Friday, May 11, 2007

Fasting and mortification

Last night, after work, I was invited by a coworker to go to a bar on Capitol Hill. I hadn't eaten dinner -- so I was eager to have some grub. The problem was that I also had been fasting all day, drinking nothing but water. I went anyway and had conventional bar food (buffalo wings and then a cheeseburger). And water. Naturally, this raised my friend's eyebrows, and I said I was fasting from all drink except water ("even soda," I told him). When I saddled up to bar later and asked the bartender for a refill of ice water, I felt constrained to say that I had dinner, i.e., I wasn't a cheap moocher.

One of the things the stranger priest told me at last week's gobsmacking Confession is that I have to fast daily. "It doesn't need to be anything big," Father said, and one of the three or so examples Father provided was not putting sugar in your coffee (a memorably amusing thing to say, to me, since I detest coffee). But he said "you have to do it daily, as a constant reminder." A constant reminder. That's really the point of fasting, and why it's best when daily. It's not that giving up meat or sugar or whatever is good for you, in any physical sense -- that's called "dieting." I don't want to overstate or indulge a taste for paradox or perversity, but in some ways I think fasting's worth is precisely in its worthlessness. Giving up something bad or indifferent because of a tangible secular benefit is not doing something for love of God, but for love of self or other. It is also the little things, the apparent irrelevancies, that matter. We also acknowledge this fact about our character in other senses when we define character as "what we do when nobody is looking," or "how we treat our social inferiors, who have no power over us." St. Josemaria Escriva speaks of internal struggle in a similar way:
There is another hypocritical enemy of our sanctification: the idea that this interior struggle has to be against extraordinary obstacles, against fire-belching dragons. This is another sign of pride. We are ready to fight, but we want to do it noisily, with the clamour of trumpets and the waving of standards. We must convince ourselves that the worst enemy of a rock is not a pickaxe or any other such implement, no matter how sharp it is. No, its worst enemy is the constant flow of water which drop by drop enters the crevices until it ruins the rock's structure. The greatest danger for a Christian is to underestimate the importance of fighting skirmishes. The refusal to fight the little battles can, little by little, leave him soft, weak and indifferent, insensitive to the accents of God's voice.
I don't know if St. Josemaria would like this analogy, but later tonight I plan to go to a drafthouse/theater to watch a movie I was eager to see but missed on first-run. But it's Friday, so -- no meat. Just because. No chicken wings or fingers. No burger. No steak. My body will not get what it wants. For no "reason" other than to deny the flesh for the sake of a devotion made in God's name. And at the same time, the beer that I couldn't have last night will be made more present to me as the gift of God that worldly things can be.

At last week's confession, Father Who-Knows also told me to wear something on my person at all times.¹ I told him I already wear a brown scapular. He said: "well ... add something more." I asked if he meant "obtrusive" and he said he did. Despite my citing St. Josemaria above and having several of his books, I don't have cilices lying around my apartment. So I went to my confessor and asked him if he had a suggestion. He gave me a Cord of St. Joseph, which, as well as a mortification, is also a sign of chastity. Father told me to tie the knots into the cord myself, saying they represented the Seven Joys and Seven Sorrows of St. Joseph:
  1. The doubt of Saint Joseph (Matthew 1:19) and the Message of the Angel (Matthew 1:20)
  2. The poverty of Jesus' birth (Luke 2:7) and the Birth itself (Luke 2:7)
  3. The Circumcision (Luke 2:21) and the Holy Name of Jesus (Matthew 1:25)
  4. The prophecy of Simeon that many would be lost (Luke 2:34) and his prophecy that many would rise (Luke 2:34)
  5. The flight into Egypt (Matthew 2:14) and the Overthrow of idols (Isaias 19:1)
  6. The return from Egypt (Matthew 2:22) and Life with Mary and Jesus (Luke 2:39)
  7. The loss of the Child Jesus (Luke 2:45) and Finding Jesus in the Temple (Luke 2:46)
The thing struck me as I was meditating on these Seven Joys and Sorrows is that each of the joys grows out of the previous sorrows. In fact, each sorrow was the logical prerequisite for the corresponding joy -- the grounding, if you will. That Joseph heard his betrothed Mary was with child (sorrow) but learned this was the Holy Spirit's work and the child would be the Messiah (joy). That Joseph had to flee to Egypt (sorrow) but he saw the destruction of the idols (joy). That the child Jesus was lost to Joseph (sorrow) but he saw Him preach at the temple (joy). No joy without sorrow, but God's Providence is such that sorrow begets joy.

