Every Ash Wednesday the same thing happens; I go to Church and am edified by the throngs of fellow pilgrims seeking to be smudged on the forehead with the ashes from last year's palms. Every Ash Wednesday I hear and proclaim the same Gospel of Matthew 6: 1-6, 16-18 with Jesus' admonition to pray, give alms and fast. Like a stirring overture to a great opera or musical, the Church proclaims these three great themes for the forty day pilgrimage to the springtime of the spirit at Easter.
As a priest who celebrates at least one, and often two and three, daily Masses; prays the Divine Office morning and evening; and meditates on the mysteries of the Rosary, I am already immersed in this wonderful world of praying and listening to God speak to my heart. Giving alms too is a part of my life by supporting charities with my time and modest financial resources. But the third challenge, fasting, always causes a certain unease and disquiet in my soul on Ash Wednesday.
The literalist in me would like to keep the fast and abstinence days of Lent and be done with it. Even these I find difficult. To avoid meats on Fridays and Ash Wednesday and to scale back the calories I consume on those days means a small sacrifice. To forego a palate pleasing glass, or two, of Cabernet Sauvignon or Chianti also means a small sacrifice; but is eminently doable.
I love and am inspired by what Heather King wrote recently about fasting:
"I'll do anything to keep from feeling "poor" myself, and as Lent approached last year, I thought: Those people who say fasting is just an ego-based endurance test are right. This year, I'm going to fast in a way that effects some real good. I am going to fast from criticizing people…"
(Heather King is a contemplative laywoman and convert who lives in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of three memoirs and blogs at shirtofflame.blogspot.com.)
So this year, thanks to Heather's inspiration, I plan to fast from criticizing others, even in my thoughts; to avoid detracting from the good name of others by gossiping about them to third and fourth parties. I intend to fast from simply making the gesture of almsgiving and praying as usual. To do this I plan to fast from the distraction of one of my favorite pastimes, the 24-hour news channels. These programs have degenerated into national and international gossip sessions with people of like mind.
To fast is to experience absence and emptiness. Fasting is a reality check. It reminds me that I too am poor like those who are compelled to fast by hunger and extreme poverty. Everything I have has been given to me by someone else. Fasting brings home to me the truth that food, drink, clothing, shelter, transportation, entertainment, education, media, employment, health, friends, loved ones, even faith, hope, love and my very life itself are all good gifts from an unimaginably generous God. Without his gracious, overflowing love, I am nothing. Fasting, taking away a little, can make all the difference in this world and the next.
Fasting makes me feel and know that I am poor. As a priest and religious of Holy Cross, I voluntarily chose poverty, many years ago. This vow, married to fasting, allows my soul to embrace the cross of ashes on my forehead and the cross of Jesus on Calvary as my only hope for emptying my heart enough to allow God and others in. So, this Lent, I plan to fast in a new way and to be poor in Christ. May God help me. Amen.
Fr. Willy Raymond, C.S.C., is the Director of Family Theater Productions, in Hollywood, Calif. Family Theater Productions is a ministry of Holy Cross Family Ministries. Fr. Raymond, C.S.C. professed Final Vows in the Congregation of Holy Cross on April 1, 1970 and was ordained a priest on April 3, 1971.