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].


Gift Beyond Gift, Beyond Reason

Is there any day of the week more nondescript than Thursday? Today is pretty innocuous even for a summer day in Minnesota — forecast is for clouds to hang around all day. It’s tempting to get lulled into monotony.

But stop! Every day is as Denise Levertov protests in her marvelous poem, The Yellow Tulip.  

But it’s so: a caravan arrives constantly
out of desert dust, laden
with gift beyond gift, beyond reason.

Though tulips have faded in Minneapolis — and we are probably the last people to enjoy this Springtime ritual — take a moment today to savor Levertov’s praise for this humble flower. [link].

But today, this partly-cloudy Thursday in June, is hardly ordinary. In fact, it’s quite remarkable. For one thing, today is the beginning of Ramadan, the month-long season of fasting and heightened attention to prayer and spiritual practices.

In this world of religious fanaticism and fundamentalism of all stripes, we do well to respectfully remember and honor this holy season. Too often we hear only headlines caused by extremists. Today we would do well to listen to what rank-and-file Muslim neighbors have on their minds. A simple, short summary of Ramadan is available [here].

And today, Thursday, June 18, 2015 is a momentous day that will be recalled a hundred years from now! Today the much anticipated — you know something is really significant when vested-interests and nay-sayers attack something well before it is even published!!! — release of Pope Francis’ letter on creation.

It is not a political or economic treatise! It is not about climate change, though that is central to his moral exhortation! Neither is it primarily about the environment, if by that we mean adoption of “green” policies in response to our current ecological crisis. It’s about creation, God’s bountious and boundless gift in which we humans are to serve as humble stewards.

Read that last sentence again… human, humble. These words are cognates of humus — rich, fertile soil from which all life springs. Human, humble, humus all come from the same root. Take time this Thursday to make the connection. We are by definition and nature earth-creatures. Give that some thought. Find your particular place in this God-given creation — it’s a humble place of honor!

If you’d care to review a simple, five-point summary of the pope’s pastoral exhortation, you can do no better than to take five minutes to read this [link].

Laudato Si… Yes, Praise be… even on an ordinary Thursday in 2015. Every day — each day — is anything but nondescript, innocuous or monotonous!

Or, as Francis of Assisi expressed it…

Most high, all powerful, all good Lord!

All praise is Yours, all glory, all honor, and all blessing.

To You, alone, Most High, do they belong.
No mortal lips are worthy to pronounce Your name.

Be praised, my Lord, through all Your creatures,
especially through my lord Brother Sun,
who brings the day; and You give light through him.
And he is beautiful and radiant in all his splendor!
Of You, Most High, he bears the likeness.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars;
in the heavens You have made them bright, precious and beautiful.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brothers Wind and Air,
and clouds and storms, and all the weather,
through which You give Your creatures sustenance.

Be praised, my Lord, through Sister Water;
she is very useful, and humble, and precious, and pure.

Be praised, my Lord, through Brother Fire,
through whom You brighten the night.
He is beautiful and cheerful, and powerful and strong.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Mother Earth,
who feeds us and rules us,
and produces various fruits with colored flowers and herbs.

Be praised, my Lord, through those who forgive for love of You;
through those who endure sickness and trial.

Happy those who endure in peace,
for by You, Most High, they will be crowned.

Be praised, my Lord, through our sister Bodily Death,
from whose embrace no living person can escape.
Woe to those who die in mortal sin!
Happy those she finds doing Your most holy will.
The second death can do no harm to them.

Praise and bless my Lord, and give thanks,
and serve Him with great humility.

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


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.

Countering Lenten Lethagy

I admit it – I’ve gotten a little lax and lazy! We are two-thirds of the way into Lent and I need a mid-course correction. Today I took a pen to paper and tried to generate possible strategies for activating each of the traditional Lenten practices of fasting, alms-giving and prayer. Here’s what I came up with. No, I am not committing to put each into practice. I just need to get the energy flowing as a counter to Lenten lethargy. Maybe something here will give you a jump-start as well.


City crews came through yesterday pruning trees on the boulevard. Pruning shapes, strengthens and beautifies trees. Pruning actually increases productivity in food and flower-bearing plants. What “pruning” would have a corresponding effect in me?

Fasting immediately conjures food and eating less. What if we ate the same amount but shared a meal with someone who is hungry for more than food right now? What would happen if we invited a grieving neighbor over for dinner or a struggling colleague out for lunch?

A dinner guest on Tuesday said he has a goal of taking the bus to work at least four days a week. He’s worked up to that number and has learned to enjoy his commute much more than if he were battling traffic. He saves a boatload of money but also takes pride in lessening his consumption of fossil fuels.  Consider eco-fasting!


I am very attached to my opinions and am disposed to judgmentalism. What if I were to consistently try – and this would be a challenge – to give everyone I meet the benefit of the doubt? What if I tried really hard to give the best interpretation to the other person’s words or behaviors for a full 24 hours?

What is our most precious resource? Of course, its time! What if I conscientiously gave my attention to someone who holds a different opinion, to the neighbor who asks to borrow a cup of sugar but actually wants to vent about an exasperating child, or recognized when someone needs us to take time to quietly listen and is not asking for answers or our opinion?

What would be the hardest thing for me to give away? Wow! As I compile my long list of possibilities I am inspired to wonder “why?” What is it about this item that would make it so hard? Simply getting in touch with this fact opens us to better understand our true values and can be quite illuminating!


I have Psalm 46:10 on a card on an easel in my prayer space: “Be still and know that I am God.” Truthfully, God must get pretty exasperated with my incessant babble, wish-lists and emergencies. What if I were to give myself over to simply resting in God’s embrace like a child in her mother’s arms?  What… let God be God?

My friend Susan Stabile quoted Fr. Robert Barron’s book Why Your Body Matters for Prayer on her blog Creo en Dios a few days ago [link]: The body in a significant sense precedes the mind. If you’re having difficulty in prayer today try kneeling, or bowing, or making some sort of reverent gesture. The body often leads the mind into a deeper spiritual space.”

We mouth the Lord’s Prayer all the time but do we really mean it? What if we were the pray – really pray – YOUR kingdom come, YOUR will be done… here, now!  Mean it!  That would be nothing short of the deep, transforming conversion Lent is intended to inspire.

Finally, and most importantly, Lenten practices are not about our endurance or success. Rather, they are intended merely to dispose us to God’s enduring presence and ever-merciful love.

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].