Monday, February 23, 2009


The season of Lent teaches us to return to basics; namely, the three basics of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving (or mercy). This year, Pope Benedict has focused especially upon fasting.

Fasting from food is unique to us humans. Other animals may go without eating for any number of natural reasons. A domesticated animal may even be trained to refuse food as a conditioned behavior. But an animal has no spiritual nature; it does not have the faculty of volition, of free will, and so cannot deliberately choose to abstain from what its instincts, appetites, or conditioning demand. It cannot fast. Neither can angels fast; having no physical bodies, they have no need of food in the first place. To engage in fasting, one must be both physical and spiritual at the same time. We humans are the only creatures that fit the bill. It's a privilege, when you think of it; we can offer to our Creator something which no other creature can offer.

And so, the kind of fast that the discipline of Lent prescribes is the kind that engages both our physical and our spiritual natures. A non-religious person may fast solely for reasons of health or weight control. A hedonist may fast to heighten his pleasure in eating afterward. Such fasts could not be considered true Lenten practices, because they are merely physical; they do not connect with the spiritual partner of fasting which is prayer.

Likewise, a fast that does not connect with its other partner, almsgiving or mercy, is not a true Lenten fast. The religious person may fast severely and pray earnestly, but if he fails to give in concrete ways, his fast is incomplete, and his spiritual discipline is pointless. Chapter 58 of Isaiah rails against this kind of false fast, and Jesus condemned those who prayed and fasted rigorously, but whose hearts were far from both God and their neighbor in need. (e.g. Lk.18:9-14, Lk.5:29-35)

Fasting, then, as both a spiritual and physical reality is a sort of bridge uniting prayer and mercy. The essential harmony of these elements is perhaps best summarized by St. Peter Chrysologus:

Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to others, you open God's ear to yourself
  - Sermo 43: PL 52, 320. 322.

So, hold the mayo. And hold the burger, too. Hold the pickle, bun, tomato... lettuce... pray.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Day of reckoning

May you live in interesting times.
  - Ancient Chinese curse
Don't make me come down there!
  - God
Many in my parents' generation were convinced that Hitler was the Antichrist and WW II was Armageddon. My generation read and believed Hal Lindsay's Late Great Planet Earth and Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb. Apocalyptic portents seem to be part of every age, and many folks find such prospects oddly fascinating, and even attractive.

Others are repulsed by prophets of doom; they debunk and ridicule them, proclaiming with reciprocal certainty that no such evil will befall us. God is good, and will certainly protect his people from all harm, not to fear.

It is my opinion that the truth lies, not somewhere between these two extremes, but simultaneously in both. How so? Glad you asked.

We undoubtedly live in interesting times. While 'Global Warming' is a foregone conclusion in many circles, some scientists are actually warning of a possible Ice Age. Many cling stubbornly to a fear of overpopulation even as more developed nations face demographic implosion. Terrorism and turmoil continue unabated. Our newly elected leaders seem intent upon destroying our Constitution, and the new spending bills appear likely to result in economic chaos.

Some (including myself) see apocalyptic potential, not so much in these natural and political disasters, but in our culture's spiritual and moral disarray. Indeed, the former are merely the consequences and manifestations of the latter. A culture like ours that slaughters its innocent preborn and forsakes its foundation in the monogamous family is an empty shell, devoid of strength because devoid of virtue. It is certain to fall. Moral rottenness is the primary cause; one or more natural or man-made disasters are merely the proximate causes which will finally topple the emaciated phantasm.

Surely our doom is near.

Surely God will deliver us.

The two expectations are identical. History bears this out. God's cleansing, purgative work is usually not very pleasant. True love can cause awful pain.

There is, I believe, an alternative. A way to stay the hand of God and avoid his judgment. It's a pretty simple concept, too. It's called repentance. Lent is almost here; maybe we should give it a shot.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Isaiah 3:4,9-12

And I will make boys their princes,
and babes shall rule over them.
Their partiality witnesses against them;
they proclaim their sin like Sodom,
they do not hide it.
Woe to them!
For they have brought evil upon themselves.
Tell the righteous that it shall be well with them,
For they shall eat the fruit of their deeds.
Woe to the wicked! It shall be ill with him,
For what his hands have done shall be done to him.
My people - children are their oppressors,
and women rule over them.
O my people, your leaders mislead you,
and confuse the course of your paths.