Father Michael Foppiano changed my life. That’s right! Changed. My. Life. We used to live together at another parish – and folks referred to the rectory with us in it as “the frat house.” We had the youngest median age of any rectory in the diocese – of course, it was just he and I.
But back to him changing my life. It was a Saturday in December, just ahead of Christmas. God had seen fit to dump about 10 inches of snow on us, and we were socked in to the rectory all weekend. We watched movies, baked cakes and updated our Facebook statuses. Then I asked the question that changed my life. Fr. Michael was on his laptop playing a familiar game. So I asked, “What the heck is that FarmVille thing about?”
My life would never be the same. Soon, I had my own online farm, complete with cows, chickens, pigs, horses, barns, houses, orchards, carrots, peas, raspberries, watermelon, beehives, duck ponds and stray cats. I was planting and harvesting several times a day and even checking on friends’ farms in order to pick up a “lonely cow” or a lost cat. I was consumed by FarmVille.
By the time Lent rolled around that year, and I looked at my life and possibilities for a Lenten sacrifice, FarmVille was a no-brainer. I closed the farm for the season – but I itched to see what was going on there every Sunday. When Easter came, I jubilantly proclaimed “Christ is risen!” by planting fields of rice and sunflowers and collected my chickens’ eggs and horsehair.
I went right back to my FarmVille mania.
The following year, I recognized that giving up FarmVille would be a good idea again. The novelty had died a little, and I did waste so much time with it. However, this time, at the end of Lent, I never went back. Was that supposed to happen? I asked. Now, I had all sorts of time, so I found something else to fill it – like talking with real people – and, get this, praying!
During Lent, when we “fast,” the object is not to deny ourselves for the sake of denial. That’s repression, and psychologists can tell you that it’s not healthy. Rather, the purpose of fasting is self-mastery – giving up some good for the sake of a higher good. And that higher good should not be self-centered. That’s the difference between fasting and a diet, for example. We diet for ourselves; we fast for others.
Fasting is the second of the pillars of Lent. As with prayer, a good understanding of why we fast is key to allowing this practice to be spiritually fruitful for us during this season. Strictly speaking, fasting means forgoing something that we normally do as an exercise in self-control, usually in preparation for something. When I need to have a blood test, I have to fast for twelve hours before they draw the blood.
In the spiritual realm, fasting is an interior disposition of self-denial that is meant to focus the person on ones need. Fasting from food reminds us that “one does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4). Fasting from other things is also a way to remind ourselves that there are necessities and luxuries, and that many of the “necessities” that we often rely upon are actually not so necessary. So, this Lent, what can we give up? What can our fast be? There are many things in our lives that we could offer as our fast, and as such, many ways to enter into the gift of this spiritual practice.
The most common item for fasting is food. As part of our Lenten practice, folks give up all sorts of edible delights. Maybe it’s meat; perhaps it’s dessert; it could be soda, or alcoholic beverages; a girl at the college campus where I used to serve gave up cheese; it could be caffeine.
Another area for fasting can be technology. So much of what we do, and so much of where we waste our time – like me and FarmVille – is tied to the technology that is supposed to make our lives “simpler.” As a way of mastering the technology that seems to have mastered us, fasting from these things can be of immense spiritual benefit. We could fast from television – either altogether or after a certain time; we might opt to leave Facebook for forty days (a very popular one today); maybe we can stay away from Twitter, and spare people the moment-to-moment information about the soccer game we’re watching; perhaps – just perhaps – we can stop or limit our text messaging.
Finally, another way to fast is to refrain from certain activities. Some might stop going out to restaurants or the movies; maybe give up complaining or gossip; or we can refrain from using the elevator at work. Whatever our manner of fasting, the point of it is to draw our attention to what we do, where we spend our time, attention and effort, and to become more aware of our needs and the needs of others.
Fasting as a spiritual exercise should be aimed at sharpening our spiritual senses and focusing us on God’s care for us. In the end, when we cut one thing out of our life, the goal of fasting is to see that hole filled by God. In this regard, it is not in the true spirit of Lent to be gritting our teeth until Easter, when we can simply go back to the thing we gave up in the first place. If we are not somehow changed by fasting, then we have wasted our time. Self-denial provides the opportunity for us to become aware of other – and especially of “The Other” – God. We’ve heard the phrase that “our possessions can possess us.” When we cling to certain things for security or a sense of validation and self worth, the real risk is that we could actually lose ourselves in the process.
In his book The Brothers Karamozov, Fyodor Dostoyevsky tells a parable of an old woman who dies. She is sent to hell, and Satan is there, and she is pleading her case with him, saying that she must be there by mistake.
“You haven’t done one good thing in life,” Satan tells her. “Certainly, this is where you belong.”
After thinking long and hard, she remembers a good thing she did: she gave an onion to a poor beggar woman once. At that point, the hand of God descends into hell, holding the onion that the woman had given. She grabbed onto the onion, and she began to be lifted up to heaven. As she went, dozens of souls began to grab onto her and were lifted up with her. As they went, more and more damned souls were being carried upward toward eternal glory. Fearful that the weight was too much, and angry that they would be allowed into heaven too, the woman began kicking and beating people so that they would fall. As she did so, the onion began to shed, and she grasped at it to keep a grip, but the more she struggled to keep the onion and reject the others, the more she slipped, until she finally lost hold altogether. She feel back into hell – a victim of her our greed and anger.
What are those things in our lives that we grasp at? What are those possessions that possess us? These are probably the things which God is asking us to hand over so that He can fill us more completely. Self-denial is the key to self-mastery. Thomas Merton once wrote that in order to give ourselves completely we must first possess ourselves completely – not in a selfish way, but in a way by which we know who we are. Then, and only then, can we truly and freely give ourselves to God. Through fasting, we can establish who is in control of our desires. Self-denial leads to self-mastery; and self-mastery enables a self-gift.
As the complete gift of Himself, the Eucharist shows us the model of this gift. Jesus, knowing fully who he was and what God had given him, showed the depth of his love and gave us the Eucharist. Our sharing in this blessed Gift is a reminder of the sort of lives we must live – lives of gift of self, where we hold nothing back.
In fasting, we come to realize our deep needs – hunger, loneliness, spiritual “noise,” despair. The spiritual aspect of this is that we also realize that our God fills these needs for us – and He does it with Himself. Therefore, our celebration and reception of the Blessed Sacrament should be a moment of profound gratitude for that love and care that He shows. This is part of the value of the Eucharistic fast – of preparation for reception by self-denial – of recognizing that Jesus is all we need. By taking that time between when we last eat and when we receive the food that is Jesus Christ himself, we come to the celebration as not just some other encounter among many in our week or day, but a truly transformative moment of grace. As a priest once told me, “What good is it that the bread and wine change if you don’t?”
So fasting brings us into a keener awareness of what God is doing in our life. We find the strength and grace to break with those things that can possess us and discover true freedom in Christ.
I am reminded of a scene at the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, when Frodo must destroy the Ring of Power and Gollum tries to get it back (his “Preciousss”). Even as he falls into the molten depths of Mount Doom and his body is destroyed by the lava, he still strives to grasp the one thing that drove him in life. He is like that Russian woman with the onion – selfishness and possessiveness ultimately lead to destruction, when selflessness and generosity would have saved them.
We are here, hopefully, because we want to be near to God and be possessed by Him forever. In our Lenten fasting, then, how do we let go of those unnecessary things so as to focus more completely on His love for us?
Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.