Celebrate the day with these books: The Bones of St. Peter: The First Full Account of the Search for the Apostle’s Body and The Primacy of the Church of Rome: Documents, Reflections, Proofs.
Second in a series of three posts.
“Why do Catholics have to fast?”
The question came from a non-Catholic Boy Scout in my son’s troop. We had spent a long, soggy weekend in the middle of the woods. And now, Sunday morning, the adults announced that breakfast would be delayed so that the Catholics could keep the Communion fast. He was not a happy camper.
His question comes to mind again as Lent begin, because fasting is the most distinguishing practice of the season. On two days in Lent, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, Catholics limit their eating to one full, meatless meal. On all the Fridays of Lent we abstain from meat.
Why do Catholics fast? Our reasons find firm grounding in the Bible.
When we fast, we follow holy example. Moses and Elijah fasted forty days before going into God’s presence (Ex 34:28, 1 Kgs 19:8). Anna the Prophetess fasted to prepare herself for the coming of the Messiah (Lk 2:37). They all wanted to see God, and they considered fasting a basic prerequisite. We, too, wish to enter God’s presence, so we fast.
Jesus fasted (Mt 4:2). And since He needed no purification, He surely did this only to set an example for us. In fact, He assumed that all Christians would follow His example. “When you fast,” he said, “do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting” (Mt 6:16). Note that He did not say “IF you fast,” but “when.”
And WHEN is now. In Lent the Church extends the idea of fasting, beyond the minimal skipping of meals, to a more far-reaching program of self-denial. Jesus said: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself … daily” (Lk 9:23). So we “give up” something that we’d ordinarily enjoy: sweets, soda pop, a favorite TV show, or the snooze alarm.
Fasting has its health benefits, but it’s not the same as dieting. Fasting is something spiritual and far more positive. Fasting is a spiritual feast. It does for the soul what food does for the body.
The Bible spells out specific spiritual benefits of fasting. It produces humility (Ps 69:10). It shows our sorrow for our sins (1 Sam 7:6). It clears a path to God (Dan 9:3). It is a means of discerning God’s will (Ezr 8:21) and a powerful method of prayer (8:23). It’s a mark of true conversion (Jl 2:12).
Fasting helps us to be detached from the things of this world. We fast, not because earthly things are evil, but precisely because they’re good. They’re God’s gifts to us. But they’re so good that we sometimes prefer the gifts to the Giver. We practice self-indulgence rather than self-denial. We tend to eat and drink to the point where we forget God. Such indulgence is really a form of idolatry. It’s what St. Paul meant when he said, “their god is the belly … with minds set on earthly things” (Phi 3:19).
How can we enjoy God’s gifts without forgetting the Giver? Fasting is a good way to start. The body wants more than it needs, so we should give it less than it wants.
St. John of the Cross said that we cannot rise up to God if we are bound to the things of this world. So we give up good things, and gradually we grow less dependent on them, less needy.
All of this is part of our preparation for heaven. For we’re destined to lose our earthly goods anyway. Time, age, illness and “doctor’s orders” can take away our taste for chocolate, our ability to enjoy a cold beer, and even the intimate embrace of a loved one. If we have no discipline over our desires, then these losses will leave us bitter and estranged from God. But if we follow Jesus in self-denial, we’ll find a more habitual consolation in the ultimate good — God Himself.
How is it that some people are able to remain serene and cheeful amid extreme suffering and even when facing imminent death? It’s not just a matter of temperament. They’ve prepared themselves for the moment by giving up the things of this world, one small thing at a time. They’ve grown so accustomed to small sacrifice that the big one isn’t such a stretch.
No one says that fasting is easy. In fact, says Benedictine Father Thomas Acklin, author of The Passion of the Lamb: God’s Love Poured Out in Jesus. “Fasting can seem very hard, and it can seem that if I do not eat I will become weak and will not be able to work, or pray, or do anything.
“Yet there is that marvelous moment,” he adds, “when, after some hours have passed, my stomach has stopped growling and I’ve even forgotten what I’ve given up, when there is a lightness, a freedom, a clarity of the senses and a brightness of attitude and feeling, an incomparable closeness to the Lord.”
