Monday, March 28, 2011

The Challenge of Fasting

The Lenten experience also entails some form of self-sacrifice--giving up food or some other pleasure that stands between us and God. The point of sacrificial giving is to give not just to the level where it feels comfortable, but to give until it hurts. "To turn all of our treasures into channels for universal love is the real business of our lives," is how John Woolman put it. Self-sacrifice opens the door to love as we learn to care for others the same way that we care for ourselves.

Like repentance, the act of self-sacrifice can be perverted. Take, for instance, the phrase which I am sure that many of us had heard (or perhaps uttered) at least once in our lives:

"I made all these sacrifices for you, and look how you treat me."

Playing the martyr is not self-sacrifice; it's just a power trip with fancy bows and wrapping.

To understand self-sacrifice, we need to look at its root meaning: "to make sacred." To sacrifice oneself means to "make oneself a sacred gift, an offering" to God or to others.

True self-sacrifice is not about pain and self-deprivation, except in the sense that a drug addict experiences pain when going cold turkey. Self-sacrifice means giving up an addiction to a lesser good so that we can experience ultimate goodness. Giving up alcohol or heroin may be painful at first, but in the long run, sobriety is much more satisfying than addiction.

For this reason, self-sacrifice can be one of life's most fulfilling experiences. What a relief it is to say, "I am not a slave to my own selfish desires. I can choose not to eat candy or to drink alcohol or to be judgmental." Each time one gives up a lesser good for the sake of a greater good, one is "making oneself sacred." What freedom and joy such self-sacrifice bring!

For early Christians, "going without meat" meant "enabling your brother to eat"--or as we would say it today, "living simply so that others can simply live." In 128 A.D. Aristides explained to Emperor Hadrian the strange manner in which Christians lived: "When someone is poor among them, who has need of help, they fast for two or three days and they have the custom of sending him the food which they had prepared for themselves." Early Quakers had the same reckless habit of sharing with others: "Justices and captains had come to break up this meeting, but when they saw Friends' books and accounts of collections concerning the poor...they were made to confess that we did their work....And many times there would be two hundred beggars of the world there, for all the country knew we met about the poor....." (Journal 1660 p. 373).

The spiritual power of fasting and sharing with the poor came home to me recently when I helped organize a program for Junior Friends. During one of our planning sessions, I showed a video about starving children and asked how many of the teens would be willing to "give up meat so that others could eat." To my surprise, the entire group said that they would!

Fasting is something that Friends don't ordinarily do, especially out here in California, so I was taken aback by the enthusiasm with which these young Friends looked forward to self-denial. It was as if they had a spiritual hunger that could only be satisfied by giving up what teens sometimes seem to value most---food!

During Quarterly Meeting, our small, but enthusiastic group fasted for 30 hours to raise money for relief and development work in Third World countries. During the course of our fast, we watched videos, heard talks, and learned about the root causes of hunger in today's world. It's amazing how much more meaningful dry statistics about hunger become when you hear them on a empty stomach!

Fasting can be a powerful testimony, as I recently learned from the example of Joseph Havens. A psychologist and a peace activist for many years, Joe published a Pendle Hill pamphlet called The Fifth Yoga. I came to know Joe when he and his wife Teresina ran a retreat center called Temenos on a wooded mountain top near Amherst, Massachusetts. Temenos was a place where peace activists, artists, and spiritual seekers came together for spiritual growth and healing.

Joe and Teresina took very seriously the Quaker testimony on simplicity. They had no running water or electricity. They re-cycled everything; even their outhouse was equipped to turn waste products into compost. When I first met the Havens, they were both in their seventies, and yet they seemed full of zest and vitality. At the end of our lunch together, Joe asked me if I liked Greek dancing. Being Greek, I couldn't turn him down, but I wondered how he was going to create music without electricity. It turns out that he had hooked up a stereo system to car batteries. For the next hour, Joe and I danced with Zorba-like exuberance. Never have I met any one who loved life more than Joe Havens.

A couple of years ago, Joe came down with Parkinson's disease. As his palsy grew worse and worse, he kept a sense of humor ("Now I really am a Quaker," he once quipped.) But when his condition reached the point that he finally had to go to a nursing home, Joe decided to stop eating. When he died, this final message was sent to all his friends:

I believe that we each must look at our dark side, and learn from it, in order to become more complete, whole persons. In the same way, we need to look at the dark side of our society and its institutions, and at the fact that our prosperity is founded on the hunger of others. In sharing what we learn, we can shed light on the adjustments required to forge a more just and equitable society....

Joe passed through his final Lenten experience with a clear mind and an open heart. His testimony was both a political statement and an act of love, even of joy. "Look around us!" he affirmed. "Talk to a stranger, hug a friend, or share with your family, but please, do help this wonderful process along."

The Lenten experience is not only about penitence and self-denial, it is also about prayer and renewal. For Friends, the highest form of prayer is silent worship. Silent worship, like meditation, can be a wonderfully relaxing and healing experience--a "safe haven" during times of spiritual upheaval. But silent worship can be also extremely painful. Many people (particularly those who are young) find silence so excruciating that they cannot handle it for longer than ten or fifteen minutes. As Caroline Stephen once pointed out,

Silence is often a stern discipline, a laying bare of the soul before God, a listening to the 'reproof' of life. But the discipline has to be gone through, the reproof has to be listened to, before we can find our right place in the temple. Words may help and silence may help, but the one thing needful is that the heart should turn to its maker as the needle turns to the pole. For this we must be still.

The seventeenth-century Quaker apologist Robert Barclay sometimes talks about meeting for worship as a birthing process. He says that when worshippers get together, their inner struggle can be like the battling of Jacob and Esau within Rebecca's womb. This inner conflict results in "many groans, and sighs, and tears, even as the pangs of a woman in travail...." According to Barclay, it is from this that the name Quakers, i.e. Tremblers, was first derived.

Nowadays, Friends are not apt to shake physically from their struggles against self-will. But when difficult issues arise, or when troubled personalities appear on the scene, it is not unusual for Friends to experience times of pain and turmoil, when it feels as if dark forces are tearing the meeting and our souls apart. In silent meetings, it is hard to gloss over or hide from what is painful, neurotic, or demonic within ourselves and our community.

During these dark times, it is tempting to withdraw from meeting altogether, or to fall asleep, as Jesus' disciples did in the garden of Gesthemane. But those who stay attentive during these times of spiritual crisis can make some astonishing discoveries. In the heart of darkness one can discern a light that cannot be extinguished---a sense of peace that cannot be shaken--a love that never fails. No one who has ever experienced this peace, this light, would ever want a mere "safe haven." But this peace has a price. In order to taste it, we must take the cup of fear and trembling to our lips and say to the Creator of the Universe, "Let Thy will, not mine, be done."

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for the image of staying awake during times of pain and turmoil at a Friends meeting. I will share this with some people at our meeting.