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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Prayerful resources for your Lenten reflection

Lent is already well underway but perhaps you are still in need of ideas for your reflection. Click on any of the images below for blog posts, songs, videos podcast presentations and Flow Lesson exercises to enhance your Lenten experience:

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Do you have a particular spiritual practice that helps you draw closer to God? Please feel free to leave a comment and share–we can all use new suggestions!

And please–feel free to share on your social media:

twitter-graphic-transTweet: Here’s some great ideas for Lent–songs, videos, podcasts, prayerful exercises http://ctt.ec/2MP5O+

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May you have a blessed Lent and a Happy Easter!


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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My special deck of cards means companions for the journey

My morning prayer begins with a deck of cards. Not playing cards but prayer cards with pictures of my favorite saints. I have amassed quite a collection—seventeen to be exact. Each day I begin my walk with God by inviting each saint to walk with me.


In the beginning …

It began thirty years ago with St. Anthony of Padua. He was a must-have saint when it came to our baby boy losing his pacifier. Our son preferred the old-fashioned kind, the kind that was hard to replace. St. Anthony became a good friend in short order, always finding that pacifier (whether it was the old one or a new one at the store).

For many years St. Anthony was the only one. I had trouble figuring out how to talk to God and also make room for other heavenly friends in the conversation. It made the room feel crowded.

Growing the list

Then, a few years ago, an improbable event occurred in my life: I was asked to write a book. Having never done anything like that before and having no formal education in writing, I knew I needed help. And that’s when my list of saintly friends began to grow.


Teresa, Therese, Bernadette …

Saints Teresa of Avila and Therese of Lisieux were the first to make the list. Both were reluctant writers and both relied heavily on God. I even used some of St. Therese’s own words in River of Grace.

Next I saw “The Song of Bernadette” and became enamored with her. In reading her biography I was intrigued by her ability to be absorbed in thoughts of God even when surrounded by large crowds. I wanted that ability. Now I ask her for it every day.

Paul and Cecilia

I clearly remember the time and place where I first encountered St. Paul—it was in the middle of an emergency (stuck in traffic and desperate for a rest room!). St. Paul the marathon runner came to mind and I asked him to run with me and help me endure the pain. He did. Now I always ask him to run with me.

St. Cecilia is restoring my love of music. There was a time not so long ago when I wanted nothing more to do with music having been a performer for many years. But then, God invited me to join the choir at church and I turned to St. Cecilia. She has been working overtime for me, securing blessings which fill my heart up again with the sounds of music.

Meet my saintly friends: Top row, L to R: St. Teresa of Avila, Venerable Bruno Lanteri Row 2: St. Therese of Lisiuex, St. Francis de Sales, St. Lawrence, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Francis of Assisi Row 3: St. John the Evangelist, St. Paul, The Blessed Mother, St. Martin de Porres, St. Cecilia Row 4: Sts. Monica and Augustine, St. Nicholas, St. Anthony of Padua, St. Bernadette, St. Christopher

Bruno, Nicholas and Francis

Last year I had the pleasure of meeting Venerable Bruno Lanteri, the founder of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. Through author Father Timothy Gallagher, I met the man who would do anything to hear a person’s confession. He sought out the discouraged, helping them to rise and begin again.

St. Nicholas has become one of my favorites. While searching for a patron saint of finances, I was delighted to find that the man who inspired Santa Claus was that saint. His wisdom and generosity could inspire me to seek guidance in the handling of money, and healing for a heart made stingy by past financial troubles.

And finally there is Francis of Assisi. I am a crazy cat lady with many friends who love animals. And each day I ask St. Francis to remember them all.

Making room

Each day as I take a few moments to flip through my prayer cards I realize how rich my life is with all my saintly friends, all because I opened my heart and made room for them. Doing that reminds me to the same with my earthly friends, especially those in need.

It will be wonderful traveling through Lent this year with so many helpers.