Lent is a special season, but God wants these forty days to have a lasting effect on our lives. So, in a sense, fasting is for always. Father Rene Schatteman, an Opus Dei chaplain in Pittsburgh, says that he received this lesson directly from a canonized saint. “I learned from St. Josemaria Escriva, whom I had the privilege of knowing personally, that a person should make some small sacrifice at each meal, always, and not just during Lent.”
Fr. Schatteman emphasizes the importance of little things, and the big effect they can have: “We should all feel the need to help Christ redeem the world by practicing self-denial in everyday, ordinary eating and drinking … to take a bit less, or a bit less of what we like most, to avoid eating between meals, to skip a snack or dessert, etc., without making a big deal of it.”
A Pittsburgh businessman (who asked for anonymity) told me of his longtime practice of fasting on Fridays, “a 12-15 hour fast from food, water-only.” He said, however, that this can be difficult to carry out, not because of the hunger, but because it can disrupt family life. “It’s very hard to sit at the family table and not eat. It’s not so much a question of resisting the temptation of the food. I always felt like I was breaking fellowship. My fasting actually felt selfish, like I was taking something away from our time together as a family.”
He has since modified his fast, “to be broken at the family dinner in the evening.”
Why do Catholics fast? Our anonymous businessman put it well: “It’s medicine for my biggest problem — selfishness and lack of self-control. To force myself to curb my appetites, to not satisfy my desires — even for a short period of time — this is a good thing. To offer up the little sacrifice to God, for my family, for people who are hungry through no choice of their own, this I think is also good.”
The white smoke has appeared.
While you’re congratulating our man in Rome, check out his fantasy about the pope as patristiblogger.
First in a series of three posts.
How do you know it’s Lent?
It’s not so much by the ash mark on your forehead or fish marks on the calendar. Tradition tells us that Lent has three distinguishing marks: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
This three-part series will examine those practices. Prayer is surely the best place to begin, because it’s the one that unites them all. Fasting and almsgiving are themselves just forms of prayer.
There are two classic definitions of prayer. The one in most catechisms comes from St. John of Damascus (eighth century): “Prayer is the raising of the mind and heart to God.” The other comes from St. Clement of Alexandria (third century). He defined prayer as “conversation with God.”
In prayer we talk to God, and He talks to us. As in any relationship, this conversation takes many forms. Think of all the ways a husband and wife communicate: formal marriage vows, casual chat, winks across a crowded room, affectionate caresses, and phrases they never tire of repeating.
Our communication with God includes a similar range of expressions — set phrases, quiet conversation, gestures such as the Sign of the Cross, and the intimate embrace of the sacraments. Just as a man and woman grow in love by repeating “I love you,” so we Christians grow in love by repeating the Church’s prayers.
Prayer comes in many forms and styles. These are usually divided into “vocal” and “mental” prayer. The categories are helpful, but not watertight. All prayer, after all, should involve our mind; so, in a sense, all prayer is mental prayer. Modern writers sometimes speak of the two types as formal prayer and spontaneous prayer.
Again, such distinctions are useful; we should, however, step beyond them for a moment. When we look at all prayer as conversation, it can change the way we go about it. Thinking of prayer as conversation can help us also to overcome obstacles — such as distractions, dryness, inability to focus — because all these things also come up in human conversation.
Prayer is a conversation that never ends. In the Scriptures, St. Paul says: “Pray at all times” (Eph 6:18); “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:1); and “be constant in prayer” (Rom 12:12). He saw prayer as endless conversation.
That seems to be asking a lot, but it’s really the best way to think about it. If we are to pray this way, we have to form the habit of prayer. And, like any good habit or skill, prayer requires a sustained effort, over time, with much repetition.
Many people bristle when they hear about discipline in prayer. They think prayer should always be spontaneous. And sometimes prayer does come spontaneously, as when we experience some great joy or great sorrow. But spontaneity is most often the fruit of discipline. It is usually the best-trained musicians who are able to improvise freely. To do anything well takes time, dedication and patient endurance through sometimes-tedious exercises.
The most effective way to discipline our prayer life is by following a program, a schedule of sorts — what the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin called “a game plan for the Christian.” The best time to set up such a plan is during Lent.
