Lent Reflection Series Session 1: Fasting, Almsgiving and Prayer

Today is Ash Wednesday, the day that begins Lent, the 40-day period preceding our commemoration of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Lent is a special time in the cycle of the Catholic Church and in some Protestant churches and so each year, in addition to whatever other retreats or programs I am giving in various other locations during Lent, I offer a Lent Refelection Series or Lent Retreat in Daily Living at the UST School of Law.

Yesterday was the first session of the four-session Lent Reflection Series I am offering this year.  The focus of my talk was on the traditional Lenten observances of fasting, almsgiving and prayer.  For some of the Catholics in the group, the talk offered, hopefully, a broader way of understanding practices they are familiar with from their youth.  For some of the non-Catholic Christians, it was an introduction to a season they did not know much about.

Following my talk, we had a good general discussion of some of the ways people have in the past marked Lent, and we talked about resources that might provide some ideas for how they might practice during this Lent.

You can access a recording of my talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 33:09.) A copy of the the handout I distributed to participants, which I talk about near the end of my talk is here.

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What Are You Fasting From?

Fasting is one of the traditional practices of Lent. Although the only days on which Catholics are obligated to fast are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, the practice is encouraged throughout Lent.

For many of us who grew up Catholic, our childhood fasting during Lent took the form of giving up some favorite food item. (“What are you giving up?” was one of the most frequently asked questions of the season.) Giving up chocolate was common. Or soft drinks. The really daring might vow to forego all desserts. The habits of childhood often last well into adulthood; my sister still gives up chocolate every year for Lent and one of my friends gives up beer each Lent.

I don’t mean to minimize such practices. There is value to the discipline of fasting, especially if we do more than the Catholic minimum required definition of fasting, which always sounds to me more like cutting down than fasting. (One full meal and two small meals that together are less than one full meal, and even that is only required on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.) And feeling hunger when we fast reminds us of the condition many people live with daily, and not as a matter of choice.

But today’s first mass reading from the Book of Isaiah tells us that that is not necessarily the fasting God seeks of us:

Do you call this a fast acceptable to the Lord? 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.

By all means, fast during this Lent. Give up a favorite food item, or alcohol or the like if that is a helpful spiritual practice. But think carefully about whether there is something more meaningful than food you can fast from. What kind of fasting does greatest honor to God?

Praying for Peace

“Violence never leads to peace, war leads to war, violence leads to violence.” So said Pope Francis, who has asked that today be a day or prayer and fasting to end the violence in Syria. My parish here in the Twin Cities and many others in this archdiocese and others will hold special Masses for peace this morning or afternoon.

Will my fasting today make it less likely President Obama will order a strike on Syria? Will my prayer for peace make any difference? If instead of prayer and fasting I go hiking today and eat a big fancy dinner will I jeopardize the prospects for peace?

Perhaps not. In fact, assuredly my individual efforts alone mean nothing.

But I believe Pope Francis is right that “the world needs to see gestures of peace and hear words of hope and of peace.” And so I will be accepting the pope’s invitation today, extended to “each person, including our fellow Christians, followers of other religions and all men of good will” to participate in today’s day of fasting and prayer.”

I hope you, too, will add your voice in “invoking God’s great gift of peace upon the beloved nation of Syria and upon each situation of conflict and violence around the world.”

Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving in Action

Tonight will be the second of the weekly Lenten Soup Suppers at Church of Christ the King in Minneapolis. I think the description of the event does a wonderful job of illuminating the relationship among prayer, almsgiving and fasting, the three traditional Lenten practices:

For many decades, our parish has observed the custom of gathering every Wednesday during Lent for prayer. Over twenty years ago, we initiated the custom of sharing a simple meal of soup and bread on Wednesday nights preceding the prayer service to augment the day’s observance of prayer, fasting penitence and almsgiving. The idea behind the soup supper was inspired by ancient Christian tradition. To whatever degree is possible for each individual, as a parish we observe Wednesday as a day of fasting and penitence. At the end of the day, we gather as a parish and break our fast with a simple meal of soup and bread. Whatever money we might save by fasting throughout the day each Wednesday, we give as alms to feed the hungry. Then we conclude our day together in prayer, reviewing with gratitude the events of the day, noting when and how we experienced God’s presence, asking forgiveness for any wrongdoing and asking for grace to follow God more closely tomorrow.

We can engage in prayer, almsgiving and fasting in different ways during Lent. But I love the idea of a communal parish practice (even though I’ll end up missing most of the dinners since I’ll be speaking at St. Thomas Apostle most of those evenings).

