Lent: You Call This a Fast?
Herewith, a sermon by the late Fr. Charles Dinkler, RIP:
No topic is more preached upon during Lent than is fasting. As we approach the end of Lent (Easter is April 30) and the heightened fasting period of Passiontide (Passion Sunday, April 17 through Easter), consider these words from Isaiah 58: 4-8:
Behold, ye fast for strife and debate, and to smite with the fist of wickedness: ye shall not fast as he do this day, to make your voice to be heard on high.There is always a danger that Lenten fasts can be perverted in to mere obedience to the rules. One example is scrupulously following dietary rules which address the ingredients of food - no meat, for example. Another is symbolically giving up one thing, which can devolve into mere tokenism.
Is it such a fast that I have chosen? A day for a man to afflict his soul? Is it to bow down his head as a bulrush and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord?
Is not this the fast that I have chosen? To loose the hands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?
Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? When thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?
Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily: and thy righteousness shall go before thee; the glory of the Lord shall be thy reward.
Lenten fasting is not a mere change of diet, as in “meat and chicken are forbidden but lobster and clams are not.” Fr. Schmemann once called this “all that superficial hypocrisy.”
We must take care that our fast, our whole Lent, does not become an occasion for our condemnation. We don’t fast for strife or debate, to make a fuss about what food is served, or the ingredients in it. We don’t fast to make our voice heard on high. We don’t fast to afflict our soul.
We fast to loose the bands of wickedness; to undo the heavy burdens; to let the oppressed go free; to break every yoke.
This article is not going to address any dietary restrictions. It does contain guidelines and suggestions inspired by Fr. Schmemann.
St. John of the Ladder speaks in Step 14 of gluttony and moderation. Nobody can go the 40 days of Lent without food or water. So how much fasting is enough? How much is merely minimalistic? Each Christian must judge this for himself, for her own circumstances.
Fasting means to be hungry. We have to push ourselves a little. We should go further, go beyond that state which is comfortable to us. We want to go toward the limit of our human condition, which depends entirely on food. In our hunger, we hope to find that our dependency on food is not the whole truth about us. Hunger is first of all a spiritual condition. And is is first of all a hunger for God.
It has been suggested that we exist in a half-hungry state throughout Lent. Not ill or incapable of functioning. But never full, satisfied, replete.
We should feel that twinge of hunger and remember that we are not the independent, self-subsisting personages we suppose our selves to be. We are not the masters of our fate. We are not the captains of our souls. Use the twinge of hunger to remember that all this self-centered, self-referential, solipsistic life is an imposture. It’s a fantasy, a delusion, a hallucination. Feel the hunger and remember: We are not our own. We have been bought with a great price and belong to God. Remember who we are and what we are about. Remember God and remember to pray to him, to know His will and to do it.
During Lent, strive for a “drastic reduction in the amount of food.” (Unseen Warfare, 1.1., p. 21.) But what about spiritual effort? But remember: The mere physical state of fasting will be rendered meaningless - and can become positively dangerous - if it is disconnected from this spiritual effort.
Spiritual effort does not just occur in church. Even in Lent, a person can only spend so much time in church. Those of us who are in the world, even if we make earnest attempts to attend all Sunday and extra Lenten services and on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter, may face insurmountable problems of distance or family emergencies or employers’ lack of support for frequent time off for church. Even in a Monastery, the monks only spend three-and-a half to five hours a day in the chapel.
What about the rest of our day? We spend most of our day at work, school, running errands, or at home. What can we practically do to increase spiritual effort?
Western Orthodoxy has an ideal and practical approach. Everyone should be equipped with the Ordo, which contains the Lectionary of what Old and New Testament passages should be read each day at home. Are you saying the offices of Morning Prayer and Evensong using the Ordo? These are totally doable. They are lovely and inspiring. They put us in touch with what we are about. One can say the offices at home, either as a family or each member individually. You don’t need a priest to do it. The English Office of Morning and Evening Prayer enables each member of the body of Christ to participate spiritually and practically in this worship.
