The first time I remember it, I was in first grade. Sister James Matthew said something that seemed garbled to me. Before I knew it, students were taking turns announcing something; what, I did not know. It seemed to me as each of my classmates announced things like, “Candy!”, “TV!”, “Dessert!”, that we were announcing our favorite things in the world. When it came to my turn, I proudly said, “Baseball cards!” Then we moved on to another lesson.
At recess, a classmate asked me how I was going to give up baseball cards.
“Why would I give up baseball cards; they’re my favorite thing?”
“You said that you would give them up for Lent,” my friend replied.
My friend explained to me that this is what we had been doing earlier in the day, announcing what we were going to give up for Lent. “No way,” I said. “I’m not giving up baseball cards; I didn’t know that’s what we were doing. What is Lent, anyway?”
“You have to give them up because you said you would. If you go back on what you said, you’re going to Hell.”
And this was my introduction to Lent. I remember years later, my father thought it would be a great idea at dinner one night if each member of the family announced what he or she would be giving up for Lent. Remembering my first-grade terror, I slyly announced something that sounded great but did not require much of an investment in my time or energy.
To this day, my non-Catholic friends will ask me with a chuckle what I plan on giving up for Lent. At least today with these friends I can explain how the concept of fasting and alms giving are connected. I tell them that I give up coffee, calculate how much money I save, and write a check to a charity for that amount. This tends to impress them, but it is still pretty shallow in my book, not much different than the roll calls of my childhood and youth.
I have found that there are many ways to approach fasting, but I do know that I would hate to skip the opportunity to fast during Lent by simply “giving something up for Lent,” even if I am writing a check. The reason to fast for Lent is far more important. I often turn to the example of St. Francis for my own inspiration. And if I need words, I do not need to go much further than St. Paul.
Fasting is not an endurance contest, something I would never win, anyway. It is a turning out to the desert, a wandering even. St. Francis tended to reject much of the surface of this world, and his trust in God was so great, he found great joy in his wanderings, in other words, in his own inner life. What St. Francis teaches me is that fasting, temporarily turning away from the worldly, directs me inward. And looking inward is where the real challenge is.
To be aware of the interior life is not the romantic image of quiet prayer and solitude, nothing of the world entering in. The reality of the Incarnation teaches me that we are both Internal and External. I often only think about the external because it is easy to see. The internal is messy; it is the home of all the things that make me feel uncomfortable. It is so much easier to give into the external and just stay there. But I’m more likely to find God in the internal.
Jesus hung out with the outcasts of society, all of the people who made society messy. Fasting allows me to face that messy part of myself, to dine with all of those parts of myself that make me feel like an outcast. It is there that I spend time with Jesus, man and Savior. When I know that God loves me regardless of the messiness I find inside, I find the outside becomes truer, more honest. And that is what I look for in fasting: balance.
I have found that Lent and fasting give me that balance in my life. It is the internal that needs work to balance with the external. Without balance I am not whole (or holy). St. Paul reminds me of this: “I know how to live in humble circumstances; I know also how to live with abundance. In every circumstance and in all things I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need. I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me” (Phil 4:12-13). God just makes sense of the whole me.
Fasting is a joyful time because I know that Jesus has come to the table to dine with me, in all of my imperfections. Fasting is not only giving something up. It is a time to look at the whole person. It is a time to balance; a time to remember that Jesus was both man and God. Fasting is a gift that brings me closer to Him.
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