A Joyful Fast

What comes to mind when we think of fasting?

Some personal thoughts that come to mind include deep hunger pangs, lack of energy, distracting myself to take my mind off the fact that I’m fasting…

Fasting, of course, can come in forms other than fasting from food… abstaining from social media, watching Netflix, a small daily comfort like creamer or sugar in your coffee… but regardless, the challenges of fasting may be the first thoughts that come to mind.  At times, we may even wonder honestly if any fruit is actually being born of our fasting. 

Our readings today can help us understand this Christian practice and our approach to it more fully.  The word of the Lord inspires an approach to fasting that may initially seem counterintuitive: a joyful disposition of heart.  The good news for us is that we can’t achieve this in our own power and we are not expected to – this is obtained by God’s grace.  First, we must understand His heart on the matter to see how the essence and fruit of fasting ultimately flows from the disposition lying beneath it.

A joyful fast?  Does this seem like a bit of a paradox?  In the gospel today Jesus seems to explain that his disciples are not fasting but feasting.  His prophetic wedding imagery seems to communicate that while He is with them there is joy and feasting, but His Passion and death will bring about their fasting.  Why then, in this time of Lent, as we anticipate Christ’s Passion and strive to enter into a spirit of penance am I suggesting we maintain a joyful heart?  I believe the answer lies in a deeper understanding of our Christianity so let’s dig a bit deeper…

Lord, help us see this through your eyes…

A couple passages from today’s readings:

“A heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn” -Psalm 51

“Lo, on your fast day you carry out your own pursuits…

…This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:
releasing those bound unjustly…
breaking every yoke…
sharing your bread with the hungry…
sheltering the opressed… clothing the naked…
not turning your back on your own.

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
And your wound shall quickly be healed”

-selections from Isaiah 58: 1-9 (emphasis mine)

This passage from Isaiah shows us that fasting in the way of the Lord, sacrificing with a sense of purpose and confidence in God’s power, heals.  It heals others and it heals us, and this healing leads to freedom.  Fasting in the way of the Lord has the power to heal and free us.  How beautiful!  This knowledge breeds hope the source of fasting with a joyful heart.

Now, we can begin to understand how it is possible to fast with a joyful heart – this joy is not feigned.  This joy is not a surface-level happiness.  It is a fruit of our hope, a virtue so central to our Christian faith.  Even as we fast in a spirit of penance, remembering the Lord’s Passion and Death as Jesus foreshadows in the gospel, we can maintain a joyful heart because as we truly unite to His suffering we are also joined to the hope of the resurrection.  This is the wonder of our God of paradoxes – through death we gain life.  So, through the sufferings of our Lenten fasting, God allows us to enter in to a deeper joy.  And because we live in the truth of the Resurrection, we can actually approach fasting with this joyful heart, for we know God will bring forth much fruit and new life from these genuine offerings of our heart.  It is our heart that God is seeking, as today’s Psalm reveals: “My sacrifice, O God, is a contrite spirit; a heart contrite and humbled, O God, you will not spurn.” 

Now, I joyfully join in the sentiments of my priest’s parting words at our Liturgy* last Sunday as I wish you a “Happy Lent!”

Lord, help us begin with a humble and contrite heart.  May we experience the freedom that your forgiveness brings, and may this freedom bring us true joy.   From our joy, we present our hearts, our Lenten actions, and fasting to you, in the hope of your power and the confidence that you will bring forth new life.  Thank you for this season of Lent.  We surrender and consecrate it to you.  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.   


*You may have noticed my using the term Liturgy instead of Mass. My husband and I often celebrate Liturgy in the Byzantine Catholic Church, an Eastern tradition of our Catholic faith. (Yes, the Byzantine Catholic rite is in communion with the Pope, and yes, you can attend a Byzantine Divine Liturgy to fulfill your Sunday obligation! 🙂 ) …I’ll have to devote a future post on the beauties of the Eastern rite in the future! For now, I’d love to invite you to pray this Prayer of St. Ephrem, which focuses on virtues Christians are called to practice always, and especially during Lent. The Byzantine Rite prays this during Lent (The Great Fast) and encourages it to be prayed daily during this season.

