Tuesday, February 28, 2012

“The Grace of Fasting” by Father Andre Louf

Day 4 of Lent had found me already in serious need of motivation to keep up—or rather, start again—my Lenten fast and practices.  God in His goodness and patience presented me with the following reflection by Father Andre Louf, O.C.S.O., late Cistercian monastic abbot, author, and spiritual director, on fasting and its spiritual fruit of prayer in the Friday, February 24th mediation of the day entitled “The Grace of Fasting” in the February 2012 edition of the Magnificat.  I plan to keep this mentally handy for the next five weeks of fasting:

This technique of fasting has to be completely subsumed within a spiritual dynamism if it is to succeed in bearing a fruit which only the Holy Spirit can give:  namely, prayer.  Of course, Christian fasting is not primarily a sort of dieting that functions to the benefit of someone’s physical or psychological equilibrium.  That is hardly adequate.  The physical hunger must point directly to hunger of a different kind:  for God. Bodily and spiritual hunger are harmoniously conjoined in a fasting which is undergone in the Spirit and only then can make any claim to being a technique of prayer…
Before fasting passes into prayer, and the one can no longer do without the other, it will have to burrow out new depths in a person’s heart.  Fasting affects him in one of his most vital rhythms:  the dual rhythm of nourishment, occurring alternately as need and as satisfaction.  From the very first moments of his existence outside the womb, man’s being is structured by the sequence of these two factors.  In this way he is able to stay alive and is gradually enabled to locate himself vis-à-vis everything around him.  The newborn child feels hungry or is sated.  Want and satisfaction, hunger and satiety, each with its characteristic aspect of pain and pleasure, are constantly alternating.
The more the adult person develops toward the ground of his existence, the deeper the need becomes and the less he is in fact satisfied by the material sustenance served up to him.  The day comes when a hunger and thirst for the living God are born within him and, over and above all earthly sustenance, are engraved into his body.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

In Good Company

 It’s Ash Wednesday and I’m hungry.  In fact, I’ve been hungry ever since last week when I realized that for the first time in five years I would not be expecting or nursing a baby on Ash Wednesday and therefore would be canonically obliged to fast.  Being so dreadfully out of practice and generally bad at it—did I subconsciously plan those pregnancies to miss out on the fasting requirements?—my prayer for today is that God might have mercy on my soul and help me fulfill the fast without buckling and eating my children or their food for the week.  To give Him a fighting chance I sought out fasting tips from the big guns: my Ukrainian friends Alex and Olenka. 

Last week Alex and Olenka graciously had offered to have us over and I dreamt for days of that moment that found me curled up next to my husband in their living room with a giant goblet of red wine, eyes closed as I listened to the other three discussing philosophy and casually referring to huge sections of history that I had never learned.  I smiled, so grateful to be there with a drink in hand and a generous platter of prosciutto before me but wishing that I had read more than those few paragraphs of the Summa that I had found on New Advent when I was in high school so that I could contribute to the conversation.  I ate another prosciutto roll then remembered that I had wanted to ask them questions about their Lenten fast.

I had heard from another friend that Ukrainians traditionally follow a vegan fast during Lent, and anyone who could do that for forty days certainly qualified as a master faster in my book.  What I was not prepared for, though, was the extent of their various fasts.  They confirmed that they, too, would be aiming for a vegan Lenten fast, but later they casually mentioned that they hold a vegan fast twice a week on Wednesdays (traditionally held as the day when Judas betrayed Jesus) and Fridays all year round, don’t eat at all on Sunday until after their liturgy which usually ends at 2 p.m., and have three other fasting periods during the year.  As they talked fondly of their favorite fasting foods, like lentils and fish and vegetables, I tried to wrap my head around it all.  I asked them how they did it, and they stressed the importance of planning for the fast properly.  And then they said that you just get used to it.   

I didn’t believe them, but it was time to eat so we stood for grace then sat down for Olenka’s beautiful pasta, and my mind reeled from what had been so quickly and nonchalantly revealed to me.  I smiled at our friends and admired their quiet, heroic virtue in keeping their faithful, routine fasts and that of their friends and family who do the same.   As they exchanged a few words in Ukrainian about the meal, I could see behind them their collection of icons on their mantle and knew that they’d been entrusted with a real treasure—their cultural Catholic traditions.  

I’m hungry today, but that’s okay.  I know I’m in good company, and I hope I get used to it.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

When God Calls

When my older brother Mike was in elementary school, he was assigned a task—to write a short directive on the proper steps to take if one’s home phone were to ring.  Step one, according to little Mike:  Don’t panic.

Sometimes God calls our home phone, and I panic. 