And that seeming paradox reminded me of something our Courage chaplain had said at this week's meeting.² Father read to us the Third Beatitude:
Blessed are they who mourn: for they shall be comforted
Father pointed out a couple of things, but the most relevant one here is that the first several Beatitudes are all paradoxical; "mourning" being generally thought of as the opposite of "comfort." He pointed out that Our Lord mourned and wept when he went to the home of the dead Lazarus. But what prompted His mourning was not Lazarus (who was in Good Hands) but the reaction of the crowd and Lazarus's family. Who would soon be comforted. We all suffer, and thus mourn, Father said. But part of the virtue of courage is seeing beyond ourselves and our immediate situation -- which distinguishes between a mourning that will not be comforted ("grimness," and he told an anecdote from his seminarian days about that) and one in which Our Lord is present and acknowledged. In the latter, comfort is possible and the seeming contradictions of the Beatitudes cease to be so. St. Joseph's mournful sorrows became his comfort and joy. And maybe smaller sufferings, like dietary restrictions, or bigger smaller sufferings, like unwanted passions, can lead us to God also. Here's St. Josemaria again:
Christ gives us his risen life, he rises in us, if we become sharers in his cross and his death. We should love the cross, self-sacrifice and mortification. Christian optimism is not something sugary, nor is it a human optimism that things will "work out well." No, its deep roots are awareness of freedom and faith in grace. It is an optimism which makes us be demanding with ourselves. It gets us to make a real effort to respond to God's call.
Not so much despite our wretchedness but in some way through it, through our life as men of flesh and blood and dust, Christ is shown forth: in our effort to be better, to have a love which wants to be pure, to overcome our selfishness, to give ourselves fully to others — to turn our existence into a continuous service.
So the next day, my confessor blesses my St. Joseph's Cord, while I kneel before the statue of St. Joseph at Father's parish. I've worn it tied around my waist ever since, except while bathing. It cuts a little, but not dangerously or seriously so. It's not magic, nor a "cure" for my desires, in the sense that aspirin is a cure for a headache. But it's a constant reminder and taking it off would be a task or something needing explanation. Because it's worn under my clothes, it isn't ostentatious (I didn't mentioned my fast at the bar last night beyond what my co-worker asked, nor did I mention my scapular or my cord at all). Again, it's a simple devotional means to not putting myself first. The kitschy sacramentals are not just kitsch; they may be that, but Godly kitsch still makes God's presence a felt reality, not an abstract proposition. And ... ("knock wood," "famous last words," every other cliche you can think of) ... the cord and the Beatitudes and the St. Josemaria book I've obviously been reading (called "Christ Is Passing By," not coincidentally) have helped my chastity, prayer and general devotion enormously. The last word to St. Josemaria:
The Christian vocation is one of sacrifice, penance, expiation. ... We must try to imitate Christ, "always carrying about in our body the dying of Christ," his abnegation, his suffering on the cross, "so that the life also of Jesus may be made manifest in our bodies." Our way is one of immolation and, in this denial, we find gaudium cum pace, both joy and peace.
We do not look upon the world with a frown. Some biographers of saints have in the past been interested only in highlighting extraordinary things in the lives of God's servants, from even their earliest days in the cradle. They have, unintentionally perhaps, done a disservice to Christian truth. They even said of some of them that as babies they did not cry, nor drink their mother's milk on Fridays, out of a spirit of penance. You and I came into this world crying our heads off, and we most assuredly drank our milk in total disregard for fasts and ember days.
Now, we have learned to discover, with the help of God, in the succession of apparently similar days, a time for true penance, and in these moments we resolve to improve our life. This is the way to ready ourselves for the grace and inspirations of the Holy Spirit in our soul. And with that grace, I repeat, comes gaudium cum pace: joy, peace and perseverance in our struggle.
Mortification is the seasoning of our life. And the best mortification is that which overcomes the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life in little things throughout the day. Ours should be mortifications that do not mortify others, and which give us more finesse, more understanding and more openness in our dealings with everybody.
¹ This is tougher for men than for women because of our culture's differing rules about adornment.
² Details are from my memory, but recounted only with and because of Father's permission. Courage meetings are always confidential.


Mephibosheth said...

I thought it was interesting that the Catholic Medical Association's paper on homosexuality recommended devotion to St. Joseph. I'd heard of the St. Joseph Cord before, but have probably been in denial about my own need for something like that.

Cilices, LOL.

I admire you, CM. You're attacking this thing hard. I'm envious, though, that at least you HAVE a Courage chapter near you--no such luck for me. Offered a Pater, Ave, and Gloria for you today.

Dad29 said...

The kitschy sacramentals are not just kitsch; they may be that, but Godly kitsch still makes God's presence a felt reality, not an abstract proposition.

In like manner, surrounding "liturgy" were such things as the Communion rail, Latin, bells, reverence, etc.

All like a picket fence around the house--not really an impermeable barrier to thieves, but a "set-off" reminding one of the bounds.

your post is good stuff!!