The fast as taught by holy lore,
We keep in solemn course once more:
The fast to all men known and bound
In forty days of yearly round.
More sparing therefore let us make
The words we speak, the food we take,
Our sleep and mirth – and closer barred
Be every sense in holy guard.
Those of us who entered the Catholic Church from an Anglo-Catholic background will be more than familiar with these words from the Office Hymn in the English Hymnal set to be sung at Evening Prayer during the early weeks of the Season of Lent. As I write these words on Shrove Tuesday and contemplate the pancakes that await me at the lunch I shall be sharing later with friends (like Lent itself an annual observance!) I am mindful that “the fast” is only hours away now. This year my Lenten diet will be both alcohol and meat free and already I know this will require some extraordinary discipline on my part. But perhaps the hardest part will be the challenge of ensuring that this discipline is an offering to God rather than an act of self-indulgence which will hopefully help me to squeeze more easily this year into my summer clothes!
Of course Lenten fasting is not just about giving up food and alcohol. In answer to the question “Do you want to fast this Lent?” the Holy Father Pope Francis provided Catholics with some helpful guidance.
“Fast from hurting words and say kind words.
Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude.
Fast from anger and be filled with patience.
Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope.
Fast from worries and have trust in God.
Fast from complaints and contemplate simplicity.
Fast from pressures and be prayerful.
Fast from bitterness and fill your hearts with joy.
Fast from selfishness and be compassionate to others.
Fast from grudges and be reconciled.
Fast from words and be silent so you can listen.”
Food and alcohol appear nowhere in that list! The Holy Father is speaking about a kind of fasting which is specifically designed to deepen our relationship with God and with one another rather than simply to make us feel better about ourselves.
St John Chrysostom once wrote:
“No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage for others. So no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor and eat ashes and sigh continually, if you do no good to others you do nothing great.”
Let us take those words to heart as we receive the ashes on Ash Wednesday and set out once more upon our annual Lenten journey.
A happy and holy Lent to you all!