Why is fasting so difficult? Looking for answers.

Note: This is my latest column for the Catholic Free Press. I also invite you to read my feature article in found on the Catholic Free Press website: St. Gabriel Lenten project to spread peace and joy

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Lent is upon us. In our household this means an extended period of fasting. My husband is a deacon in the Eastern Catholic Church (Melkite) and thus is required to fast for the entire season. That means that as his wife and support, I must too.

Fasting challenge

Fasting in the Eastern Church is rigorous — no meat, no dairy; fish is limited to shell fish. If we were in our twenties with no health issues this would still be difficult to follow. In our early sixties, we both observe diets that benefit our health. This diet eliminates most starch from our meals (pasta, beans, rice, etc.). Watching our cholesterol precludes eating shell fish regularly. There is not much left to eat, especially if you are not a good cook.

Heather Cheese straws Flickr Creative Commons

Even as I write this it sounds like a pathetic lament. But I confess that I find fasting very difficult. The reason is because after doing this for several years, it is still an empty obligation. I have yet to find the spiritual benefit from the fast.

Body as well as spirit

I am well aware of the arguments. Bishop Kallistos Ware of the Orthodox faith has written a helpful pamphlet, “When You Fast” which I have read many times and annotated. He says never to treat fasting in a legalistic way, as an end in itself. At the same time, fasting reminds us that man is both body and spirit; St. Paul states that, “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit,” (1 Corinthians 6:19) urging us to glorify God with our bodies. Bishop Kallistos writes of our willingness to fast in order to lose weight; “cannot we as Christians do as much for the sake of the heavenly Kingdom?” That pricked at my conscience as one who fasts year round to keep my weight in check. I admit that it’s easier to do that because I get the instant gratification of stepping on the scale and seeing that I am successful. Lenten fasting lacks such earthly reward.

Getting beneath the surface

I know that the purpose of fasting is not for payback. But I long for it to be something more than counting down the days until it is finished. It is painful to admit that the sameness of the meals and the added complications when it comes to shopping bother me a great deal. How I wish I had some inner understanding of why all of this is good and necessary for me to draw closer to God.

The arguments for fasting

Intellectually I am aware of the arguments for fasting. Bishop Kallistos writes that, “The primary aim of fasting is to make us conscious of our dependence upon God.” Our discomfort (hunger pangs, tiredness) reminds us of our “inward brokenness and contrition; to bring us … to the point where we appreciate the full force of Christ’s statement ‘Without Me you can do nothing.’ (John 15:5)”

Leading to prayer

Fasting is supposed to lead to prayer but for me it is still an empty exercise. How can I make my knowledge of fasting penetrate my stone cold heart?

Oméga * Femme priant – Woman praying Flickr Creative Commons

In one sense it is leading me to a simple prayer: “Lord, please show me how to fast such that it makes me more aware of You.” Remembering from St. Paul that we are to pray always, this will be my consistent daily prayer.

What is your experience?

I’d now like to ask: What does fasting mean to you? How do you make it work? What spiritual lessons have you learned from your fasting? Please share your experience in a comment. Perhaps through our community I and others like me can figure out the mystery of fasting through our mutual sharing.

In the meantime let us keep each other in prayer that we may fast in a more worthy manner.

I look forward to hearing from you.

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As we begin Lent – entering into the wilderness in word and song

father steven labaireI am pleased to present this guest post from
Father Steven LaBaire, pastor of Holy Family Parish in Worcester, MA.

Here are a few things to keep in mind about Lent:

The word “Lent” is derived from the old English word for “springtime.”

The word gives us a clue as to what Lent is all about.

Lent is about a “springtime” and rebirth of new life.

It is not so much a season in the external world but a season of renewal and new life within individuals, relationships and communities. Lent is about Christ calling you to springtime (new life) within yourself! Lent is the Church’s springtime.

Jen Gallardo In Bloom, Flickr Creative Commons
Jen Gallardo In Bloom, Flickr Creative Commons
On Ash Wednesday, ashes are placed on the foreheads of Christians.

Ashes evoke death and mortality. But ashes are also used as a cleansing agent and as fertilizer for gardens. We begin our journey of Lent by reminding ourselves of the fragility of life and of own mortality. As the old proverb goes: “No one really starts to live until he or she squarely faces death.”

Lent lasts 40 days.