A “plan of life” is a firm but flexible program that schedules our prayer amid the ordinary duties of work, family life and social activity. A daily plan should include some vocal prayers, such as the Rosary or other devotions; plus reading of the Bible and some spiritual book (the writings of the saints are best); attendance at Mass (at least on Sundays and holy days, but more often if possible); and quiet time for more focused conversation with God in mental prayer. The best place for this prayer is in church, before Jesus in the tabernacle.
“Prayer first means God is speaking to us and not the other way around,” says Father Kenneth Myers, a priest of the Diocese of Pittsburgh. “That requires silence — the art of listening carefully to the Lord. And the best place to do that is in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. Prayer before the Blessed Sacrament requires real effort and commitment, but even when our hearts are dry and it seems fruitless to keep on praying, being before the Eucharistic Lord is like being in the sunlight — even by doing nothing we still absorb those powerful rays of light.”
Our plan should also include weekly or monthly practices, such as confession, fasting, almsgiving and so on.
It helps to set standard times, or to key each practice to other activities, so that we never forget. We can keep our spiritual book by the coffee pot and read while the java is brewing every morning. We can use the beginning of our lunch hour as a reminder to say the Angelus. We can pray the Rosary while waiting for the bus home in the evening. We can listen to ten minutes of the Bible on tape as we drive.
We should plant prayers throughout the day like vines. Put one here, one there — and pretty soon, like ivy on a wall, our prayer will cover our day.
This is how Jesus modeled prayer for us. His own prayer life was rich and varied. Sometimes He offered formal prayers (Mk 12:29, 15:34). He kept holy days, made pilgrimages and attended the rich liturgy of the Jews (Jn 7:10-14). He also prayed spontaneously (Jn 11:41-42). He made time to pray alone in silence (Lk 3:21-22). Yet He also prayed together with His friends (Lk 9:18). He fasted, and He studied the Scriptures.
The first Christians followed their Lord in all these practices, and so do we.
Not that it’s always easy to do. But the formal quality of prayer helps us know what to do when we meet with obstacles. “Never, Never, never, never give up!” says my friend Steve Galvanek. A systems analyst, husband and dad, Steve says his plan sustains him even when he’s tired and preoccupied. “If in my feeble attempts to say a Rosary, I manage just one or two heartfelt Hail Marys, that’s far better than if I hadn’t tried at all”
Even the more unpleasant and difficult things in life can become reminders to pray. The key is to think of them as opportunities rather than obstacles. Another friend of mine, Sarah Scott, admits that it’s hard to find time to pray. She’s a mother of five, owner of a home-based business and volunteer at her children’s Catholic school. “It helps to offer everything up all the little things that you don’t like to do,” she says. “I hate folding laundry. But, instead of getting annoyed about it, I try to offer it up and think about what other people have to deal with. Efforts like this keep me talking with God throughout the day.”
Sounds like a plan.
Loyola Press, publisher of my book The Grail Code: Quest for the Real Presence is offering a Lent-long 30% discount not only on my title, but on lots of other good stuff as well, including the Loyola Classics series, which I’ve often blogged upon, and two books by one of my favorite human beings, David Scott: The Catholic Passion: Rediscovering the Power and Beauty of the Faith and A Revolution of Love: The Meaning of Mother Teresa. Also check out the titles by Bob Lockwood, Liz Kelly, and Matthew Lickona. Gosh, it’s all so good. Talk about temptation!
The discount is good for one-time use only and not valid on textbook or curriculum orders. The offer expires at the end of the Easter season, May 27, 2007.
TO GET THE DISCOUNT, make sure to enter the promotional code 2261.
Now … read your way to the fullness of Easter.
UPDATE: Some of you reported a bug that kept you from using the promotional code with the Loyola Classics series. I’m pleased to announce that Loyola has squashed the bug. You may order freely now, and cheaply!
Because of the tortures she endured in martyrdom, St. Agatha is patroness of women who live with diseases of the breast. PZ, a sometime visitor to this site, has a deep devotion to the third-century martyr. He sent me a prayer card with the saint’s image on front and the following novena on back. Pass it around. Think of it as a deeply traditional version of the pink ribbon.