I especially love that the communal practice emphasizes the relationship between fasting and almsgiving, something that was a prominent theme in the writings of the early church fathers. The Shepherd of Hermas, a second century text reads: “In the day on which you fast you will taste nothing but bread and water; and having reckoned up the price of the dishes of that day which you intended to have eaten, you will give it to a widow, or an orphan , or to some person in want.” Gregory the Great preached, “The one who does not give to the poor what he has saved but keeps it for later to satisfy his own appetite, does not fast for God.”

We sometimes forget the relationship, so it is good to have the reminder.

In Secret and Hidden

Today is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. In Gospel reading for today’s Mass, Jesus gives his disciples some instruction on the traditional Lenten practices: almsgiving, prayer and fasting.

When you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be in secret…

When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret…

When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden.

We engage in the practices of prayer, almsgiving and fasting not to impress our friends and colleagues with how pious we are, but as a way of turning ourselves more and more toward God. Although it has always been a popular pastime among Catholics to trade, “what are you giving up?” responses, Jesus is clear that this one is properly between us and God.

The advice is a little tricky though, because there is potential value in modeling our faith practices to others. We give witness to the centrality of our faith when we take Lent seriously. So for me the issue becomes one of motivation. Is my focus on God or on me? Am I letting someone see what I am giving up with the hope they focus on how good I am or with the hope they see how central God is? The hope that they praise me or praise God? Is it for God’s glory or my own?

Blessings during this Lenten season.

The Final Days of Lent

Here we are at the beginning of Holy Week, which means our 40 days of Lenten preparation for the death and resurrection of Jesus are nearing an end.

During these days of Lent we have (hopefully) been focusing in a special way on our life with God – nurturing our relationship with God and deepening in our appreciation for God’s enormous and unconditional love for us.

Many of us made special efforts during this period to engage in the Lenten practices of fasting, almsgiving and prayer. We may have given up something that distracted us from our discipleship. We may have taken up some practices, perhaps attending an extra Mass during the week, or engaging in some charitable activity.

We can look at such practices just as something we did during Lent, and say good-bye to them once Lent is “officially” over. But perhaps we might consider making such practices part of our life. If we’ve given up something, we’ve discovered during these days that it is not something we need for our happiness. Even if we don’t give it up completely and forever, perhaps we might still occasionally refrain. If we’ve taken up some new practice, perhaps we’ve found that it is such an aid to our spiritual growth that it makes sense to continue the practice.

You get the idea. My invitation today is to take a look at the practices you have been engaging in during Lent and ask whether they deserve a permanent (or at least frequent) part of your spiritual practice, even as this season of Lent draws to a close.

Fast and Feasting

Last night I attended the Sixth Annual Dialogue Iftar Dinner, hosted by the Niagara Foundation and the Bosphorus Dialogue Association, the latter of which is a student run group of the University of Minnesota. The evening included prayer – both an invocation by the University of Minnesota Lutheran pastor and an Adhan – an Islamic call to prayer, a slideshow of activities of the Niagara Foundation, three keynote speeches on the theme of Spiritual Reflections on Fasting – one each by a Jewish, a Christian and an Islamic speaker, and a delightful meal of Turkish food.

I suppose one could say that the new information I gained from the evening was fairly minor. I had not before been aware, for example, that it is traditional to break the Ramadan fast with a date, based on the belief that that is how the Prophet Mohammad used to break his fast. Thus, the first plate to be passed around the table at which I was sitting after sunset was a plate of dates. Additionally, despite growing up in New York with many Jewish friends, I had not before heard of the Jewish feast of Tisha B’Av, a day of mourning for various disasters that have befallen the Jewish people. Neither of these pieces of information are likely to shake my world.

Nonetheless, it was a wonderful evening. After reading so much in the last couple of weeks about the uproar about the proposed mosque near ground zero, and after seeing a report earlier in the day yesterday of a Muslim cabdriver who was attacked by a passenger simply because he was a Muslim, there was something good and peaceful about being in a room of Christians, Jews and Muslims celebrating together and sharing stories about their respective traditions.

The woman from the University of St. Thomas history department, who delivered the keynote talking about fasting from a Christian perspective, ended her talk with a poem I have heard in various forms, Fast From – Feast On. The poem, for example, speaks of fasting from words that pollute and feasting on phrases that purify, fasting from anger and feasting on patience, fasting from pessimism and feasting on optimism and fasting from complaining and feasting from appreciation.

What I most appreciated last night was the line that speaks of fasting from emphasis on differences and feasting on the unity of life. There are differences and I don’t minimize them. But there is also unity of life, and it is good to remember and celebrate that.

