Sunday, 19 August 2012

The Life and Wisdom of St Benedict /13 - To love fasting!



Continuing my series on the Tools of Good Work from Chapter 4 of St Benedict's Rule, we come today, providentially, to a tool very much feared indeed, it would seem by many modern Catholics based on some of the responses to my post suggesting the extension of the Eucharistic fast to three hours!

For today's tool enjoins us not just to fast, but to love fasting!

The law and the loss of a Catholic culture

One of the arguments against any extension of the Eucharistic fast seems to be the sense that 'laws' or rules imposed by the Church are inherently bad.  Some seem to view them as parasitical or 'imperialistic' expressions of undesirable hierarchical action.

Others, such as the excellent Fr Ray Blake, question whether laws in themselves can be useful when we have lost all sense of catholic culture and piety.

St Benedict, I think, takes a rather different view on this in his Rule, and so today I want to set out what I think is his take on the subject, which is, in short that we need a framework of concrete disciplines that at first we follow out of servile fear, but can gradually come to truly embrace.  Law comes first, in other words; culture and piety, grace and fervour grow from the seed of the law.

Means and ends

The first point to note is that fasting, or any other ascetic practice is not an end in itself, but rather a 'tool of good work', a means to an end or ends.

In his Rule, St Benedict portrays all of the practices he stipulates (including fasting) as tools or weapons in the spiritual warfare. 

The objective, he says in his Prologue, is to get to heaven. 

The saint doesn't want to impose anything 'that is harsh or burdensome'.

"But," he goes on, "if, for good reason, for the amendment of evil habit or the preservation of charity, there be some strictness of discipline, do not be at once dismayed and run away from the way of salvation, of which the entrance must needs be narrow."

Fasting, in others words, has a purpose.

An ancient tradition

Fasting is one of the most traditional of all tools for growth in the spiritual life, employed in virtually all religions for this reason. 

Dom Delatte's classic commentary on the Rule of St Benedict notes that this tool, and the ones immediately following it in the Rule (up to number 28), seem to pretty much follow the virtues followed as originating with the Essenes, at least according to Josephus' Antiquities, which was certainly available in Latin at St Benedict's time.   The Essenes, you will recall, are the group Pope Benedict XVI has suggested that Our Lord had close connections to, in the second book of his Jesus of Nazareth series.

But in any case, Scripture points to many Old Testament examples of people fasting as a sign of penitence, as a means of imploring divine favours, and in solidarity with the poor. In the New Testament too, there are numerous instructions to fast. 

In Matthew 6:16-18 we are told not to make a big fuss about fasting, but just to do it, in order to lay up treasure in heaven.  In Matthew 9:14-15 (echoed in Luke 5:34 by the Scribes and Pharisees), John the Baptist's disciples chide Jesus for the lack of fasting on the part of his disciples.  Our Lord replies that as long as the bridegroom is with them, mourning is inappropriate - but when he is taken away, then they will fast.

The early Church, of course, observed quite strict fasts, including every Wednesday (to remember Judas' betrayal) and Friday (for the Crucifixion); through Lent and other penitential periods; as well as before the reception of the Eucharist (to enable us to make a good preparation for it).

Indeed, on account of the Eucharistic fast, St Benedict's Rule normally allows those who did the reading aloud during community meals a doctored glass of wine to sustain them because they had been fasting for communion, and might find it difficult to wait to eat until the second sitting of the meal with those who acted as servers at the first sitting (RB 38).

But do we actually have to love fasting?

It is one thing, though, to fast; quite another to actually love it, to embrace it fully.

Part of the problem is, I think, that many today seem to think that we should all be treated as if sanctity was something achieved instantly, rather than through a long and often laborious training in virtue and growth in grace.

St Benedict makes no such assumption. Rather, he assumes that even monks will need to be compelled to obedience at times, and that we may need to be induced to follow rules out of fear of God, rather than love of him.

St Benedict traces a progress in humility, for example, such that:

"the monk will presently come to that perfect love of God which casts out all fear; whereby he will begin to observe without labour, as though naturally and by habit, all those precepts which formerly he did not observe without fear; no longer for the fear of hell, but for the love of Christ and through good habit and delight in virtue." (RB7)

Similarly, in the structure of his Office, he set before his monks on Sundays and Mondays the long meditation on the law of God contained in Psalm 118; only then are they prepared, during the rest of the week at the little hours, to say the Gradual Psalms that trace our ascent to heaven.

We need to start, in other words, from laws that we are compelled, if necessary, to follow.  We can't be expected to love the law of fasting at first: but only gradually to come to appreciate its value and embrace it.

And in order for that to occur, we need good catechesis: signals from the hierarchy that these things are important in terms of tougher rules to follow; strong sermons and other forms of instruction; and good examples to follow (perhaps the bishops could announce, for example, that they were all fasting each Friday in reparation for the sins of sex abuse and its cover up?!).

The example of Islam and Ramadan fasting

Now I'm not one to think we should accord any particular respect to Islam, or emulate it, quite the contrary.  St John Damascene, however, viewed Islam as essentially a Christian heresy, and as such could point to practices and ideas derived from Christianity in it (albeit often in a highly distorted form).

I do think one of the reasons it is attracting a growing number of converts is precisely because it still demands something serious by way of commitment from its adherents. And they are not afraid to publicize the fact, using Iftar dinners provided by anyone willing, and every other availability opportunity to promote their strictness.  There is a take out lesson for Catholicism in that.

Indeed, there is an interesting opinion piece in today's Sydney Morning Herald from a Muslim on the experience of fasting during Ramadan that in some ways perhaps illustrates the way our experience of disciplinary practices such as fasting can change over time. 

Randa Abdel-Fattah explains that as a student, he obeyed the letter of the Islamic fasting laws - but not its spirit - getting up as late as possible on fasting days and then sitting through a move marathon in order to avoid thinking about it, and eating junk food the moment the nominal time it was permitted arrived.

These days he still finds that twelve hour fast hard (!), but has embraced it:

"You see, Ramadan, when experienced properly, is like a spiritual boot camp. If you've ever taken part in boot camp, you'll have met the kind of people who begrudgingly endure the push-ups and moan about every skipping session. You'll also have met the type whose enthusiasm is positively overwhelming. They're pumped at the crack of dawn and grin from ear to ear. They give every last inch of themselves. They're running warm-up laps around the oval before the session even starts (I could never understand why you would bother extending the torture). To them, it's all about seizing the opportunity to transform themselves physically and mentally. They embrace the challenge. Ramadan is pretty much the same."

Benedictine moderation!

Now I'm certainly not advocating that we should adopt Islamic style twelve hour fasts!

In fact, the fasts St Benedict prescribed for his monks were quite moderate indeed by the standards of his time: on Wednesdays and Fridays for most of the year, just having one delayed meal only, rather than two, at mid-afternoon (after None), without any reduction in the quantity of food allowed to be consumed.  Moreover, he allows the abbot to put in place a more moderate regime still if work or other reasons suggest the need for it.

Still, there is a big difference between the kind of moderate fasts that the Church used to impose (such as either a midnight or three hour fast before receiving communion), and the practically non-existent ones required at the moment.

If we wish to recover and promote fervour, to reclaim those lapsed Catholics under the embrace of the 'New Evangelization', our bishops need, I would suggest, to take steps to recover a little Benedictine moderation in the interests of our spiritual amendment, and actually introduce some stricter laws!

For only by actually doing it will we grow in virtue and come to love fasting.

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