What if you’re not at home or don’t have your Ordo and books? You may be walking to work, or in the car, on a train, waiting in a checkout line at the grocery store, on hold with your HMO, sitting at the bus stop, on your way to the Post Office. Pray where you are. At any time of the day, in any place, we can stop and pause and silently pray.
Remember the direction to pray without ceasing. We can’t start out with praying 23 hours a day. The saints and the church direct us to start with prayers at various hours of the day. On arising, at mid-morning, noon, early evening, just before bed, and any time we waken in the middle of the night - each of these times, pray. Even a short prayer is a good start: the Our Father, for example, or another prayer that resonates with you.
Once we master this, it is easier to expand prayer into the rest of the day, and to get closer to the command to pray without ceasing.
Lent should be different from the rest of the year. Lent looks different - the liturgical colors or lack of colors in the shroud-like Lenten array; the covering of crosses and images with veils.
Lent tastes different. What we eat is different. We may not, like some medieval monks, eat “tainted victuals” but we should certainly eat more modestly. Eat less food. Eat simpler food, humbler food, perhaps less tasty food. Spend less time on food. Avoid dinner parties and restaurant meals; eat modestly at home. Avoid unnecessary or “frill” foods like dessert.
Lent should sound different. We hear a difference in Church services with the different music and chant used during Lent. In olden times, you could hear the difference outside the church. In London, the theatre would close down for the Lenten season. Can you imagine going down to the cineplex today and asking them to close down for the season? Even socially, in times past the sounds of merriment were muted for Lent. Parties were postponed until Easter. We’re hardly able to obtain this situation today, with the torrent of sounds going around us.
Nowadays we are surrounded, engulfed, drowning in sound - much of it noise. We are bombarded everywhere, at all times. In elevators. On hold. The two biggest culprits are radio and television. And we don’t have to go outside to find the world; it’s there, invading our homes, crashing through the gates of our minds. Children do homework with earphones on. People go through the day with radio or TV on every minute. Radio stations advertise which one is best to keep on all day at work.
In former days people listened to music. Now, music is reduced to a ubiquitous background to other activities.
Silence matters. If we are never silent, if we are always distracted, focused on the outside, thinking and planning and hearing sounds all the time, how are we going to know what God is saying to us?
In “Ash Wednesday” T.S. Eliot wrote:
Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence.
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the fact
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and
deny the voice.
During Lent, consider: Are we using noise to avoid His face? To deny His voice? To stifle God’s Word? To shut up God’s grace?
The Roman Catholic saint John of the Cross speaks of a resounding silence, a sonorous silence. God is seen and heard in every one of us.
God is speaking within us. But how can we hear it if we are amused, distracted, consumed by all the noise going around us.
The Fathers of the church have a saying: “He who is never silent must never speak, for he has nothing to say.”
1 Kings 19: 9-13:
And he came thither unto a cave and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the Lord came to him, and he said unto him, What doest thou here, Elijah?
And he said, I have been very jealous for the Lord God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I , even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.
And he said, Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord. And, behold the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and brake in pieces the rocks before the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind: and after the wind an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake.
And after the earthquake a fire; but the Lord was not in the fire: and after the fire a still small voice.
And it was so, when Elijah heard it, that he wrapped his face in his mantle, and went out, and stood in the entering in of the cave. And behold there came a voice unto him, and said, What doest thou here, Elijah?
During Lent we work on anything that distracts us from God. But sound is primary; it is more pervasive and intrusive than the visual. We can always avert our eyes. But think of what we encounter on the streets. Ever try to ignore one of those cars using a sound system with an exaggerated bass response? Or a car alarm going off? Or a truck backing up? The whole area around them vibrates with noise. Our lives tend to be like those pounding, throbbing cars.
Like praying frequently in order to learn to pray without ceasing, we have got to have some silence in order to hear what the Lord God is saying to us. We need some silence to learn how to concentrate our attention and energies on God and doing his will.
How about drastically reducing the amount of radio and television we watch during Lent? You choose which - you know your own poison. And let’s be honest with ourselves. What can we live without? What distractions should we be giving up? Maybe reduce TV shows only to news programs or those of some genuine merit and depth.
By all these actions, Lent in our lives can start looking, sounding, smelling, tasting and being different.