By Father John Bayer
Special to The Texas Catholic
We’re a few weeks into Lent, and since we’ve had some time now to try our Lenten disciplines of praying, fasting and almsgiving, let’s take a moment to reevaluate them in light of some ancient wisdom. Here are three tips about fasting from the Rule of St. Benedict.
Tip one: Learn to love fasting. St. Benedict says to his monks, “Renounce yourself in order to follow Christ (Mt 16:24; Lk 9:23); discipline your body (1 Cor 9:27); do not pamper yourself, but love fasting.” (RB 4:10-13). So, do you love your fasting this Lent? True fasting can be loved because it leads to the discovery of our own freedom, to the spiritual reality of our own wills, as we rise above the fragmented impulses of our desires and choose what is good. When we just thoughtlessly follow our many impulses — our habitual responses to everything from eating to our jobs and relationships — we are like logs floating down a river. But when we learn to love fasting, we can see our impulses and start choosing to follow them or not in genuine freedom. There is something euphoric about being the pilot of your own ship, of self-possession and self-mastery. Even better, once we have this freedom we can truly follow Jesus Christ on his way to the cross, and so experience the delights of loving friendship with him as he journeys toward Jerusalem and Holy Easter.
Tip two: Learn to fast with discernment: When we fast, we can be tempted to rush off to an impersonal program and ignore the importance of discerning a program that meets our particular needs and spiritual condition. But if we rush off thoughtlessly, we become inattentive to the voice of God. St. Benedict insists that his monks should discern the right amount of food and drink while looking at the particulars of their own lives. God has a will for everything. We should be interested in discerning it. The right amount of food and drink in the monastery, for example, depends on things like the age, health and work of the monks. “Should it happen that the work is heavier than usual, the abbot may decide … to grant something additional, provided that it is appropriate” (RB 39:6-7). Did we consider the circumstances of our lives when we decided our Lenten program? Did we give up, say, desserts just because that’s what everyone else was giving up, and so did we overlook the spots in our lives that really need our attention? We should discern our fasting, for then our fasting becomes a dialogue with God – which is essential to Christian life. St. Benedict says, “For nothing is so inconsistent with the life of any Christian as overindulgence.” (RB 39:8). Obviously, when we give ourselves over to our impulses, we ignore God – but we can ignore him by fasting thoughtlessly just as easily as by not fasting at all.
Tip three: Learn to fast with others: St. Benedict says that, “Everyone should … make known to the abbot what he intends to do [for Lent], since it ought to be done with his prayer and approval. Whatever is undertaken without the permission of the spiritual father will be reckoned as presumption and vainglory, not deserving a reward. Therefore, everything must be done with the abbot’s approval” (RB 49:8-9). Monks ought to share the essentials of their spiritual lives with the abbot as a spiritual father, because this helps protect them from vanity; and it integrates their initiatives into the community. Fasting can so easily be done with a spirit of pride. And if we think that observing Jesus’ command – “do not let your left hand know what your right is doing” (Mt 6:3) – means never telling anyone anything about our fasting, we are mistaken. For the most dangerous audience for spiritual pride is ourselves. For this reason, sharing our Lenten program with someone who knows us well (like a spouse, a close friend or relative, a spiritual advisor), and letting them express their honest opinion about it, and thus being ready to reconsider it – this is a sign of a healthy Lenten fast, or a practice designed to take us out of ourselves, to relativize our wills, and so expand our hearts to embrace fully the cosmic plan of God revealed at Easter. We might grow in some virtue (or at least lose some weight) by giving up sweets for Lent. But, then again, we’ll likely grow in the many virtues we really need if we submit our program to the judgment of another, and humbly ready ourselves to hear something like, “Oh, that’s nice, but perhaps what you might really want to work on this Lent is something like….”
Love fasting. Discern it well. Share it with those you can trust to tell you want they really think. And see you at Easter!
Father John Bayer, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas.