Taking Stock of Our Appetites

My head hurts, and my patience is wearing thin. I’m about to put my son to bed and the euphoria that descends in these last few hours of fasting is starting to set in. My body feels weak and I only have energy for sweetness. I don’t have the physical energy to be uptight, upset or any sort of way but super chill.

Mona Haydar further summarizes her experience, “So here I am, an hour left in the first day of my fast this month, and boy am I tired.” Yet, she claims, “This weakness is my secret super power right now — a portal to a gentle, calm, serene stillness. This conservation of energy for that which (and especially those who) truly deserves it.”

Fasting is a universally prized spiritual practice in every world religion. My Catholic tradition especially honors this salutary practice during the forty days of Lent. Sometimes I regret that obligatory meatless-Fridays of my youth were made “optional”. Though still encouraged and highly praised, laziness has set in and best intentions never quite get expressed in actual practice.

Ramadan began for our Muslim neighbors on June 6. This must be an especially brutal time for fasting from sun-up to sun-down. Because this “Holy Month” is set according to a more ancient calendar, it can occur at any time of the year. This year it happens to coincide with June 21 — the “longest day of the year” here in Minnesota. For the 1.5 billion Muslims around the world, this is a year when living in the southern hemisphere would be a distinct advantage.

Mona Haydar has some wise counsel to share with all of us who come from a spiritual heritage that honors fasting. What she observes from her Muslim practice offers wise counsel to Christians, Buddhist, Jews, Hindus and each of the great religions:

On the most superficial level, Ramadan is about abstaining from food and drink. Beyond that, however, Ramadan is about remedying my heart and habits and all the parts of myself that need a little cleaning up or loving. It includes abstaining from speech that doesn’t elevate all those involved. It is about reeling in my physical appetites so that I may spend a mere four weeks looking at the appetites of my heart, soul and mind as well.

Though we may not be fasting during this Holy Month of Ramadan, we are still invited to share in its wisdom and grow in understanding, respect, admiration and appreciation for those who do.
____________________
You may read Mona Haydar’s reflection from which her quotes have been taken at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mona-haydar/ramadan-reflections_b_10328784.html?platform=hootsuite

My Lenten Shake-Down

My spiritual foundations are being shaken to their foundations. On a practical level, I’ve presumed that God became human in Jesus because we had screwed things us so badly that God needed to “work our salvation” through the passion, death and resurrection. Today something else seems to be struggling to break through.

Steeped in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, my “fix it” mentality still deeply colors the way I have interpreted Jesus’ Incarnation. Even more, my presumption about the Son’s mission has pretty well determined the way I have “observed” the season of Lent — Jesus came to save us because we had created a mess and couldn’t fix it for ourselves.  We’d do well to realign ourselves with Jesus’ plan of action.

Though this traditional affirmation remains true, it’s not the whole truth. In fact, it’s only a sliver of the truth and can distort and impoverish a fuller understanding of Christ. That’s what seems to be rattling my foundations these days. It’s a work in progress — it’s God’s doing, nothing I can cause, simply a grace I hope to apprehend.

Christopher Pramuk’s Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton has had me captivated for the past while. Masterful. Meant to be savored. Perhaps the most significant book I’ve read in the past five years. Not easy, but solid theology that is also spiritually satisfying. Reading something today caught me off guard and sent my head spinning:

The incarnation … was not an afterthought following a failed creation. Christ is the Word, the uncreated Image of God, who has already decided “from the beginning” to enter fully into humankind.

Okay, so what’s new? We’ve all heard that before. It’s simply another way of saying what Paul writes in his Letter to the Colossians (1:15-17). Yes, I’ve “believed” this. I’ve even parroted it in my own words. Today these former formulations seem conceptual, abstract. True, but cognitive!

Here’s what flipped my apple cart, left my head spinning:

the heart of Christian spirituality [resides in] the discovery of our true selves already resting in Christ, not “out there” as a separate Object, but “as the Reality within our own reality, the Being within our own being, the life of our life.” (Merton, The New Man, p19).

With images of Pope Francis praying at the Mexico/US border yesterday fresh in my mind, Merton’s words stopped me in my tracks: “If we believe in the incarnation of the Son of God, there should be no one on earth in whom we are not prepared to see, in mystery, the presence of God.” (New Seeds of Contemplation, p296)

The church teaches virtually the same thing: “In Christ, God became not only ‘this’ man, but also, in a broader and more mystical sense, yet no less truly, ‘every man.'” (Gaudium et spies, #22).

Again, I have long ‘believed’ these words. I have often parroted them. But have they really sunk in? Are they deep in my bones such that I see in others — each and every other, especially the poor and marginalized — the human dignity of Christ?

That’s my challenge as we enter this second week of Lent. God did not become human in Jesus as an afterthought due to our having screwed things up! Incarnation leading to salvation has always been God’s intention from the beginning. How do I get that truth in to my bones, give flesh to this “Word” in my life?

