Fasting: Connecting to joy
Here's some challenging, ancient wisdom from the desert fathers: "Do not trust in your own righteousness, do not worry about the past. But control your tongue and your stomach."
Intermittent fasting is a big thing these days. Hmmm. Interesting. The church had a practice of fasting years ago when we fasted from midnight before receiving Communion the next day. Why would the church require such preparation for meeting our Lord through the Eucharist?
Because such preparation increases our joy. Try practicing a longer fast before Communion. Instead of the one hour fast we observe today, go for three hours or even more. The doughnut after Mass will taste even better!
There's an old story about the famed comedian Groucho Marx meeting a pompous monsignor in an elevator. The priest turns to Groucho and states in an imperious manner, "Mr. Marx, I would just like you to know that I realize you have brought laughter and joy into the hearts of millions." Groucho replies, "Thanks, Padre. I wish I could say the same for you guys."
We need to cultivate joy in our lives, especially during this never-ending COVID-19 pandemic. In "Resisting Happiness," Matthew Kelly cogently notes that when we choose what is bad for us, we eventually feel unhappy.
I eat that third doughnut, and a few hours later ask myself, "Why'd I do that? Again?" We refuse to forgive, we are stingy with our money, we watch hours of Netflix but cannot find five minutes for prayer before bed. Such choices refuse happiness. Such choices ward off joy.
The practices of Lent — praying, giving alms and fasting — can fill us with joy.
OK, you say. Practicing prayer and helping others can make us feel hope and live love. We pray, pay attention to God and we realize God loves us and cares about us. We give alms to show mercy and help those less fortunate.
"Alms" comes from the same Greek root that gives us the word for mercy, "eleos," the compassionate concern of God we call for at the start of each celebration of the Eucharist.
But fasting? How can fasting fill us with joy? It just makes me hungry and cranky. We all have met someone who is "hangry."
Fasting makes us appreciate all we have been given. We notice how our minds and hearts and souls are tuned and gotten in shape when we do without for a time. It's when we are sick that we really realize how wonderful it is to be healthy. It is when we are hungry, we become aware of what needs to be filled in us.
And fasting is not just about food. Try turning off the TV, Netflix or Amazon Prime for Lent (or at least on weekdays). Notice how much time there is when you aren't looking at the screen three or four hours a day.
Want to go really radical? Put down your cellphone for 24 hours and enjoy a sabbath. Refrain from sex and see how wonderful connecting is when really anticipated. Make a conscious effort to not say anything bad about anyone. See how long you can do that!
Fasting marvelously concentrates our attention. When we stop taking in so much, space opens up. We notice God's grace at work in us. When fasting we disconnect from some things so we can be more aware of and filled with other realities that bring us peace and hope and joy.
When fasting, we are more likely to practice Jesuit Father Bernard Lonergan's transcendental precepts: Be attentive; be intelligent; be reasonable; be responsible.
Notice, too, Jesus chose to remain among us as food, bread and wine transformed into sacramental body and blood.
A wonderful eucharistic moment happened a couple months ago on Route 95 in Virginia. A snowstorm had traffic at a dead standstill for hours. People had no food or water and no way to get any. It was a 48-mile backup with 12 inches of snow through the night and temperatures in the teens. It was "the road trip from hell." People were forced to fast.
After a long, cold night in their car, a young couple noticed they were sitting behind a truck from Baltimore's Schmidt Baking Company, provider of bread for McDonald's and Popeyes nationwide. Casey Holihan called Schmidt's customer service line. Twenty minutes later, Chuck Paterakis, co-owner of the company, called her back and said contact the truck's driver.
Ron Hill had spent the night in the truck and was thinking about all the hungry people around him, but the bread was bought and paid for. In 14 years driving, this was the worst traffic mess he'd ever seen. He prayed. "Tears started rolling down my eyes," he told The Baltimore Sun.
At that moment he heard a knock. It was Casey with a message to "call Chuck." Paterakis told Ron to "pass out the bread." Casey, her husband and Ron distributed hundreds of loaves to stranded motorists.
Imagine the joy! Fresh bread after sitting in the cold all night without anything to eat. The name Paterakis comes from Greek, and "pater" means "Father." In a sense, Our Father provided bread for the hungry on Route 95 after their fasting through the night.
Jesuit Father Richard G. Malloy is director of mission integration at Cristo Rey High School in Baltimore.