forget ourselves, and forget self-interest and any self-satisfaction, and humbly grow toward the light as a flower grows toward the sun.

So I am glad my Ash Wednesday fast was not too perfect. I learned more that way. Including some experiential knowledge (rather than only intellectual knowledge) of how hard it is to be hungry. But at least I could raid my fridge afterward. There are millions who can’t, and we who are more fortunate are responsible to them. Jesus did say: “When you feed the hungry, you feed me.”

© 2013 Elizabeth Keck

The Prayer of Quiet

For the past several months, I’ve been reading a lot about a form of prayer that is variously called contemplative prayer, centering prayer, the prayer of quiet, or the prayer of the heart. There are many of you out there who also know about this prayer form. The last three terms I’ve listed above are all subsets of “contemplative prayer”; they’re not all identical because they can have some differences in method among them, but they all refer to the type of prayer in which a person sits in quiet, with eyes closed, and listens for God “at the center.” 

Rather than talking at God and assuming that real communion with God is impossible — and thus never listening for God — contemplative prayer is silent, and begins simply with letting oneself feel a pure love for God. If we begin this way, sitting in quiet, with our minds quiet and not following a thousand distractions, and open ourselves up to the love of God, we can feel that love meeting us and emerging right from our center. It grows from our center because that is where God is, waiting for us within — in the “interior castle” inside ourselves, as Teresa of Avila put it. 

This is not some complicated technique reserved for the spiritually adept. It’s open to everyone who is willing to let go — just some, not all, of the time — of the often unfulfilling practice of praying at God, and simply focus on love. Without experiencing such love of God (which Christ repeatedly told us to do), we become cut off from what God might want to do with us, and our spirits don’t have a chance of getting clear of the weeds. As others have said, God is a rich wellspring within us; we just have to go to that well and start drawing water from it.

There have been many people who have written about their experiences with this quiet form of prayer. They span from the early desert Fathers in the first few hundred years after Christ, to the Christians of the medieval period (such as St. John of the Cross, St. Teresa of Avila, and the anonymous English author of The Cloud of Unknowing), right up to the present day. Just in the last forty years or so, thanks to the writings of Thomas Merton, M. Basil Pennington, and Thomas Keating, this prayer form has spread again on the wind, across citizens of many different countries and across Christian denominations; it’s even practiced by some Jews and Muslims, with a slightly different orientation. 

Here is a very helpful and accessible passage on exactly what this prayer of quiet is, from Finding Grace at the Center: The Beginning of Centering Prayer. It’s a collection of simple essays by M. Basil Pennington and Thomas Keating, who helped bring fresh knowledge of this fundamental prayer to the modern population of anyone wanting to experience more fulfilling, more communing, more productive prayer:

“One: At the beginning of the prayer we take a minute or two to quiet down and then move in faith and love to God dwelling in our depths…We move in faith to God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, dwelling in creative love in the depths of our being. This is the whole essence of the prayer. ‘Center all your attention and desire on Him and let this be the sole concern of your mind and heart’ (Cloud of Unknowing, ch. 3). Faith moving towards its Object in hope and love—this is the whole of the theological, the Christian life…In a movement of faith that includes hope and love, we go to the center and turn ourselves over to God in a simple “being there”…That is what St. Paul was talking about when he said, ‘We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit Himself prays for us…’ (Romans 8:26).”

What does this kind of prayer produce? Judging by my own experience (which seems to be similar to what I’ve read in the experience of others), it produces a greater love and an increased peace that had formerly been inaccessible, even unthought of. We find ourselves thinking less about ourselves and more about others. We want to increase our charity and concern to include those outside the circle of people we know very well, especially the needy, no matter who the needy may be or whether we’ve ever met them. 

We find that this feeling of new love, unlocked and watered by God, spreads out on its own accord to include others — even those we don’t know very well, and eventually even those we don’t like particularly well — and gives a measure of interior peace we didn’t have before. It’s certainly not yet a perfect peace and not yet a perfect love; if we can get to that rare point, it would be from doing this prayer for years, even a lifetime. But it’s an ongoing, unfolding, productive process. It doesn’t make us perfect; it makes us better.

© 2013 Elizabeth Keck

“All Shall Be Well, and All Shall Be Well…”

“He [God] shewed me a little thing, the quantity of an hazel-nut, in the palm of my hand; and it was as round as a ball. I looked thereupon with eye of my understanding, and thought: What may this be? And it was answered generally thus: It is all that is made. I marvelled how it might last, for methought it might suddenly have fallen to naught for little[ness]. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasteth, and ever shall [last] for that God loveth it. And so All-thing hath the Being by the love of God. In this Little Thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it, the second is that God loveth it, the third, that God keepeth it.” 