O Lord and Master of my life,
Spare me from the spirit of apathy and meddling,
Of idle chatter and love of power.

Instead, grant to me, Your servant,
The spirit of integrity and humility,
Of patience and love.

Yes, O Lord and God,
Grant me the grace to be aware of my sins
And not to judge others,

For You are blessed,
Now and forever.   Amen

O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.
O God, cleanse me of my sins and have mercy on me.
O Lord, forgive me, for I have sinned without number

Bakhita

Bakhita_Szent_Jozefina.jpegToday is the feast of St. Josephine Bakhita, a woman of incredible strength and perseverance. Kidnapped at age seven from her home in Sudan and sold into slavery, she was given the name Bakhita, meaning “fortunate.” She suffered daily beatings and abuse at the hands of her captors. Eventually, she was sold to an Italian family, the Michielis, and worked as their maid. While in Italy, Bakhita was introduced to the Canossian Sisters of Venice—and through the Canossian Sisters, she began to learn about God and the Church. The more she learned, the more her heart became inflamed with love for Jesus.

When the Michielis wanted to bring Bakhita with them to Africa, where they had acquired a large hotel, Bakhita firmly refused to leave the convent in Venice. While Mrs. Michieli tried to force the issue, eventually the Italian court ruled that because slavery was illegal in Italy, and had in fact also been outlawed in Sudan before Bakhita’s birth, Bakhita had never legally been a slave. All of a sudden, she was free to choose her own path.

Bakhita was baptized in the Catholic faith at age thirty, receiving all three sacraments of initiation on January 9, 1890, and taking the name Josephine. She took vows as a Canossian Sister three years later. For the rest of her life, until her death in 1947, she was known for her joyful, welcoming presence, her love of children, and her encouraging spirit toward the poor and suffering.

What is particularly remarkable about Josephine is her ability to see God’s hand at work through every chapter of her story, even those filled with darkness and tragedy. When she was introduced to Christ through the Canossian Sisters, all the pieces of her life began to fall into place and make sense to her for the first time. She said, “Those holy mothers instructed me with heroic patience and introduced me to that God who from childhood I had felt in my heart without knowing who He was.”

Josephine stood up for herself and put an end to the injustices she suffered, but she did not brood over past wrongs or dwell in resentment for all the trauma she had undergone. On the contrary, she actually expressed gratitude for her past experiences. When a young student asked her what she would do if she were to meet her captors, she responded without hesitation: “If I were to meet those who kidnapped me, and even those who tortured me, I would kneel and kiss their hands. For, if these things had not happened, I would not have been a Christian and a religious today.”

I am far from grateful for my own sufferings, but I pray that through the intercession of St. Josephine Bakhita, I might allow my eyes to be opened to the ways God is working in every aspect of my life. May my deliverance from resentment and cynicism be sparked by an interior conversion of heart, a turning toward gratitude and unrestrained love for God.

Everything Is Grace

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus presents to us a startlingly bold exhortation:

Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it,
but whoever loses it will save it.
—Luke 17:33

This does not mean, of course, that we should be careless about our own lives. On the contrary; if our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, then we should treat all life—our own included—as sacred and worthy of protection. But in doing so we must remember that our lives have been entrusted to us by God; they are not our own. If we try to preserve them for our own sake, instead of for God’s, then our lives will become detached from the purpose imbued by their Creator and thus lose their meaning.

Jesus speaks here with a sense of urgency, warning us not to be caught unprepared at the judgment. The reading shakes us out of our complacency and gives us the sense that everything can change in an instant. If this is really true, then every moment carries great weight and meaning. Every second of our lives is an opportunity to be a conduit of the inexhaustible Source of all truth, beauty, and goodness in the world.

Jesus’s words are an invitation for us to stop wading in the shallows of our life and go out into the deep. He challenges us to let go of the worldly attachments that keep us tethered to the shore and to go forth in courage. All the beautiful things in this world only have meaning insofar as they reflect the beauty of the Creator. If we love God first and foremost, then we will see His beauty in everything around us. But if we cling to the things of this world for their own sake, forgetting that they are gifts from God, then we will ultimately be left unfulfilled.

