Fasting and the soul Arthur Middleton
Clement of Alexandria wrote a book entitled Christ the Educator. His advice is: find in Jesus the supreme guide and the midwife of wisdom. The passage entitled ‘The Temple of the Ape God’ reflects on the opulent outward appearance of pagan temples, with ornate stairways, porticoes, rare stones and paintings, glittering with gold and silver. Inside you will not find the god who inhabits the temple, only some animal; a beast draped in purple is the Egyptian god. The Christian’s priority is not beautifying the outward appearance but beautifying the soul. Beautify the body only in a measured way. People who are obsessed with beautifying the body but leave the soul ugly are unconsciously copying pagan temples.
Today’s culture is obsessed with fashionable and beautiful bodies. Plastic surgery reshapes the body into something attractive to the eye. Obsession with the body to the neglect of the soul is, says Clement, an unconscious copying of Egyptian temples. The body is the temple of the Holy Spirit but lift the outer veil of such reshaped bodies and you will not find our God dwelling there, but an ape adorned with finery which has taken over the shrine. Obsession with the body dominates our culture. Its end is cosmetic, indulgence for a material rather than a spiritual end – better health, better shape, fitter body.
Jesus fasted forty days and forty nights. Fasting is a physical exercise for a spiritual end but has become unfashionable among Christians. It is primarily concerned with a healthy soul but can make a healthier body. Unlike dieting, fasting is always accompanied by prayer. Jesus fasted and prayed to discover what God wanted him to do. It was a testing time but became the springboard to his life and ministry. He found Gods way was to be by death and resurrection. In Lent we prepare for Easter, for a deeper understanding of our part in Gods way of death and resurrection. The Church calls us to fast and prayerfully listen to God.
In a lenten sermon, Leo the Great reminded his congregation about the Hebrews being punished for their sins by the tyranny of the Philistines. To overcome their enemies, they restored their powers of mind and body by fasting and prayer. They abstained from food and drink. Their fasting made them alert in mind and body, increasing their concentration and resolve to defeat their enemies.
Leo reminds us that we are surrounded by many oppositions and conflicts within ourselves that can be cured by the same means. We can conquer our spiritual enemies by God’s grace, to correct our ways in favour of God’s ways. Choosing God’s way as Jesus did will amend our lives and will weaken those things in us that we thought unconquerable. For example, in dieting -the resolve you acquire through only sticking to certain foods defeats the bulges, and lowers the blood pressure and cholesterol that seem to be unconquerable enemies.
We fast and pray in Lent to confront in ourselves those things that prevent us from living in Gods way. This is the wisdom of Jesus. In Jesus, we see that the divine is stronger than the human. ‘Stronger is he that is in us than he that is against us,’ St Paul said, bur struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against spiritual wickedness