Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Prayer and Fasting

Lent begins tomorrow with Ash Wednesday – the great pseudo holy day of obligation. Lent is the penitential season of prayer and fasting; one (prayer) grasping for the things of God and the other (fasting) releasing the things of this earth.

But while both are necessary tools in the spiritual life, they are not equals.

As Christians, we just know that we should strive to always pray more deeply, more often. Many saints say it is possible to receive the grace to live your life as a prayer, constantly aware of God’s presence. To be in constant, conscious communion with God is something that is as extreme as it gets, yet it is what we are made for. To be too prayerful is never itself a sin - it’s a gift.

But the same thing can’t be said for fasting, or self-denial. Self-denial is a little like salt in that it is great when used right, but if too much of too little is used it just messes things up. I’m going to go out on a limb here had say that there aren’t a lot of people overdoing it with the salt today. Overall I’d say our world is not quite as salty as it should be, but you can find some pretty extreme examples.

The attitude toward fasting and self-denial has undergone quite a change over time. What was a completely accepted practice in times past is looked at with shock and horror today. And what we think of as fasting and self-denial would have, at one point in Church history, been considered self-indulgent.

Here are a couple examples of extreme asceticism I found interesting.

The “Stylites” were a group who practiced a very unique form of self-denial. They would climb to the top of a pillar and live there, spending all their time praying, fasting, and occasionally preaching. In one case, a man climbed to the top of a pillar and spent his entire life on it until he died – 67 years later!

The “Dendrites” choose to live their lives in a tree. Often they would chain themselves to a branch up in the tree to assure that their feet would never again touch the filth of the fallen world.

The “Grazers” or Boskoi, refused shelter of any sort, choosing instead to live their lives outdoors exposed to the elements. They would wander around the countryside (some stories claim they did this on all fours) praying, singing, and eating nothing but grass.

There are many examples, with some trends I've noticed. More from the east than west, more from the early Church than the later, and more from the religious than the laity, and most interestingly more Saints than other.

It may seem strange that the Church point to someone who spent 36 years on the top of a pillar only a few feet wide and over 50 feet tall out of love for God and tell us he's a Saint. But we can trust that the gift God has given to him was greater than our understanding of it - and be thankful that same gift hasn't be regifted to us.

Though not many of us are called to extreme levels of asceticism, we are all called to some. Even outside of Lent. I’ve been told before that a good rule of thumb is that if someone else notices your self-denial, you maybe over doing it - God desires us to get the flesh under control and in its proper place, not destroy it. It’s not the fasting or self-denial that is the goal, it’s our sanctification.

As St. Jerome said:
“Be on your guard when you begin to mortify your body by abstinence and fasting, lest you imagine yourself to be perfect and a saint; for perfection does not consist in this virtue. It is only a help; a disposition; a means though a fitting one, for the attainment of true perfection.”

But I pray that we're all challenged and lead to climb up our own pillars this Lent leading us to encounter God in a way that previously would have seemed ... impossible.

Have a great Lent!

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