May we deepen our awareness that everything is grace, that our very lives are given to us as invaluable, unmerited gifts.

There is the great spiritual principle that undergirds the entire Gospel: detachment. The heart of the spiritual life is to love God and then to love everything else for the sake of God. But we sinners, as St. Augustine said, fall into the trap of loving the creature and forgetting the Creator. That’s when we get off the rails.

We treat something less than God as God—and trouble ensues. And this is why Jesus tells his fair-weather fans that they have a very stark choice to make. Jesus must be loved first and last—and everything else in their lives has to find its meaning in relation to him.

—Bishop Robert Barron

Freedom in Forgiveness

“Jesus said to his disciples,
“Things that cause sin will inevitably occur,
but woe to the one through whom they occur.
It would be better for him if a millstone were put around his neck
and he be thrown into the sea
than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.
Be on your guard!
If your brother sins, rebuke him;
and if he repents, forgive him.
And if he wrongs you seven times in one day
and returns to you seven times saying, ‘I am sorry,’
you should forgive him.”
And the Apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith.”
The Lord replied, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed,
you would say to this mulberry tree,
‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” (Luke 17:1-6)

“Have you forgiven him yet?” my friend asked as we sat in the driveway of my parents’ house, heat running in the car on a cold December night.

Her words pierced my heart. “Oh…” I said, “I thought I did. But I don’t think I actually meant it with my whole heart.”

Forgiveness—it’s sometimes so hard for us, yet always so easy for Jesus. See, I used to think that forgiveness meant I was saying it was okay that someone hurt me. It wasn’t until I was deeply wounded by another several years ago that I figured out what forgiveness was all about. I remember hearing someone say the words forgiveness and freedom in the same sentence. My gut reaction was, “I want that…is that really possible?”

In today’s Gospel, Jesus calls us to forgive, even if the same person hurts us seven times in one day. Forgiveness isn’t saying that someone else’s sin against you is okay—forgiveness says, “What you did hurt me, but I put you in God’s hands. I do not desire your destruction.” Forgiveness is surrender, casting our cares on the One who cares so deeply for us.

Forgiveness in graver matters takes time and is a journey, and that is okay. With the situation I mentioned above, I would kneel and say the words “I forgive_____” and pray a Hail Mary for the person every Sunday before Mass until I started to believe it in my heart.

Forgiveness softens our hearts; holding onto unforgiveness leaves us bitter, angry, and unhealed with walls around our hearts screaming, “DON’T come in!” Forgiveness frees; unforgiveness enslaves. We become chained to our hurt. If we don’t forgive, we may as well put a millstone around our own necks. Is there someone in your life you need to work on forgiving?

I find it fascinating that the Apostles’ response to Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness was, “Increase our faith.” Their hearts were pierced like when my friend invited me to truly forgive. I imagine them seeing the faces of the people they knew they needed to forgive flash before their eyes as Jesus was talking.

And how often do we struggle to forgive ourselves? I know I do sometimes. I’ve walked out of the confessional before only to beat myself up about my sin a few hours later. The liar of shame creeps in and tells us our sin defines us and that we’re not good.

When St. Margaret Mary Alacoque (the saint to whom Jesus encouraged devotion to His Sacred Heart) began having visions of Jesus, her spiritual director, St. Claude, was very skeptical at first. He told her to ask Jesus what the last mortal sin was that he confessed. Jesus answered, “I don’t remember.” How powerful is the ocean of mercy of our Lord!

Father, increase my faith so that I may more easily forgive others. Strengthen me to be courageous and put the people that have wronged me and wounded me into Your wounded hands. So often others’ own woundedness leads them to hurt me; help me to have an understanding heart towards that. Increase my faith so that I may better forgive myself. Help me to know that I am not defined by my sin but as Your precious child. Help me to forgive like You do, Lord Jesus, and set me free. Remove any shame, fear, hard-heartedness, or bitterness from my heart. May I have great faith in Your mercy, Your love song for Your people.

