Category Archives: fasting

Frederick Douglass, Thomas Merton, and Isaiah

They seek me day after day
and desire to know my ways,
as if there were a nation that does what is just.
Isaiah 58: 2

 It is so easy to think that we are the chosen ones, the just ones, the ones whom God has set apart.

It is so easy for nations to act as if they are doing God’s will. I’ve seen it in the US and I see it here in Honduras. God is called upon to justify the policies of a political party or a government. Here political leaders show up for the feast of Our Lady of Suyapa, the patroness of the country. Last year the president announced that the government was giving the church a radio station – at the Mass in the basilica.

But God is not to be mocked. God is beyond our petty political machinations and our desires to justify our policies – whether personal or political.

Do we really live as God wishes?

Isaiah clearly calls Israel to real change, to the real fasting of liberating the oppressed, sharing our bread with the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and more.

But how do we really live? Frederick Douglass, who died on February 20, 1895, once said:

Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference – so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt and wicked…I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity.

Are we a people who really live the way of Christ, as expressed in Isaiah 58 and n Matthew 25?

Or do we deceive ourselves by relying on our public prayers and fasting as ways to try to placate God?

Do we trust more in our wealth and power than in the works of mercy?

I think Thomas Merton was right when he wrote

“It seems to me that there are very dangerous ambiguities about our democracy in its actual present condition. I wonder to what extent our ideals are now a front for organized selfishness and systematic irresponsibility. If our affluent society ever breaks down and the facade is taken away, what are we going to have left?”

Will we be a people who fast from injustice – and not just from meat and chocolate?

Lent and fasting

Today I went to Dulce Nombre for the Mass to begin Lent. Padre German had invited all those who would lead celebrations of the Word in their communities to come for Mass where he blessed the ashes and distributed them to those who would sign the people in their community.

I had planned to go to two of the remotest villages. But on the way there I heard a terrible noise in the car and the warning lights came on. The most problematic was the one noting that the battery was not recharging. It would not be good to get stuck in Debajiados with a dead battery – though that might have been a good Lenten penance!

I turned around and went to a mechanic in Dulce Nombre who analyzed the problem as the alternator but told me that I’d have to get it fixed in Santa Rosa. So I went off to Santa Rosa and got it fixed.

I returned at about 6:00 pm to Plan Grande, a village – and a region – without electricity. At about 8:00 am in Santa Rosa truck struck a utility pole – and affected the lights in the entire region. When I left Santa Rosa electricity was slowly returning – but there’s none here now – at 8:39 pm.

Gloria had invited me to their Ash Wednesday service at 7:00 pm. When I arrived, she asked me to preside and lead the reflection. I had prepared for the visits to the other villages and so it was not a problem.

I decided to concentrate on the three practices of Lent: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

When I began to discuss fasting I asked the folks there how many times a week they eat meat. Almost all said only once or twice.

For the poor life is a continuous fast.

But I encouraged them to fast from vengeance, anger, gossip, watching too much television, and more – to open their hearts more to Christ in this time of conversion – so that we can be reconciled with God and with each other.

But what do fasting and abstinence mean for me – a vegetarian? Maybe less internet. More time spent with people in the village. Simpler meals. And more – or, rather, less.

But I think most of all it means austerity and solidarity.

As Blessed Monseñor Oscar Romero said in his September 3, 1978 homily:

When Pope Paul VI modified the meaning of penance for the Christian people, he said that there are different ways to understand the meaning of penance in the Christian life.

Fasting is done in one way in developed countries, where people eat well, and another way in underdeveloped countries, where life is almost always lived in a fast.

In this situation, he said, penance means to put austerity where there is much well-being and to put courage and solidarity with the suffering and efforts for a better world where life is almost a perpetual fast.

This is penance; this is God’s will.

And so I will try to fast in solidarity and austerity – so that God may move me even more to love.

Breach menders

Isaiah in chapter 58 calls us to live a fast of love, of justice, of restoring community.

The real fast is not giving up something, or offering sacrifices. The real fast is opening places in our hearts and in our communities.

Fasting from food and drink can be a purifying process, but not a process for oneself alone. It should open us to compassion.

Lanza del Vasto, called “Shantidas” –the Servant of Peace by Gandhi – wrote in   Principles and Precepts of a Return to the Obvious:

Whoever fasts becomes transparent.
Others become transparent to him.
Their suffering enters him
and he is defenseless against it.
So take care to stop up your sense by eating well
if you don’t want to be devoured by charity.

When we open our hearts, we feel the pains of others and feel called to respond – putting away the yoke of oppression, finger-pointing, and malicious speech (Isaiah 58:9).

In this way we can be instruments of God, breach menders, restorers of broken relationships.

In calling Levi (Luke 5: 27-32), Jesus showed a way of restoring broken relationships – calling a despised tax collector as a disciple and eating with him and other sinners.

There are so many breaches around us – between rich and poor, between political partisans of different ideologies, between different groups in the church or in organizations, between nations and within nations.

It is so easy to just accept these breaches. But when we open ourselves – by fasting or in other ways – we see that we are all incomplete, wounded, in need of reconciliation.

Jesus is the great breach-mender. We are called to do what we can to mend the breaches still here in the world – recognizing in the other, the sinner and the poor or marginalized another wounded person in need of love, in need of acceptance, in need of community.


Fasting amid the poor

How do you explain fasting to the poor? How do you explain abstinence to them?

In the Catholic Church Lent is a time of fasting. The “legal” fast of only one large meal and no eating between meals is now only required for Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. It used to be the requirement for all the days of Lent (except Sundays and special feast – one of which, of course, would be St. Patrick’s Day, the high holyday of Irish Catholics). Abstinence means not eating meat and is still required for Fridays during Lent.

As I remember it, fasting in the pre-Vatican II days meant only one serving a meat a day.

On Ash Wednesday, I brought ashes and Communion to a rural village.

As part of my reflection we talked about the three major practices of Lent: prayer, fasting, and sharing with the poor.

The poor are almost always fasting, especially when the food they’ve stored from the last harvest runs out which is usually between May and August here in western Honduras. I also know that during these times mothers will often fast so that their children may have something to eat. Their lives are a continual fast.

I explained that abstinence was not eating meat for the day.

“How often each week do you eat meat?” I asked.

It was the wrong question since most of the people may eat meat once a month.

I felt humbled by this response. These people are often so generous and sharing. (I left with a whole bunch of bananas – more than 60!)

Meat is a luxury for most of the world. And, in a sense, that’s why I’m a vegetarian – to live in solidarity with the poor and to use less of the world’s resources.

When people in the countryside ask me why I don’t eat meat, I tell them that I have enough reserves of protein and thus am leaving the protein for them.  They get it and I don’t have to give a longer explanation.

And so let this Lent be a time of fasting and abstinence in solidarity. Many of us North Americans have enough reserves of protein and other foods. Can we let go of some of them and share with our sisters and brothers?

This is the fast the Lord seeks:
“to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the things of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke.
…to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house…
Isaiah 58: 6-7