Perhaps we need to spend less time in our church pews and more time at border crossings, less time meditating on the crucifix and more time attending to the many forms of personal crucifixion people endure today.

Christmas and Easter are not dualistic polarities on a salvific timeline. They are the self-same singular impulse of a loving God from the very beginning. Don’t know about you, but this pretty well turns the table on many of my traditional Lenten presumptions and practices.

Getting my head and heart around this will take some doing, certainly more than the forty days of Lent.
______________________
Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton by Christopher Pramuk. A Michael Glazier Book, Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN (2009), pp 179-180).

Let the Partying Begin!

God, apparently, loves feasting. Nothing secretive or peaceful about it. A brash new star, exotic foreigners, ec­static shepherds, choirs of angels—not just a quiet messen­ger, but hosts of them, pouring through the night sky singing “Glory.” God chose to celebrate this feast “just at the worst time of the year,” to be a light in the darkness, to comfort us on our lonely road, to prove over and over again that the things of the world are good, that fun is an ethical concept. Perhaps this is what is meant by “blessed are the poor”—they know how to feast.

I wish I were able to feast with this extravagant host. I am appalled by my pusillanimous responses: by the minginess of my imagination. I tend to criticize the menu (“virgin birth­ so out of date”) and carp at the behavior of less refined guests (“oh, not ‘Hark-the Herald’ again”). I wear jeans not my wed­ding garment, and I want the children to “calm down” and not wake up too early in the morning.

Of course they should wake up early, of course they should be overexcited, of course they should run amok and tear open their presents with greedy zeal. This is the feast day of a God who so delights in matter, in the stuff of the universe, in bodies, that he plunges into it all head first, and becomes a child. This is the feast day of a God who rips the invisible membrane between time and eternity so heaven floods the world, in an extravagant and abundant tide of love, and the world laps back, carried undiluted to the everlasting ban­quet. The feast of a God who comes into the cold, the dark, the silence of our prosperity and says, “Let’s party.”

________

This is only the conclusion of a marvelous piece that first appeared in Commonweal in 1997 and has been reprinted in the current issue. I encourage you to read the full article [here].

 

Enough with Deprivation

Quickly closing in on the age when the Catholic Church excuses me from mandatory fast and abstinence during Lent, I should have something to say after more than six decades of experience. If pressed, it comes down to this: it’s not ultimately about denial and deprivation!

Jeb the Dog often directs me to the edge of Minnehaha Creek where he takes me each day for a walk.  Yeterday Jeb led me to a clump of green spikes audaciously staking their claim amid the crunchy brown stubble of last year’s summer spectacle.  A rippling sheet of water attests to the creek’s insistence on breaking winter’s paralyzing hold. Years of accompanying Jeb instill confidence that watery rapids will soon applaud the canary yellow blossoms atop blades of lavish green.

Chickadees are returning to the still somnolent serviceberries. Yesterday, while positioning bed pillows on the sunny deck for a seasonal airing, two Juncos flashed the white underlying of their slate-colored tails as they vacated the Korean lilac. A matched pair of cardinals more boldly held their positions, staking out their claim with a nearly forgotten song.

In his poem, March, Mark Doty unwittingly expresses the paradox of our Lenten fast and abstinence:

I thought the choice was to love austerity
or not to love at all,

but when I went out to look at the elemental
I found nothing sparse, only this density

and saturation: dusky sedge
at the pond’s rim, thicket and tumble

of violet contradiction, plum stems–
a whole vocabulary of tone and hue, demanding,

a history steeped in the long practice
of luminosity. How difficult

just to say what’s here, in March severity.
Try…

Yes, try! Ultimately, Lent is not about denial and deprivation! No, it is about awakening to all that is quickening in us and in this luminous creation. From her home on the North Dakota prairie Kathleen Norris hints at the salutary motivation for fast and abstinence:

What is enough? As always, it seems that the more I can distinguish between my true needs and my wants, the more I am shocked to realize how little is enough. The trees that fan me are the fruit of others’ labor, planted by an earlier generation of Plains dwellers who longed for trees to shelter them. The land resisted, but let them have these few. I am startled by something flashing through the trees. It is the Pleiades, all seven of them plainly visible to the naked eye. This is another’s work, and a mystery. And it is enough.

Our world is awakening, being renewed, restored, refreshed, redeemed.  Six decades bring more than well-worn duty and rote routine.

Age and experience yields freedom from frozen obligations, yet instills the assurance that we are securely held by Someone more gracious than ourselves. We settle into an audacious confidence that as spent patterns recede, the ultimate vitality of life will not be denied. We conclude that even the smallest of portions is more than enough!
________________
In addition to Mark Doty’s poem, March, which is from his collection Atlantis published by HarperPerennial, 1995; this reflection was also inspired by my friend Susan Stabile on her blog, Creo in Dios. Susan quoted Kathleen Norris’s The Cloister Walk in beautifully distinguishing the difference between our wants and needs. I recommend her post available [here].

Give It Up!

