So I thought that over the coming three weeks of Lent I’d write a post each week about prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
These activities (if fasting, which after all consists in not doing something, counts as an activity) characterise this season. Yet there’s something very odd about them, at least from a contemporary perspective. A 21st century mindset has trouble making sense of them, and often only succeeds in thinking it has done so only by substituting its idea of the practice for the real thing. Catholics have 21st mindsets as much as does anything else (whether they think they do or not is irrelevant: traditionalism, for instance, is every bit as modern as the modernity it defines itself against). So I think they deserve reflection.
That is not to say I’m quite attempting to justify Lenten prayer, fasting, and almsgiving here. They are simply part of what the Church does. If we ask why we should do these things there is a basic sense in which we have misunderstood who we are. But in a spirit of practice-seeking-understanding we can perhaps try to understand them better in terms which make sense to 21st century people such as ourselves.
I’m going to start with fasting, rather than following the traditional ordering, partly because it is the most problematic of the three, tied up very often with a frankly unedifying retributional theology, but mainly because it is taken by many to be the most characteristically Lenten. Fasting, many think (wrongly, but understandably enough), is what Lent is all about. So much so, in fact, that a non-negligible number of non-Christians have taken up what they take to be Lenten fasts in recent years: a topic to which I’ll return.
Here’s a bad reason for fasting. God wants to punish us for sin, so in order to avert some punishment, we’ll do the job ourselves. This can persuade us only in the context of a idolatrous picture of God as some kind of angry child who requires placating. We do not, at least when we are being as merciful as we are sometimes able to be, require that those who hurt us deny themselves to restore the balance of harm. And God is both more merciful than us and cannot be harmed in any case. When scripture speaks of God as angered, hurt, and distributing vengeance – as indeed it does frequently – it should be read metaphorically. Far from being some kind of modish liberal nonsense, this is an entirely standard patristic and medieval approach to this language, grounded in a sound sense that God, who is the reason why there are creaturely beings, is no kind of creaturely being. Inhabiting as we do an age that is prone to imagine the Almighty as a slightly more intelligent celestial Donald Trump, the language should be handled with severe caution when thinking about fasting. If we devote ourselves to a masochistic idol during Lent we are hardly preparing well to celebrate the triumph of divine Love at Easter.
A better reason has something to do with self-control. We have a tendency to allow things that are good in themselves play a disproportionate role in our lives, undermining our vocation to love God and our neighbour. Lent allows us to recheck the balance of our lives, not ultimately in order to dismiss the goods of creation as barriers to God (my Dominican predilections are hardly going to compromise with Albigensianism on this) but in order to acknowledge properly their use on our journey towards God. This is the point at which care is needed: fasting (or abstinence, which is strictly different, but gets subsumed under the general heading at this time of year) can easily turn into a form of puritanism, lending undue credibility to the kind of silly idea that cream cakes or single malt whisky are ‘sinful’. This well-meaning call from a Lutheran pastor for secular participation in Lent doesn’t entirely escape this trap.
Still, self-control (temperance, as Aquinas would have put it, before the word was appropriated by teetotal Victorians as an effective synonym for ‘tediousness’) is no bad thing. However -this is another point at which the broadening of Lent beyond the Church could fuel unhelpful ideas if we’re not careful. Fasting is not some form of holy CBT, a means of getting ourselves into a good way of doing things to be properly functional and useful functionaries of capitalist society. Fasting as a Christian discipline, as distinguished from a diet, is done under grace. Whilst we are correct to speak here of self-control, since God’s gracious action is not in metaphysical competition with our freedom, when we fast we respond to, and participate in, God’s approach to us in Christ. Our own self-control, in this sense, is God’s gift. For this reason it is no coincidence that properly Lenten fasting always happens in combination with prayer.
A final rationale suggests itself to me. In a world in which the lives of the rich and poor rarely intersect and in which suffering is hidden in a hospital or behind a ‘trigger warning’ fasting is a conscious act of solidarity with those who suffer, in particular those who do not have enough. It therefore leads in naturally to almsgiving. It is a conscious acknowledgement of suffering in an age that would rather forget it. Similar things could be said about devotion to the Passion. Again, there are dangers here: either of a condescending pseudo-identification with the damaged and oppressed or of deploying this justification that the poor and oppressed include many of us, the baptised. But so long as we retain a keen sense of this as strictly symbolic solidarity, unlike the appalling ‘live on developing world wages for a month’ initiatives run by charities (to which Pulp’s Common People is the only adequate response), I think there is value in thinking of fasting like this. Then again, there’s the danger of secularising the discipline via this rationale. The already-mentioned need to emphasise its symbolic nature already guards against this to some extent: it only makes sense within a community that is at home with the symbolic, such as the Church. But more fundamentally, the ultimate connection to be made here is with the act of divine self-identification with human suffering, with the moment sin and oppression were revealed for what they were on Calvary, and with the death knell that was sounded for them at the empty tomb. As Christians, we see the brokenness and injustice we acknowledge in fasting in the light of the Paschal Mystery, in which they are focused and overcome. To look to the poor is to look to Christ. “For what you do to the least of these, you do to me”.