Lent is early this year, and there is a good chance that it will catch some of us unawares! That would be a pity! Lent is a fantastic time to get down to some serious work on our Spiritual lives. I concur with George Herbert’s poem that Lent is a ‘feast’. The pattern of feast and fast is an important one to live out for the person who desires to live a life open to the Holy Spirit. It has always been traditional to teach that children under sixteen and adults over sixty are exempt from fasting. I think this needs some re-thinking. The average sixty year old is quite robust nowadays. In any case it is important for individual conscience to come into play. As in so many areas of the spiritual life the search is for a sustainable balance and not a dramatic and short-lived gesture.
There is a weekly pattern of fasting and feasting that has almost been forgotten. Wednesdays and Fridays are fast days, Sundays and major saints’ days are feast days. Feast days always take priority over fast days. There are three other periods of fast days around the ember seasons (times for ordinations) Petertide, Michael Mass, and Advent: these are days of prayer for vocations to the ordained ministry. [They are in desperate need of revival] The major seasons of fasting are Lent and Advent which prepare for the great festivals of Easter and Christmas. There is an old saying that helps here; ‘he who cannot keep the fast cannot keep the feast.’ The truth in this is quite clear; the discipline and vigilance of the fast sharpens up the senses physical and spiritual and enhance the celebration of the festival.
Fasting is the deliberate denial of physical wants and appetites. This can be anything that our mind and body convinces our will that it needs, thus capturing and twisting it away from the pursuit of Communion with the Lord. Most people have more than one area of life that is a ‘will twister’! Usually if a person can get a grip on one appetite they can get a grip on others. There is no general rule about this. The list is as long as there are opportunities in life to give into pleasure! Here are a few; sleep, alcohol, food –in its glorious variety, sex, television and other media (the daily newspaper is a source of great addiction!) you can add some of your own.
Fasting does not necessarily mean complete denial it can mean simply reducing the consumption of something to the point of need. That is the whole point of fasting – to come to the knowledge that all our true needs are met in God. So often in life we cover one need up by meeting another. Fasting helps us to clarify where our real needs (rather than our preferred wants) lie. At the heart of all this is the will. It is the use of our will that determines the response of the heart and mind to the changes and chances of this fleeting world. Fasting is the most trusted way to sharpen up our own ability to be self-willed in order to be self-giving to God. Give it a try and let it not be a token attempt! Ask God to give you grace to see where your need for Him is being displaced by a need for something else; ask for grace to see where your will is being twisted; ask for grace to straighten it out!
Fr Andy Hawes is Warden of Edenham Regional Retreat House