For those of you who, like me, have been surprised by the proximity of Ash Wednesday, here are some thoughts of mine on the season. For those of you wo0ndering when I will finish my series on Cults, this is an afterword of sorts to the still-incomplete series.
In my recent meditations of the meaning of Love, I am offered a fresh and better way to focus on fasting than I am used to. I would like to share some of those thoughts with you.
Sure, I have read and heard a lot about love, but the idea that love cannot be reduced to its components (the classic divide between agape and eros) and is, perhaps, most properly understood as both things at once makes sense to me in a very synthetic, universal and new way. What I mean to say is that the enlightening relationship of agape and eros is something I must ponder and contemplate more and more to begin to comprehend—with heart and mind—the meaning of Love.
Too many times I suffer from reductionism, thinking that goodness, truth, or even God can be reduced into a concentrate that is exclusive, homogenous, and comfortable. I am reminded of the need to be who I am: an image of Love—imagus Dei. I am further reminded that as much as I may look to my self-constructed images of who God is and who I am, I must only to look to Love in order to simultaneously see who He truly is and who I truly am.
One way the Judeo-Christian tradition gives us to accomplish this mysterious end is through fasting. Yet, too many times I reduce fasting much like I can tend to reduce God and love. To not eat seems to serve the purpose of denying myself to become more soulful and less bodily. Francis of Assisi admitted a similar reductionism; before he died he offered his “Brother Body” a heartfelt apology for having ignored and mistreated him.
Like the mutual enlightenment of eros and agape is crucial to understand what love is, so too my body and soul must enlighten each other to gain understanding of who I am. In other words, when I fast it cannot not be a deprivation of my body for the sake of my soul or the simple converse, instead, it should lead to an enlightenment of both realities of human existence in the Light of Christ that “enlightens all men.”
The Light of Christ certainly does not enlighten the spiritual souls or physical bodies of humanity exclusively, it does not pick or choose one or the other; this Light enlightens the person as person holistically—body and soul. So, I ask myself, how can I fast in a way that enlightens my body and my soul? How can real hunger and pain—real sacrifice and suffering—bring Light to my body when my stomach hurts? Moreover, how could the beating, tearing, and puncturing of the Flesh of Christ pierced on the Cross bring glory to His Body?
I am challenged to reframe the purpose of fasting. I had become accustomed to think that I should want to neglect my bodily hunger and desire (eros) for food so that I could eventually push my erotic sense of physical vitality aside and become more spiritually alive—more soulfully vital. It seemed like: less food for my body, more holiness for my soul. But, too often it can become less food for my body and more fuel for my ego to perceive my own will-driven holiness.
If Love is more than its parts and if we are more than a duality of body and soul, flesh and spirit, then, the vitality and love I seek for my spirit should not be at the expense of my body’s desire (eros). This redefines fasting! To not eat is not to push my body aside; it is an embrace of a higher and deeper—holier—sense of spiritual and physical vitality.
No wonder Christ says in Mathew: “When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face.” Surely Jesus wasn’t asking me to be unauthentic or dishonest; this teaching tells me to be look happy in suffering and pain because I am happy and nonetheless hungry or suffering. To put it another way, we are called to “rejoice in the Lord always.” And this joy is real. When we unite ourselves to the cross we find ourselves more alive and more vital, not the other way around.
This discipline frees us to rejoice and to love without restraint and without regard for ones’ self. This is fitting since the New Commandment was to “love one another, even as I have loved you...” And in this love we are known to be disciples. This is the sign of the true disciple: Love. And this love is not of our own making or design; it is grace, the primordial gift of perfect Love.
This love is the parental affection of the Father and the mad eros of the Son who died, rose, and gave us the ever-present gift of the Holy Spirit. So too, like love and the Trinitarian God, fasting cannot be purely soulful at the expense of the body—I must resist reductionisms and oversimplifications. In looking at “Him who they have pierced” I am called anew to fast and suffer to experience a deeper vitality—a holier vita (life). This helps reframe my approach to fasting, but most of all it helps me love. I hope that it brings Love to your mind, heart, intellect, will, body and soul in some way too.