Inhale

“Brothers and sisters:
If there is any encouragement in Christ,
any solace in love,
any participation in the Spirit,
any compassion and mercy,
complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love,
united in heart, thinking one thing.
Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory;
rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves,
each looking out not for his own interests,
but also everyone for those of others.” -Philippians 2:1-4

I’ve been doing a study on the four female Doctors of the Church with a couple friends, and it has been wrecking me. Last week, we reflected on St. Hildegard of Bingen. She was a pharmacist, mystic, abbess, poet, theologian, and composer (so she was basically amazing at everything), and she wrote several books and over 300 letters.

St. Hildegard often struggled with self-doubt, but as she grew in allowing herself to receive Christ’s love into the deepest depths of her being, her voice was freed and the doors of her heart flew open to letting the Holy Spirit work through her in powerful ways.

Today’s first reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians talks about participating in the Spirit. A few years ago, a friend of mine asked: “What would happen if we prayed for the same response to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that the Apostles had at Pentecost?” My initial reaction was one of fear. “What kind of crazy things would God call me to?” I thought. How often fear prevents us from saying yes to the greatness the Holy Spirit wills to do in and through us.

This one mind, heart, love, and thinking that St. Paul is talking about is all wrapped up and rooted in the Holy Spirit. He is our healer, comfort, strength, and guide. We all have the awesome opportunity and responsibility to allow the Holy Spirit to bring life and transformation to others through our words and actions. Let’s not squander that gift.

Will we have the courage to respond? In order to lead others to Christ, we must first look inward and do a heart-check on ourselves. Last week at a retreat for my youth ministry teens, the speaker said, “God wants to breathe new life into us, but we have to inhale.” And not only that, but once we let the Holy Spirit fill our beings, we have to exhale His fruits for others, and never stop breathing in.

What gifts has God given you that the Holy Spirit is calling you to use? What is one way you can be obedient to the Holy Spirit and exercise those gifts today? It may be as simple as texting a friend that God puts on your heart to let them know you’re thinking of them. It may be having the courage to have a difficult yet needed conversation. Maybe God is calling you to serve Him in a new way.

God has given each of us a light that no one else in the world will ever be able to give. You are an integral part of building up God’s Kingdom, whether you feel like it or not. Do not give into the temptation that someone else will do it, that you are not good enough, or that He may ask too much of you. Why are we often so afraid to shine?

“We cannot live in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a hope. Part of the terror is to take back our own listening. To use our own voice. To see our own light.” -St. Hildegard of Bingen

Whom Do We Let In?

“When an unclean spirit goes out of someone,
it roams through arid regions searching for rest
but, finding none, it says,
‘I shall return to my home from which I came.’
But upon returning, it finds it swept clean and put in order.
Then it goes and brings back seven other spirits
more wicked than itself who move in and dwell there,
and the last condition of that man is worse than the first.”

—Luke 11:24–26

Jesus compares the human soul to a house, the state of which is a reflection of our spiritual well-being. When He drives out demons from a man possessed, He sweeps that house clean and puts it in order. He can do the same with all of our interior messes—removing our excess and clutter, dusting off our cobwebbed habits and vices, making room for a most important Guest.

Whether or not Jesus cleans our house is entirely up to us. He is already knocking at the door—will we welcome Him in? If we do, He will rearrange our hearts and guard the door against any intruders who might harm us. But if we don’t, He will respect our privacy and leave us alone. Intruding demons, however, are not so polite; they will pester us constantly and slip inside at any available opportunity. And if our house has already been cleaned, that is all the more reason to be vigilant.

We cannot be complacent and ignore the safeguards Jesus has put in place for us against the demons that seek to destroy the work He has done in us. If we open the door to sin and invite malice into our hearts that the demons will be easily evicted, it will not be easy to return to a neat and tidy state. Openness to sin has lasting consequences.

It is up to us whom we will let in. Will we answer Jesus when He knocks? Will we monitor what passes over the threshold of our hearts, or will we prop the door open and let all manner of shady creatures move in? Jesus has entrusted us with the power to invite and shut out whomever we will. May we use this power wisely, always keeping in mind the goal of creating a space hospitable to our loving Guest.