This morning I have spent so much time composing a post that I’ve decided to save it for the weekend.  It’s entitled “Fear of Flying.”  Today I will simply share one of my all-time favorite prayers which expresses the essence of what I have tried to express in what you will have a chance to read tomorrow.

This prayer poem is by Elizabeth Rooney and entitled, Oblation:

 

I hope each day 

To offer less to you,

Each day

By your great love to be

Diminished

Until at last I am

So decreased by your hand

And you, so grown in me,

That my whole offering

Is just an emptiness 

For You to fill

Or not

According to Your will.

Growing Up

Back in high school Kings was the place to be.  Tiner’s, with poodle-skirted car-hops in roller-skates, was so passé.  After a Friday night football game or a Saturday movie everyone who was “anyone” – in adolescent parlance that means everybody and no one – needed to make an appearance at Kings. I would slide in with the protective cover of my group, grateful to have established the right to say next week at school that I’d been there.  How I envied – and despised – the self-appointed “kings” who commanded both attention and comment as they appeared through the door.  They knew who they were and the rest of us did too.

As with previous generations, we carefully complied with prescribed dietary rules and social rituals.  Malts were soooooo “Tiner’s!”  At Kings we’d have fries and a Coke on Fridays.  On Saturdays it had to be a hamburger and a Coke.  All this ordered from vinyl booths on Princess telephones at each table connected to the kitchen switchboard.  I was always happy to defer to someone else the task of calling-in the table’s order.  I accepted my place in the social hierarchy and was compliant to group norms.

Unspoken as much of adolescent culture and compliance remains today, we consciously knew and obeyed the rules.  We were happy – even grateful – to do so.  Unspoken we knew that we ordered fries and a Coke on Friday because it was meatless.  We gratefully ordered a Coke with a hamburger (only yellow mustard and dill pickle, no ketchup for me, please) on Saturdays as long as it was before midnight.  Because of curfews our choices were always simple and prescribed. We felt secure.

Catholics of my generation remember Friday abstinence and Sunday fasting before communion.  Of course we rebelled. That was a necessary part of growing-up.  Some still grouse about “growing-up Catholic”.  Some still remain unwittingly rule-bound in their inability to give-up the grousing. Some actually mastered the fine art of breaking rules – a life skill more of us would do well to acquire if we are ever to become mature adults.  But I digress!  Of enduring importance for all who navigated the Kings experience, we knew who we were! We felt secure in our respective and multiple peer groups.

Several Australian Catholic bishops have recently said they would support re-establishment of year-round Friday abstinence from meat – without any sanction of “sin” – following the lead of England and Wales in 2011.  American Catholic bishops ended obligatory abstinence just about the time I graduated from high school.  Looking back at the decision to end Friday abstinence, Australian Bishop Elliott wonders if it was a “pastoral and spiritual mistake” stating, “I can understand why that happened, in the mood of that era, but I believe it failed to take into account human psychology.”

Acting through their episcopal conferences, bishops have used their authority to establish norms “they consider the most opportune and efficacious” in regards to fasting and abstinence.  Catholic norms continue to state that “the penitential days and times in the universal church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent,” but that any conference of bishops can “substitute other forms of penance” in place of abstinence.  Consistently through my adulthood Catholics have been encouraged to fulfill the spirit of Friday penance through prayer, self-denial or helping others. However, based on personal practice and observation, it is only honest to admit we simply have ignored the opportunity that is ours.  Encouraging folks to work out their own spiritual practice may have been a noble affirmation of human freedom and presumption of maturity.  But I would concur it was overly idealistic and naïve.

Our dominant culture remains “adolescent” in our preoccupation with brands, labels and social hierarchy. Such norms, parameters and indicators are not evil in themselves.  We all need a secure sense of self, a clear identity and a sense of belonging.  Peer group and external rules enable us to navigate that transition to personal freedom and social maturity.   Dietary prescriptions, even outright prohibitions, have been part and parcel of religious practice across human history because they aid in this process. Turkey on Thanksgiving and oyster stew on Christmas eve fulfill a corresponding function still.  They help us understand and express who we are as a person, a family, a nation, a people.

As much as we said we hated it – that in itself was socially prescribed “rebellion” – compliance with Friday abstinence at Kings promoted our personal identity and sense of social connection.  We remembered who we were and knew with whom we belonged. We took a hidden but much needed comfort and pride in it.  Fifty years later I increasingly recognize so much more that was good and necessary in those challenging teenage years – and am grateful.

Today I welcome  the questions Australian, British and Welsh bishops are asking. But why wait for the bishops?  Who’s stopping me now?  My peer group?  C’mon, it is so past time to give-up and get-over my adolescent insecurities and rebellion.  Time to grow-up!  Meatless Fridays wouldn’t hurt one bit.  In fact, they might just help, at long last, as an expression of freedom and hard-earned maturity.
___________________
Quotes and references are from an article by Matthew Biddle with Catholic News Service and is available [here].