The number 40 calls to mind the 40 days of rain during Noah’s flood, when evil was drowned and earth was washed clean. It calls to mind the 40 years the Hebrew people journeyed in the wilderness to the promised land. Also, Moses, Elijah and Jesus are said to have fasted 40 days to prepare them for their mission. The days of Lent are often compared to a journey. That means that at the end of Lent we should expect to find ourselves somewhere different from where we started.

Lent is not just about “trying harder” or “giving up.”

Lent is about re-awakening the presence of God in our lives. It invites us to “spring clean” our lives: throw out the rubbish and reclaim the spirit within that appreciates being alive;  letting go of the “junk” that gets in the way of loving in the Spirit of Jesus Christ.

Here is a song of mine you can pray with as you enter into Lent called “Lead Me to the Wilderness.”

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Some ways we can observe Lent:

Fast from TV and computer.

Television and electronic devices now absorb 40% of our free time. Take some of that time back and use it with your family or be with your friends. Go to a meeting or group where your voice needs to be heard on behalf of children, the mentally ill, the rights of the unborn, poor families, or those dealing with addictions. Volunteer where you are needed.

Fast from eating on the run.

Make eating together a priority during Lent. When we eat together, more than food passes between us. We share our lives, difficulties and delights. We create bonds and strengthen relationships. Commit to eating with others at least twice a week. Invite people who might otherwise eat alone to share lunch or dinner with you.

Fast on Fridays.

Catholics are enjoined to abstain from meat on Fridays. The point is not to simply substitute jumbo shrimp or Maine Lobster for steak!  (What sacrifice is there in that?  C’mon now!)  The point is to eat a simple meal by subtracting the meat part. Then take the monies saved and give to an organization that helps fight hunger or one that feeds the hungry like the St. John’s Food Pantry. Vegetarians can join in by eating more simply and donating what is saved to a relief agency.

Simplify your Life.

Do you have more clothes than you need? Is your attic or basement full of unused stuff? Are your children’s closets brimming with unused toys and games? Consider cleaning out part of your home and donating the unused stuff to a local charity as a Lenten project for your family. The Saint Vincent de Paul Society in Worcester accepts used clothing. The Urban Missionaries of the Poor in Worcester will use unwanted furniture to assist needy families. (Think of this: there is a scientific connection between “clutter” in your home and your stress level. De-cluttering can be a first step in de-stressing your life. There is peace in simplifying. What a wonderful way to observe Lent.)

from maximumonerealty.wordpress.com
Reach Out.

Make life more welcoming to others . Visit a shut-in or are an elderly relative or neighbor. Offer some time to helping a family or an individual dealing with a personal loss. Run some errands for someone who can’t get out of the house. Drive someone to their doctor’s appointment. Walk the Stations of the Cross in church. While walking, think about a person who is carrying a heavy cross in life. Let that person know you are praying for them.

Examine your Consciousness.

At some point each day sit still. Turn off the devices. Tune out the noise. Breathe in, and breathe out. Allow yourself to be still for a while. Savor the quietness. Ask yourself how God may have been teaching you something this day. What have I learned today? Do any regrets surface that I could act upon? Am I holding on to any negativity? What am I grateful for? What could I change within myself to face tomorrow with more energy and hope? Ask the Holy Spirit to help you with this.

Listen Attentively.

Give to a spouse, a child or a friend 15-30 minutes of undivided attention. No cell phone interruptions. No texting. Make no comments, positive or negative; give no advice. Just give the gift of listening. Ask questions to clarify only. Attentive listening can help a person sort out a problem or recognize a desire or a direction by simply hearing it aloud. Pray regularly for the grace to be a good listener.

Reflect and learn.

my life with the saintsjesus a pilgrimageTake the time to reflect on the scriptures proclaimed at Mass. Participate in a Bible Study. Or,  go to www.sacredspace.ie for a daily reflection on the scripture from your computer. Or, read a bestselling book like My Life With the Saints or Jesus: A Pilgrimage both by James Martin. Or, take some of the Lenten materials available in the vestibule of the church and use them daily. Participate in our Jewish Passover Seder Meal on March 6th and learn about the Jesus’ faith and the Jewish roots of our Catholic Mass and understand the Mass more deeply

Contemplate Beauty.

The media bombards us daily with images of violence and corruption. Entertainment is often focused on what is most “shocking” in order to attract attention. Have you neglected to incorporate “beauty” into your daily regimen? Go to a lecture, hear a concert, see a play, visit a museum.  Gaze upon the beauty of human creativity. Go outside. Take weekly or daily walks and look around..really look around. Take in the beauty of creation. Be grateful for being able to take it in. Sit quietly in church. Look at the beauty of the artwork. Think about all the people that have prayed there before you.  Open the hymnal before Mass. Prayerfully read the lyrics of the hymns for Mass. They are inspired poetry. What might they be saying to us? Go to Saint Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer and listen to calming chant of the monks there.