O glorious Saint Agatha, through whose intercession in Christ I hope for the restored health of body and soul, hasten to lead me to the true Good, God alone. By your intercession, O blessed Agatha, may I ever enjoy your protection by faithfully witnessing to Christ. You invite all who come to you to enjoy the treasure of of communion with the Holy Trinity. Moreover, if it be for God’s greater glory and the good of my person, please intercede for me with the request of [mention request here].
Saint Agatha, you found favor with God by your chastity and by your courage in suffering death for the gospel. Teach me how to suffer with cheerfulness, uniting myself to Christ crucified with a simplicity and purity of heart. Amen.
Saint Agatha, eloquent confessor of Jesus Christ as Savior, pray for me.
Saint Agatha, the martyr who says to Jesus, “possess all that I am,” pray for me.
Saint Agatha, concerned with the welfare of all God’s children, pray for me.
Saint Agatha, pray for me.
Just finished a very good book: Craig Evans’ Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels. Evans is a prodigious scholar, expert in Old Testament, New Testament, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and all the ancient languages. He was one of the handful of experts chosen by the National Geographic Society to study the recently discovered Gospel of Judas.
He puts that range of skills and experience to good use in this book. But he brings still more to the task. Evans brings faith. He’s a believer, well practiced in preaching the Gospel in an intelligent and very persuasive way. This book is a model of clarity, thoroughness, and accessibility.
I used to complain that Christian scholars did too little to offset the misinformation that ex-Christian scholars were feeding to the popular media — especially about the Gnostic gospels. Now, it seems, we have an embarrassment of riches. In the last month or so, I’ve posted a review of N.T. Wright’s Judas and the Gospel of Jesus: Have We Missed the Truth about Christianity? and a review of Darrell Bock’s The Missing Gospels: Unearthing the Truth Behind Alternative Christianities. All of these are worth reading, especially as we prepare for the mainstream media’s annual Easter uprising against all traditional beliefs about Jesus Christ.
And that is not all, oh no, that is not all. The next book in the pile of goodies on my desk: Richard Bauckham’s Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony.
We live in amazing times.
Before Lent begins, it’s good to plan ahead to the Easter season — so you’re not taken unawares. We empty ourselves during Lent so that we can be filled during Easter. St. Leo the Great said that we follow after the Apostles, who underwent their tutelage in the mysteries — their mystagogy — between Easter and Ascension, as Jesus taught them privately. That’s why the mystagogy phase of the Catholic Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults customarily takes place during Easter season.
But mystagogy isn’t just for converts. It’s the work of a lifetime. We’re lifelong disciples, trying to go ever deeper in our understanding and our experience of God, as He gives Himself, as He reveals Himself in the sacraments.
For that very task, my friend Scott Hahn and I have gathered mystagogical works from eight of the Church Fathers and divided them into meditations for fifty days. So the book fits snugly between Easter and Pentecost. All seven of the sacraments are unveiled by the ancient masters — Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa, Clement of Alexandria, Cyril of Jerusalem, Ambrose of Milan, Augustine, John Chrysostom, and Leo the Great.
Consider spending your Easter days with these teachers. But order your book today! It’s Living the Mysteries: A Guide for Unfinished Christians. (And it’s low price makes it a perfect gift for entire RCIA classes!)
The publisher of the searchable Fathers of the Church CD, Logos Bible Software, has collected a number of Gnostic and apocryphal texts, with the intention of developing electronic versions. The Logos editions will be fully searchable, and all references and footnotes will operate as hotspots, immediately presenting the cited information whenever the cursor rolls over them. The project is just getting started, but you can take a look and even pre-order a package.
On Tuesday I thoroughly enjoyed an hour on the air with Relevant Radio‘s Chuck Neff. We discussed my book The Fathers of the Church and took calls from all over. You can download the MP3, if you register first — and registration is free. Just search the audio archives for “Aquilina.” I’m the only one in the book.
The Independent (UK) reports that a Byzantine mosaic has been found at the Jerusalem construction site that’s inspired riots and barely veiled nuclear threats over the last week or so. The Israel Antiquities Authority has installed a webcam on site and have started to broadcast during the workday.