This kind [of demon] can only come out by prayer and fasting....Mark 9:29
It was an interesting weekend for a fast and it generated a lot of discussion.
I found myself at a business meeting, planned long in advance, meals included, with work through the afternoon of Saturday, and a big sit-down dinner at night. Nearly all of the participants were Roman Catholic. What to do in light of the call for a day of prayer and fasting?
This was, it seems, not a singular concern of mine—the blogosphere has a few entries on what to do with this Saturday fast—one that impinged on a big college football weekend, not just my meeting. One even offered, with great sincerity and creativity, some suggestions for keeping the fast AND watching football.
As almost always happens in the combox these days, interesting discussion, comments and suggestions ultimately descended into factions and name-calling. Too bad—both sides of the debate (it’s a start versus it’s not enough) made good points. Anything is a start—and we can never, really “do” enough—but we sure can move in the direction of trying. It’s that great Catholic both-and again.
A few reflections of my own on the subject.
(1) In my mind, there is a sense of seemliness involved in these discussions--and most of the negative comments on the football fast had this sense at least in the background. I found myself remembering when John F. Kennedy was assassinated; I was 12. We had left school not knowing what had happened to him, and a friend came by to tell me he had died. At the time, I was eating a piece of pie. She was horrified. My mother later explained that, though there wasn't really anything wrong with eating pie, doing so under those circumstances made me appear callous to my friend. I learned something about how others view what I do in light of circumstances that day and I have never forgotten it.
(2) Combox discussion notwithstanding, just because someone disagrees with a course of action of another—and says so--doesn’t mean he is (necessarily) judging hearts. The reality is: our actions really do reflect our priorities (see above) and this is true in our religious life as well as our secular life. If am late to mass but never late to work, whether I like it or not, it says something about how I view the consequences of being late in both places. If I am reluctant to give up one activity in favor of another, it says something about how I value them and how I rate the necessity and consequence of giving them up. Pointing that out is stating the obvious, not judging hearts. Of course there are always unseen actions and unknown circumstances that mitigate, but if you’ve written an article about how to still enjoy your football weekend while fasting for Syria, don’t be surprised if some folks find that a little odd. Protesting too much might be an indication of a pricked conscience. (I speak from experience).
(4) I really am struck that the default response of so many Catholics to a request of the Church is, “How can I do what’s required of me without having it interfere with my life as planned?” rather than, "What can I do to respond to the call of the Church in the best and most generous way I can?” Really--what does it take for the average American to give up one weekend football game?
Minimalism is a place to start; it isn’t a place to end. Christ doesn’t want the minimum from us—He wants ALL of us. Of course, that takes different forms for different people but—in the case of this weekend—some consideration really could be given to abandoning business (or football) as usual for support of our brothers and sisters in the Middle East. It’s always risky to suspect motives (see above) but this I think I can say with confidence—if we as Catholics really believed that our prayers and fasting are an expression of love that would make a difference—rather than seeing them as just another tired, old rule imposed by the Church or a hardship only vaguely linked to the suffering of others-- we’d approach them with more seriousness and vigor.
(4) I am struck that people are far more willing to live within their (perceived) spiritual limitations than their physical ones. Few tennis players accept their beginning level of stamina and skill; few mothers of the bride will buy a larger dress rather than diet; and few football fans will accept mediocre play on the part of their teams year after year without lobbying for change. Yet how many of us strive to reset the spiritual bar in substantial ways on a daily basis? I think we are too quick (and I am included in that “we…”) to say, ”I know my limits…this is all I can do…” The beginning tennis player gets out and tries to improve every time he plays, the MOB diets, and the football coach tends to redirect team efforts after a disappointing game. And, by the way, no one calls the coach legalistic or a Pharisee who is judging hearts for doing so. Perhaps it is better to try to extend oneself and fail than to settle for the comfortable and familiar.
(5) Few of us are in danger of dying from our penances. If you can survive a colonoscopy prep you can fast for a day (even the good, old-fashioned black fast) with no ill effects. And you can still watch football or go to meetings and socialize while doing it. (In fact, watching football and not eating while others do is a pretty vigorous penance, just for the record) Stretching ourselves in such ways builds spiritual muscles as surely as exercise builds physical ones.
(6) Our penances are almost never merely private; they are always in some ways corporate and for others; especially so this weekend. We were asked to pray and fast in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Syria and to do so in a uniquely Catholic way.
One of the problems with Catholicism in the modern age is that we have lost much of our our identity. Back when I was a kid, it was still a time of Friday abstinence—I recall vividly a friend eating a tuna hot dog at a Friday cookout. It was much easier to tell Catholics by what they did and did not do on a regular basis. These days, not so much. In fact, the data support it: self-identified (as opposed to regular churchgoing) Catholics divorce, contracept, and abort at the same rates as the general population.
This tells me that many of us assume the name Catholic without really accepting the demands of faith. In a society like this, public actions of faith say a lot. Calling up one’s friends to cancel the regular football get-together sends a powerful statement: not only is prayer more important to me than football (which I realize may still be the case with hidden prayer and penance that allows me to watch the game and socialize while I do it), it’s important enough that I want to make that known in the world. From such actions may disciples come…By the same token, not doing anything visibly different sends a message too. Especially today—when powerful social forces are trying to make freedom of religion a matter of mere worship and completely private at that-- it is vital that Catholics live and communicate their faith in visible ways, that we stand, in some ways, against the culture as usual not just by what we say but by what we do.
(7) How often does the Pope actually ask for something? I am still a baby Catholic (now gone from toddler to elementary school) but it’s pretty rare for the Pope to issue such a request for such a grave situation. When even the media start making comparisons to Lepanto, it might be worth more than a little extra effort. Football you always have with you…..the stakes here are pretty high. The Christian communities in the Middle East are in real danger of extinction and war will only accelerate that. Just thinking about that spoils my appetite for pizza.
So where did this leave me? Doing my best to leave aside everything I could on Saturday while still fulfilling my duties and abstaining from festivities. One hearty soul at the meeting had only coffee and water on Saturday, prayed the liturgy of the hours, and during the business meeting from 1-6 (when the vigil in St. Peter’s was going on), kept a chotki in hand and prayed the Jesus prayer constantly for five hours (practice with a two track mind by hours of rosaries and the chotki came in handy, he said--and he was still able to follow and contribute to the meeting's business). Other folks observed a modified fast, avoided after-dinner drinks, and there was always someone stealing off to a corner to pray at odd moments.
Any start is a good start. We can always do more. I’m working on it…..