Fasting, Almsgiving and Prayer

Several weeks ago, I gave a reflection at a Taize prayer service we held in my parish, St. Hubert’s in Chanhassen. I decided to use the gospel of the day – St. Matthew’s account of Jesus instruction to his disciples on prayer, almsgiving and fasting – as the starting point for my reflection. That is the reading we hear every year on Ash Wednesday and prayer, almsgiving and fasting are considered by Catholics to be traditional Lenten practice. The use of this Matthew reading as a Gospel reading during Ordinary Time struck me as an important reminder that these three practices are not merely “Lenten practicees” but as fundamental Christian practices that are important for us to engage in regularly at all times during the year.

It has been a while since Elena and I have managed to coordinate our schedules to produce a podcast, so we decided to take advantage of the opportunity to do so before she heads off to a three-week voice program at Brevard. This podcast is based on the reflection I gave during the Taize prayer service. It begins with a reading from Matthew’s Gospel and then gives some thoughts about each of the three practices.

You can stream the podcast (which runs for 13:36) from the icon below or can download it from here. (Remember that you can now also subscribe to Creo en Dios! podcasts on iTunes.)

Prayer, Almsgiving and Fasting

Tonight I will be attending a Taize prayer service in my parish and offering a brief reflection on the readings. The Gospel reading I selected for tonight’s service is today’s Gospel reading from St. Matthew, which contains Jesus’ instructions on prayer, almsgiving and fasting.

As Catholics will recall, this is a reading we hear at the beginning of Lent every year, since prayer, almsgiving and fasting are viewed as traditional Lenten practices. The inclusion of this reading in a Gospel in the month of June is an important reminder to us that these are not practices reserved for Lent. Rather, all three are fundamental (and therefore year-round) aspects of the lives of all of us who call ourselves Christians.

Almsgiving is not an optional activity. If you have any doubt about that, go back and re-read the judgment passage in the 25th Chapter of Matthew. Jesus is quite clear how the sheep and goat will be separated at the end of the day and it is all about “what you did for the least of these.”

Fasting, other than as part of some crash diet, is not something all that consistent with our consumerist culture, which encourages us to always want and have more. For Christians, fasting is not only an act of solidarity of those without, but an important reminder that the source of our ultimate satisfaction is nothing we can find and accumulate here.

We hopefully need no reminder of the importance of prayer in our lives. But Jesus’ instruction in today’s Gospel to to into our “inner room” is an important reminder of our need every day for quiet time with our God. It is not enough to say “my work is my prayer” or “I recite some prayers while I’m driving in traffic.” Those are both terrific, but they don’t take away from our need for quiet, contemplative time with our God.

Prayer. Almsgiving. Fasting. Practices for every day.

Fasting

One of the traditional Lenten practices is fasting, a practice that can be found in many world religions. Jews fast from all food and drink on Yom Kippur, Muslims fast from first light until sundown during the month of Ramadan, Tibetan Buddhists fast durign Nyung-Na retreats and other times. Catholics are required to fast only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and are encouraged to fast at other times during Lent.

Why is it that so many religious groups view fasting as a worthwhile spiritual practice? I think it is good to spend some time reflecting on the value of fasting, lest our Lenten fast becomes, as one of my former parish pastors used to joke, Weight Watchers for Catholics.

Rabbi Allen Maller has an article in a recent issue of America magazine that talks about the value of fasting. One of the points he makes is that fasting teaches compassion. It is one thing, he says, to talk about world hunger and feel sorry that some people don’t have enough food. “But not until one feels hunger in one’s own body is there a real impact: empathy is much stronger than pity. Empathy should lead us to action.” The goal is for our own experience of hunger to impel us to act to (in Isaiah’s words) “remove the chains of oppresiona nd the yoke of injustice and [s]hare your food with the hungry.”

Additionally, Rabbi Maller makes the point that fasting imposes a self-restraint that helps us understand that we don’t always have to have more. We live in a consumer society whose constant message is that we need to have more of this or that to be happy. “By fasting we assert that we need not be toally dependent on external things, even such essentials as food. If our most basic need for food and drink can be suspended for 24 hours, how much more our needs for all the nonessentials.”

Many people, for health reasons, can’t fast. But many of us can. So consider picking some days during Lent to fast, maybe Fridays, the traditional Lenten days of abstinence, or maybe even more often. And if you do, perhaps you might also consider taking the money you would have spent on food that day and donating it to a local food organization that feeds the poor.

Here’s one idea for orgnanizations: at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, our Christian Legal Society is sponsoring a “Bread and Water Fast” on Thursdays during Lent. They provide bread and water to members of the community at no cost and those partaking make a donation of what they would have spent for lunch. The funds collected will be donated at the end of Lent. I’m sure you can think of other ideas.