These are but a few ideas on what you might incorporate into your Lenten practice this year.

Everyone is in a different place in life. So the practice will be different for each person.

What matters is that we dare to do something that will open us more deeply to the presence of God and the gift of life so that we may grow more deeply in faith, hope and love.

If we have grown, even a little, to live in the Spirit of Jesus our  Lenten ‘springtime” will not have been in vain.

May Lent lead you to an Easter of new life. Amen.

Visit the Lenten Resources Page

Be sure and check out the Lenten Resources page with videos, podcasts and songs for your meditation. I will be posting material periodically throughout Lent – keep the page bookmarked for your convenience.

Be sure and check out the Flow Lessons; they are also wonderful exercises for your Lenten reflection.

May you have a blessed and fruitful Lent!

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In celebration of Lent: Praying Twice – Singing the scriptures with the St. Louis Jesuits

A celebration of Lent? Isn’t that a contradiction?

Denis Egan ssc_0414
Denis Egan ssc_0414

Those of us who grew up in the pre-Vatican II church and for sometime after saw Lent as dour and depressing, maybe even … creepy. I know as a child I was always put off by the purple shrouds covering the statues in the church. In my childish mind, it’s as if they were dead.

John Ragai Ash Wednesday Lent Season 2015
John Ragai Ash Wednesday Lent Season 2015

And who can forget being smeared with ashes on Ash Wednesday as the priest intoned, “Remember you are dust, and to dust, you shall return.”

Lent used to be all about repentance but with a negative twist.

To many, it merely felt like piling on the guilt for past transgressions. In actuality, repentance really means coming back home where we belong, to be filled with holiness so that we can then share it with those around us.

Isaiah 58:5 from today’s lectionary (Feb. 20)
describes the negative approach to perfection:

Is this the manner of fasting I wish,
of keeping a day of penance:
That a man bow his head like a reed
and lie in sackcloth and ashes?

Yet, this is not what our Lord desires. Instead:

US Army Garrison Red Cloud - Casey Camp Stanley volunteers support local soup kitchen
US Army Garrison Red Cloud – Casey Camp Stanley volunteers support local soup kitchen

This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:
releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke;
Setting free the oppressed,
breaking every yoke;
Sharing your bread with the hungry,
sheltering the oppressed and the homeless;
Clothing the naked when you see them,
and not turning your back on your own.
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed;
Your vindication shall go before you,
and the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer,
you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am! (verses 6-9a)

So, shouldn’t Lent be more about saying “yes” rather than saying “no?”

While I have been rethinking words such as “discipline” and “obedience,” seeing them more now as life-giving “yes” words (see previous post), I hadn’t done that yet with Lent. Until, I chatted with one of you.

In our chat, the reader said she looked forward to Lent as her “favorite time of the year,” adding that Lent is “an opportunity to work closely with the Lord to make change in myself .”

That made me stop short. I couldn’t enter into Lent now with that same dread I carried since my childhood. Couldn’t I too look at Lent as “an opportunity?”

We may fast from foods or back away from activities that have consumed us
(like the boob tube and the internet) but isn’t fasting really about creating space for something better?

Creating that space requires discipline. Yet filling that space with something holy can turn out to be far more satisfying in the end.

On the ride home last night I decided to sing to God to begin filling that space.

The St. Louis Jesuits, from kilisyano.blogspot.com
The St. Louis Jesuits, from kilisyano.blogspot.com

I wanted to sing songs where I knew all the words; this made me think of the St. Louis Jesuits.

Anyone involved in liturgical music from the 1970’s and 80’s will know the music of the St. Louis Jesuits. Their folk-style, scripture-based songs created a revolution in liturgical music (a revolution that was not embraced by everyone). But I embraced it. And when I found playlists on YouTube of all of their music, I broke into song joyfully.

If you have a smart phone (and a robust data plan), you too can sing along with the St. Louis Jesuits all the way home.

Singing the scriptures drew me into a deep place of prayer.

  • I shed tears singing “Be Not Afraid”  as I thought of the Christians in the Middle East being martyred and driven from their homes.
  • I meditated on the wonder of God as I sang along with “O Beauty Ever Ancient.”
  • I smiled and sang out with joy upon hearing “Sing to the Mountains.”

slj featured image

And then I thought, I have to share this opportunity with all of you.