Meet my seventeen special friends


1a-cropped st teresaSt. Teresa of Avila


Writers She was a reluctant writer and attributed all to God – helps me keep my perspective. She led me through River of Grace. Doctor of the church
1b-cropped TheresePrayerCard-730St. Therese of Lisieux Writers Also a reluctant writer and master of insight into the sacredness of the everyday. She also led me through River of Grace. Doctor of the church
1c-cropped st francis de salesSt. Francis de Sales writers and journalists, because he made extensive use of broadsheets and books both in spiritual direction and in his efforts to convert the Calvinists of the region His gentle face inspired me
1d-cropped st. lawrenceSt. Lawrence librarians, archivists, cooks, and tanners
(and comedians!)
Inspired by his literal trial by fire, I ask him to put his fire into my writing; as I make use of libraries and archives, I ask for his help
1f-cropped st. thomas aquinasSt. Thomas Aquinas Writers (students) I turn to him for knowledge and understanding as I write – particularly clinging to him because of my Alcott biography
1e-cropped st john the evangelistSt. John the Evangelist Writers St. John was eloquent and mystical in his writing – asking for that in mine.
2a-cropped st. paulSt. Paul missionaries, evangelists, writers, journalists, authors, public workers, rope and saddle makers, and tent makers My marathon runner partner! He runs next to me when I need endurance.
2b-cropped venerable bruno lanteriVenerable Bruno Lanteri The confessor—encouraging the discouraged to make peace with their failing, get up and start again I turn to him whenever I have fallen and feel discouraged. His caring demeanor attracted me.
3a-blessed virgin maryMary, the Mother of God Bringing God’s children home to the sacred heart of Jesus through her own immaculate heart I ask Mary our Mother to bring all of us home to her Son Jesus.
3b-cropped st_martinSt. Martin de Porres Mixed Race, Barbers, Public Health Workers, Innkeepers private intention
3c-cropped st monicaSt. Monica
and St. Augustine
Mothers—praying their children home private intention
4-cropped st. nickSt. Nicholas those in financial need For wisdom in handling our money and for healing of stinginess (after all, he is the model for Santa Claus!)
5-cropped st. anthonySt. Anthony of Padua lost and stolen articles For finding anything, from lost objects to lost thoughts!
6-cropped st. bernadetteSt. Bernadette illness, people ridiculed for their piety, poverty, shepherds, shepherdesses, and Lourdes, France For humility and holy absorption
7-cropped st. ceciliaSt. Cecilia musicians Offering my music through her
8-cropped st. christopherSt. Christopher travelers and of children For help with driving, especially at night
St. Francis of AssisiStFrancis animals and the ecology For all animal lovers, especially my kitten cam friends

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My traveling companions for the Lenten journey

My monthly column for The Catholic Free Press and Catholicmom.com

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I decided this Lent that I would not travel alone. I asked St. Bernadette, the visionary of Our Lady of Lourdes, if she would accompany me.

In the course of our walk together I am rediscovering someone I had long forgotten but who has not forgotten me.

A classic movie

It began on the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes with a suggestion from a friend to watch “The Song of Bernadette,” a critically-acclaimed 1943 movie based on the book by Franz Werfel. It was available on YouTube so I could watch it at my leisure. The movie is long so I viewed it on my tablet over the course of three nights.

Unexpected emotions

That was a good decision. I did not expect to be so moved by the film and was glad I could cry in private. Each time “The Lady” appeared to Bernadette, the tears would flow. I did not know why. Was it the beautiful music? Was it the way Bernadette (played by Oscar winner Jennifer Jones) looked at “The Lady” with such love?

Maybe it was because of Mary herself. Perhaps my heart was telling me how much I missed her in my life.

More, more …

saint bernadette soubirous by francis trochuWhen the movie ended I wanted more. From the bookshelf I pulled out a work by Abbe Francis Trochu entitled Saint Bernadette Soubirous. I was doubtful that a book written over sixty years ago could speak to me today but those fears were soon put to rest.

My “go-to” person

I skipped over the apparitions to my true interest–the life of this saint in the aftermath, as a religious. What I found was a quiet yet powerful holiness based upon the smallest of details. Bernadette would soon become my “go-to” saint for lessons on fidelity, patience, charity, composure and self-control.

A counter-cultural saint

St. Bernadette sought to be hidden and forgotten, a difficult task for someone whose fame was widespread. To desire such things today is counter-cultural, even laughable; recognition and fame are hotly pursued by so many who believe it will supply the love they crave. It is an empty promise. Having experienced it herself, Bernadette knew where the true source lay.

I. Want. This.

from www.findagrave.com
from http://www.findagrave.com

Abbé Trochu writes, ” This triumph of Our Lady of Lourdes rested on [Bernadette’s] own testimony … It would have been enough to turn the head of a conceited youngster. But, forgetful of herself, the unique visionary was thinking solely of the Apparition’s glory, and was lost in her radiance. And so along she went, paying no heed to the crowds, wholly absorbed in her own interior happiness.” (pg. 244)

I want that; to be so attracted to God as to be single-minded, losing myself in heavenly thoughts in the middle of a noisy world. It is that submission to God’s grace, that total immersion into holiness that unleashes the power of transformation.

If I seek to become like Bernadette: faithful, patient, composed and in control of my emotions; if I desire to confront my weaknesses, then I must learn her way of holy absorption.

Starting with Mary

mary and jesusThinking on Mary as Bernadette did is a good start. Mary is the epitome of faithfulness, patience and composure, fueled by love of her Son. Mary longs to mother me and I need mothering. The many tears I shed while watching the movie revealed that longing; it’s time I listened to her call.

The little things

With my two companions I can begin to learn this art of holy absorption by continuing my reading on St. Bernadette, asking for her intercession, and cementing the habit of praying the rosary each day. When I take communion to my homebound friend each week, I can pause for a few moments to hold the Eucharist in my hand as Mary held Jesus as a baby, and together, we can adore the Lord of Hosts. I could also meditate on the Eucharist as St. Bernadette did: “I think to myself that that the Blessed Virgin is giving me the Infant Jesus, I welcome Him, I speak to Him and He speaks to me.”

All little things. All done in secret but never done alone.

Copyright 2015 Susan W. Bailey

Artwork: all photos by Susan W. Bailey

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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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