“All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

These quotes are from an anonymous young woman we call Julian of Norwich, living in 13th century England. While ill, she experienced a series of visions, which she then tried to put into writing. Her efforts became the book Revelations of Divine Love. The overarching message of her writing is the infinite, longsuffering love God has for Creation. I find myself thinking of these quotations often.

The Luminous Mysteries

Until very recently, I was not aware of the meditative power that the rosary can hold. For many years I did not meditate on the rosary at all, and when a while ago I did return to praying it, for several months I didn’t even bother with meditating on the Mysteries that are assigned to it. Perhaps I felt that simply moving through the prayers with the right attention and frame of mind was all that I could manage at one time, until I got my rosary “legs” underneath me again. Whatever the reason, though, I eventually progressed to the point where I was at last ready to try the most enriching dimension of the rosary, the dimension that holds such fullness of potential for encountering God: reflecting on the Mysteries.

There are twenty Mysteries, which are divided into four groups of five. The four groups are the Joyful Mysteries, the Luminous Mysteries, the Sorrowful Mysteries, and the Glorious Mysteries. Since the rosary is divided into five parts, or “decades,” which correspond to five Mysteries, the person meditates on only one of the groups. S/he is spared the task of choosing which group, since there is a customary order that goes by the days of the week. In any case, each of the twenty Mysteries focuses on an event in the life of Christ, with the exception of a few that come from the life of Mary. Yesterday, I found some time to pray the rosary while meditating on the Luminous Mysteries, which are these: 

  1. The Baptism of Christ in the Jordan (Mark 1:9-11)
  2. The Manifestation of Christ at the Wedding at Cana (John 2:1-12)
  3. The Proclamation of the Kingdom of God and Jesus’ Call to Conversion (Mark 1:14-15)
  4. The Transfiguration (Mark 9:2-8)
  5. The Institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper (Mark 14:22-26)

This meditative form of Christian prayer involves focusing the mind on each of these events in turn (following the sections of the rosary) with imagination — visualization — as the lion’s share of the process. For this a person simply needs a humble openness to God, and an openness to wherever the visualization of these Mysteries might lead. Despite a bit of trepidation at first, owing to uncertainty over whether I would be “good at it” or not, I soon found myself with the feeling of drawing back further and further into my mind, into these scenes in the life of Christ. It did not take long for me to enter far enough into each of the scenes in my mind to feel as if I were present there, watching. Though still aware of my surroundings, I also felt considerably detached from them, as if I had mentally entered a different but safe and richly promising place.

I want to write about one thing that occurred to me during this meditative prayer, as I reflected on Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist, who famously expressed shock at the idea that he was being asked to baptize the one “whose sandals he was not fit to untie.” Nonetheless, John did baptize Jesus, after which we are told the Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove, and God gave a message from Heaven about His Son. As I envisioned this scene in my mind, I felt John’s astonishment as he looked up from the river in which he was baptizing the crowds, to see the very man who represented the Kingdom that John was proclaiming, walking toward him. I imagined John’s awareness that the scene was playing out ostensibly the reverse of how it should — the baptizer knew how outrageous it was that he was baptizing the one who had every right to baptize him.

And that particular point was what got my attention. As John unflinchingly admitted, he himself was only “the voice crying out in the wilderness,” someone who raised his hand to point at someone and something else beyond himself, knowing that the attention belonged elsewhere. But God, in the person of Christ, elected to subordinate Godself — not only in the Incarnation as a human being in the first place, but in the subordination to human hands, with the baptism in the Jordan as a striking example. In his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul quotes a hymn that praises God the Creator for “emptying Himself” by taking on human form in Christ and experiencing human weakness in an unpredictably radical demonstration of divine love. 

This, it turned out, was not going to be a God who would emerge loudly from the sky with dramatic clouds and blowing trumpets, or who would swoop down with a holy saber to eradicate enemies, or who would instantly make everything triumphantly perfect with a wave of His hand. This, instead, was going to be a God who would send Himself here to be born. Not to gloriously appear in the atmosphere with orchestral accompaniment, but to be born the old-fashioned, messy, “unclean” way. This was going to be a God who would submit Himself to hunger, thirst, pain, despair, suffering, and even the disgrace of execution. This was a God who would take the hand of Jairus’ young daughter who had died, incurring (in the belief of onlookers at least) the strong ritual uncleanness that came from touching a corpse. The holy and the divine were supposed to be strictly separated from any ritual uncleanness, and never the two should meet. But here was a God who didn’t seem to think so. This God, after all, was the one who said to St. Paul, “My power is made perfect in weakness.”