Maria Goretti, Pier Giorgio Frassati, and Freedom

This week we celebrate the feasts of two great saints. July 4 was the feast of our patron, Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, and today, July 6, is the feast of St. Maria Goretti, the Little Saint of Great Mercy. During this week as we reflect upon the meaning of freedom, we can look to these saints as examples of what true freedom really looks like. It may seem counterintuitive, based on our culture’s idea of freedom, to say that these two young people who closely followed the precepts of the Church and died before they were ever able to “achieve” anything of significance were paradigms of freedom. And yet their actions in the most crucial moments of their lives demonstrate how free they truly were.

Maria Goretti shows us the freedom that comes from forgiveness. Brutally murdered at the tender age of eleven after resisting attempted rape, she would have had every reason to feel an intense, righteous anger toward her attacker, Alessandro Serenelli. However, as she lay dying from fourteen stab wounds, she expressed nothing but concern for Alessandro’s soul, uttering words of forgiveness. She refused to harbor the venom of unforgiveness, even for an instant; she would allow it to poison neither her own soul nor Alessandro’s. While she acknowledged the weight of his grave sin, she didn’t brood over the damage that had been done or seek revenge. Instead, she let go of that burden and put it all in God’s hands.

Would Maria have been “exerting her freedom” if she had given in to feelings of outrage and resentment? Or would the weight of her anger have kept her from being truly free? No one would have blamed Maria if she had been unable to forgive this man, whose evil actions led to her excruciating death and ultimately tore apart her family. But she not only forgave him; she desired his conversion, saying that she wanted him with her in Heaven. She appeared to him after her death, expressing her mercy toward him. And Alessandro, who had been utterly unrepentant and vicious even in his imprisonment, was converted overnight—a miracle whose impact would play out over the course of his lifetime. This was possible only because of Maria’s interior freedom, her ability to resist the influence of all that would lead her astray and follow the voice of God.

Maria held fast to virtue even at the cost of her life, knowing that the joys and sufferings of this world are fleeting, that what truly mattered was preparing her eternal soul for Heaven—as well as Alessandro’s soul. She desired Heaven not just for herself, but for everyone, even sinners, even the very man who brutally murdered her. Even when he was at his very worst, she still understood that he was a human being, a child of God, meant for a life much greater than the one he was living. Not only that, she still believed there was hope for him, because she trusted in the boundless mercy of God.

Like Maria Goretti, Pier Giorgio Frassati was not swayed by the voices that tried to separate him from God. Even as he was surrounded by the noise of the world, he was firmly rooted in his faith and confident in doing what was right. He was willing to go against the current, championing political views that aligned with his deeply felt understanding of human dignity—unpopular though they were. Amid pressure to achieve success, wealth, and prestige, Pier Giorgio was unfazed, keeping his focus on God alone. Free from the expectations of others and from the fear of what consequences may result from doing what was right, he followed God’s call to serve the poor and galvanize Catholic young adults.

Pier Giorgio Frassati was born about eight hours north of where Maria Goretti was living in Italy, just fifteen months before her death. They overlapped on this earth for a brief period of time. Both died young, Pier Giorgio at 24 and Maria at just 11. Both suffered painful deaths without complaint—though Maria’s was certainly more traumatic and earned her the crown of martyrdom. But most importantly, both acted with tremendous interior freedom, resisting those who would keep them from becoming who God created them to be: His instruments in this world.

There are two types of interior slavery: the chains and pains of sin or the will of God. One is a slavery in which your will is in danger of being circumscribed; the other is where your will is given the necessary grace to act in accord with what is good and believe what is true. Pier Giorgio’s witness testifies that while the world might smack you around, your soul is a living dynamism that, when infused with the freedom of the love of God in Christ, no one can hold back. I believe Pier Giorgio sums up the feeling of true freedom when he said, “Our life, in order to be Christian, has to be a continual renunciation, a continual sacrifice. But this is not difficult, if one thinks what these few years passed in suffering are, compared with eternal happiness where joy will have no measure or end, and where we shall have unimaginable peace.”
Jared Zimmerer, “Pier Giorgio Frassati as a Model of Freedom”