Come and enter into prayer by singing the scriptures. There is nothing like music to move the soul, to tap into those things you wish to bring to God in prayer.

If you can, try singing with the St. Louis Jesuits the next time you have a long ride in the car. Here is a complete list of all the playlists on YouTube.
A word of warning: YouTube inserts an ad after every two songs played, just so you know. But the experience of singing the prayers of your heart make that interruption tolerable.

Lent can indeed be a time of celebration.

A time of joining with God and being filled to the brim with his Spirit so that you too will feel a compulsion to share.

Copyright 2015 Susan W. Bailey

Artwork: Denis Egan ssc_0414Flickr Creative Commons, John Ragai Ash Wednesday Lent Season 2015 Flickr Creative Commons, The St. Louis Jesuits, from kilisyano.blogspot.com

A special way to give alms this Lenten season, one woman at a time

The season of Lent is a tradition in Christianity offering a time to turn back to God (also known as repentance). Once viewed from a strictly negative perspective (guilt over sins, giving up chocolate or some other treat during the 40 days before Easter), the very perception of Lent is being transformed into a great gift for the person who wishes to embark on the journey. For it is a journey of the heart to conversion and live-giving transformation.

I look forward to Lent despite the custom in our household to forgo meat for 40 days. I miss greasy cheeseburgers and juicy chicken sometimes but there’s something purifying about focusing on vegetables with a sprinkling of pasta and rice. The benefit of a gentler diet and less calories is a nice tradeoff.

The Transfiguration - from flickr, by fantartsy JJ *2013 year of LOVE!*
The Transfiguration – from flickr, by fantartsy JJ *2013 year of LOVE!*

I am familiar with the cycle of readings for Lent as I used to plan music every Sunday for mass. It always struck me as hopeful to read during the second Sunday of Lent the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus on Mount Tabor in front of three of  his disciples. I imagine I would have been babbling nonsense too like Peter were I seeing my teacher and master suddenly glorified in a heavenly body while a Voice from above exhorted me to “listen to Him.”

And that’s where conversion and transformation begins, with listening. Tuning into that small voice inside where Jesus dwells. But in order to hear, the noise needs to be turned down, the life made simpler.

It begins with listening and translates into action. I am asked to first dig down deep inside to that sacred place where He dwells; once fed I am asked to step out of myself so I can share that nourishing love with others.

The Church asks three things of the Lenten pilgrim: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. For me, prayer is carving out spaces in my busy day to just be still, to listen and then, to ponder. Fasting is, yes, giving up things, but in an effort to shed those extras that hold me back from listening to the Still, Soft Voice. And almsgiving? Carrying out those things that my Lord has instructed me to do during those times when I listen. Giving generously of time and treasure.

Today I was presented with a beautiful opportunity for almsgiving and I’d like to share it with you. It is being done through Catholicmom.com in partnership with Ave Maria Press:

catholicmom.com project

The goal of this project is to provide spiritual support to expectant mothers. Catholicmom.com and Ave Maria Press hope to send 50 copies of A Catholic Mother’s Companion to Pregnancy—a week-by-week spiritual companion for pregnant women—to 20 pregnancy centers around the United States. Your donations will be used solely to help them achieve this goal.

a catholic mother's companion to pregnancyYou can find out more about this worthy initiative here.

Pregnancy can be a challenging time even in the most desirable circumstances. The expectant mothers whom this project seeks to support are often scared, lacking in financial resources, and needing guidance, love and care. They are courageous in their desire to resist societal pressure and bring their babies to term.

Sarah A. Reinhard, the author of A Catholic Mother’s Companion to Pregnancy is well acquainted with the needs of these women. She writes,  “I used to volunteer in a pregnancy center. It broke my heart. After I had my own kids, women who seek help from pregnancy centers became an even more intimate part of my prayers. To share my book with them is the least I can do.”

By simply donating $10 or more, these women can receive spiritual guidance that will help them on their difficult journey.

I see this as a wonderful way to participate in the almsgiving that our Lord desires during this season of Lent.

Visit The Catholicmom.com Project if you would like to help send this wonderful book to women in need. The pregnancy centers offer material help and moral support. You can aid in providing needed spiritual support.

Thanks for your help on this.

Click to Tweet & Share: A special way to give alms this Lenten season, one woman at a time http://wp.me/p2D9hg-pl

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