All these things seemed encapsulated in the image of Christ submitting himself to be baptized. A profound respect the Creator must have for His creations, it seemed to me, in order to do these things. What if we looked at one another with the same respect? And even though this God’s power is made perfect in weakness, it is a formidable power that can assure the 14th-century English mystic, Julian of Norwich, that at the end “all will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing will be well…And I saw full surely that ere God made us He loved us; which love was never slacked, nor ever shall be…and in this love our life is everlasting. In our making we had beginning; but the love wherein He made us was in Him from without beginning: in which love we have our beginning. And all this shall we see in God, without end.” (Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love)

© 2012 Elizabeth Keck

 

“Whatever You Bind….”

The other day, I went to confession for the first time in about seventeen years. Confession is more formally known as the Sacrament of Reconciliation; it’s sometimes also called penance, even though that more accurately refers to the small gestures of restitution (such as prayers or good deeds) that the penitent makes after confession. This is done both in repentance and in gratitude for God’s mercy. In Catholic theology, even though God is believed to forgive a person as soon as he/she is sorry for whatever wrong was committed and seeks forgiveness, the act of confessing those sins to God’s minister, and hearing the words of absolution — which is the assurance of God’s forgiveness — is considered eminently useful for the penitent’s psychology. Confession can be done either face-to-face or with the anonymity of a confessional booth, and in either case, the priest is bound by the sacred seal of confession, which he cannot break under any circumstances. He may reveal neither the identity of the penitent (if he knows it) nor the sins confessed, nor may he ever use anything said in the confessional for any reason, because he is witness to internal matters of conscience. The seal of confession is respected by United States law.

For part of the seventeen years before my recent celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, I didn’t see the point. Why bother with the potentially uncomfortable and likely unnecessary step of confessing one’s sins to a minister of the Church when those sins were forgiven by God anyway? Shouldn’t they just stay between me, my conscience, and God? What business were they of anybody else anyhow?

The first small chink in my armor here was benignly inflicted by a professor of Russian literature, from Eastern Europe, who I (very) slowly came to realize was one of the most intelligent people I’d ever encountered. He commented one day during a discussion of Chekhov that the idea of confession/penance and the Sacrament of Reconciliation was one of the most useful ideas the Catholics had ever had, and one of the least useful ideas the Protestants had ever had was to get rid of it. Naturally, my youthfully self-satisfied mind wanted to know why such an otherwise intelligent person would say such a thing. I expected him to answer with theology, but got basic human psychology instead. He said that on a basic human level, just feeling sorry for things you’d thought or done, and hoping that God heard you and forgave you when you said so, wasn’t enough. Humans need concrete, external feedback, or validation, or whatever you’d like to call it, because we are concrete beings. It is useful for us to heave heavy burdens off our consciences to another human being on a regular basis, to hear that God has forgiven those very burdens, and to do some small penance as a way of showing restitution, expressing humility and gratitude, and starting on a fresh path. And it is very useful indeed to have that other human being be an impartial and pastoral third party, who doesn’t even need to know your name unless you want him to know.

The theological basis for confession and Reconciliation comes in large part from Jesus’ statements to Simon Peter. The Gospel of Matthew 16:15-19 relays a scene in which Jesus talks with his disciples about the public confusion over his identity; Simon, the uneducated fisherman, is the first person to get it right, and he is given the new name Peter. Here I translate from the Greek. “He said to them, ‘But who do you [plural] say that I am?’ And Simon Peter answered and said to him: ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered and said to him: ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father who is in Heaven. And so I say to you that you are Peter [Petros: Greek for “Rock”], and upon this Rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell shall not overcome it. I will give you [singular] the keys of the kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you bind on Earth will be bound in Heaven, and whatever you loose on Earth will be loosed in Heaven.’”

One wishes that this language of binding and loosing would be a bit less esoteric to the modern ear, but most theologians and scholars (and certainly the early and modern Church as well) think it refers to sins and forgiveness. Jesus gave to Peter, the Rock, an extraordinary power. This power was not intrinsic to Peter, but was given to him by Christ, and given by proxy to Christ’s church to carry on after Peter’s death (indeed, the binding and loosing language is used again in Matthew 18:18 in the plural form, to the disciples). From the practical standpoint of an everyday Catholic, what this means is that you can confess what is weighing you down, hear the consoling words of the prayer of absolution, and go your way feeling renewed and relieved. Absolution, which is the assurance of God’s forgiveness, cannot be denied unless it is painfully obvious that the penitent is not sorry at all — in which case, he/she would probably not be at confession in the first place.

At the conclusion of my run of seventeen or so years, I was interested to see how I would feel going into it. If I’m honest, I’ll admit that I nearly cut and run while sitting in the parking lot. In the end, though, my sense of curiosity — and my desire for that concreteness that my very intelligent Chekhov professor had talked about — got the better of me. After celebrating the sacrament, I left the church wondering whether I would again feel that lightness and freedom of conscience soon, as the Catechism says usually happens. It didn’t take long.

Copyright © 2012 Elizabeth Keck