This past week, He called to let us know that the house we had had our eye on had dropped twenty thousand dollars in price, and we had to make an offer on it that day if we wanted it.  After an afternoon of printing, signing, faxing, and running upstairs and downstairs, we had gotten our offer in.  But in the excitement, I had lost my head, and it was gone for a week.

As my husband prepared to leave us for the weekend to see the house, I dreamt of carpet and paint, worried about mortgages, and neglected the children and our meals.  Only remembering at noon one day that I hadn’t taken the chicken for our dinner that night out of the freezer, I absently dumped a whole tray of frozen chicken into the crockpot without having peeled off the absorbent pad underneath.  Halfway through dinner, I got up to retrieve more from the crockpot and only then noticed the melted plastic and puffy absorbent filler floating next to the chicken.  No need to distress anyone—we had already eaten, it was in God’s hands now—I quietly slid the whole thing into a dark corner of the counter where it sat for two days.

My husband left, the children were out-of-sorts from the hectic week, and my house quickly turned upside down.  The children were bickering one afternoon as I noticed the crockpot that had been sitting quietly in the corner, untouched from days ago.  While snapping at the children to stop snapping at each other, I rashly picked up the crockpot and dumped the whole mess down the garbage disposal-less sink, forgoing the use of even a stopper because heck, the big pieces would get caught up in the drain, wouldn’t they?  And surely the sludge would just keep going down the pipe.
But it didn’t.  It stayed.  As the weekend wore on and I lost my keys, Magnificat, temper, and general control of things and the kids grew more wired and the baby started noticing my husband’s absence, crying “Da-da” whenever things didn’t go her way, the water level of the sink rose, it’s murky, chicken water gurgling taunts at me.  It was Sunday when I noticed the dishwasher wasn’t draining and had what also looked like chicken water in the bottom of it.  Dirty dishes were piled on all flat surfaces in the kitchen, making the kitchen feel like some cruel thought experiment, and my husband called to talk about important mortgage things, to which I could only respond, “Uh huh,” as I looked around and wondered where else I could wash them.  The bathtub?  Someone else’s house?  “Yeah, adjustable rates are such a pain.”

God pulled me aside one evening and gently reminded me of all the calls He had put in at Mary’s house:  to be His Son’s mother, to have her heart pierced, to flee for Egypt.  He nudged me: and how did your mother respond, Meg?  She didn’t freak out, I answered.  No, He said, she didn’t freak out.  She wondered and pondered and kept all things in her heart.  And she did her work.  Okay, I said.  I’m sorry…but could you please give a hand with the sink?

On Monday, God let St. Anthony find my Magnificat and then brought over a friend with Draino and an idea to use a wire hanger to unclog the sink.  It worked beautifully, and she did the rest of the dishes and played with the kids while I hid in the kitchen, watching everything work itself back into place just in time for my husband’s arrival the next day.  
I winced as I replayed the weekend’s events.  It didn’t have to be that hard.  In fact, it wasn’t the circumstances of the house-hunting that ruined my weekend, but rather my careless reactions to it all that had started the real trouble.  Next time, I vowed, when God calls, I’ll just listen, ponder, put it in His hands and then do my work.  And if I can’t do that, I’ll call Mary.   

Monday, February 6, 2012

Dining with the Saints

Taco night.  I lift my eyes from my dinner plate to my loved ones gathered around the table.  I first spot my three-year-old son.  Sitting on his knees in his chair, he’s in the middle of lifting a giant spoonful of sour cream with some crumbly pieces of beef loosely clinging to it.  He opens wide, mostly gets it all in, and does a quiet little dance in gratitude for this deeply moving eating experience.  Somehow he opens his mouth for another bite while still swallowing the first, and my stomach churns. 

I turn away and look at my four-and-a-half-year-old daughter.  She’s sitting properly on the chair, which conveniently leaves her chin a few inches above her plate.  Using two tortilla chips as shovels, she neatly pushes everything from her plate into her mouth so as not to drop any on her lap.  Her mouth, chin, cheeks, and hands are chili pepper red. 

I feel something raining on the table near my elbow.  I turn and the baby is smashing a fistful of taco into her mouth, losing half on account of her fingers running into her nose.  She swallows, shakes her head and growls, and starts again.

I can feel the carpet soaking up the oil from the hamburger with each second, and I look at my husband, who is concentrating on his plate.  I nudge him.  “This is so gross,” I mouth.

He looks around and nods.

I watch as our little taco-stained friends happily eat, squeal, and tell the funniest stories the others have ever heard, and I’m pretty sure that we’ll never have holier dinner companions.