Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Why Catholics Fast



Dear Theophilous,

Why is it on days that I’m fasting, all I can do is think about food? It doesn’t help matters either when all the billboards are for restaurants, all the TV commercials for fast-food, and my list of errands includes a trip to the grocery store.

Despite all the temptation, I fast anyway.

Since Christ warns us about making a show of our fasting: And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting, (Mt 6:16) whenever I fast, I’ll quietly tell my wife and son, so that they will be respectful and understanding, but I don’t go around with a sign around my neck that says: Do not feed the Catholic. Because of this, there is usually some point in the day when I need to politely explain that I’m fasting to someone’s generous insistence that I eat.

To the outsider, fasting can be one of the most perplexing Catholic practices. Making the conscious decision to go without food, especially in our consumption-geared society, seems to go against the natural order. Although Catholics can, and will, fast for any number of reasons throughout the year, this penitential practice comes to the fore yearly during the season of Lent.

So this raises the question: Why do Catholics fast?

The short answer is to be Christ-like.

In everything we do, Christians are called to imitate Christ. Whether it is to love our neighbours, our enemies, to pick up our Cross, or to forgive others; we are asked to follow Christ’s lead, as difficult and impossible as it might seem. Thus, during the 40 days of Lent, we are called to mirror Christ’s 40 days in the desert, in fasting and prayer.

Then Jesus was lead by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for 40 days and 40 nights, and afterwards he was hungry. (Mt 4:11)

One would think that Catholics are being called to an impossible task to be Christ-like during Lent, and to go 40 days without eating anything (though I think I’ve built up enough reserve around my midriff that I just might make it). Fortunately, the rules on fasting don’t go to quite this extreme. Although the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops does not give specific guidelines on fasting (calling for only a reduction in quantity and richness of food eaten on their website), the general rule of thumb is one full meal per day, with two smaller meals, which when combined, do not exceed amount the one full meal. Really, this isn’t out of the ordinary for most of us. The part I have the most difficulty with is the no snacking allowed!

So, outside of the imitation of Christ in the desert, one must ask again: Why do Catholics fast?

Over the years, I have found the rationale for fasting to be three-fold:

·      Penance
·      Prayer
·      Thanksgiving


Penance

Lent is a time of becoming attuned to our sinfulness so that we can seek God’s forgiveness and mercy. Gluttony is a sin that I, like much of our consumerist society, grapple with on a daily basis. It’s not that we aren’t supposed to enjoy the delicious beauty of God’s creation, it’s just the copious amounts in which we enjoy it. The hunger pangs I feel throughout the day, especially at the times when I would normally reach for a (not-so) small snack, remind me of my inclination to sin, and to call on the Holy Spirit to push through the moment of minimal temptation.


Prayer

Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the three pillars of Lent, and all three are interdependent. Fasting calls us to a more attentive prayer. When I fast before Mass or Adoration, I am reminded that Man does not live by bread alone (Mt 4:4), and I hunger for the Lord in the Eucharist. When I am fasting, and have gotten over the hurdle of fixating on food, this leaves me more time and ability to concentrate on prayer. Finally, as I move through the day and hunger strikes between meals, I use it as a reminder to say a quick prayer: Jesus, I trust in you! or Have mercy on me, a sinner! or Lord, I hunger for you! or There is no virtue without temptation! (St. Augustine) or how ever the Holy Spirit moves me.


Thanksgiving

Let’s face it… Most of us living in Europe or North America have never really known hunger. We may get hungry from time-to-time, but we have never experienced what it is like to be truly hungry. A former student of mine once went on a mission trip to Zimbabwe; he recounted how children would walk for kilometers for the chance at their only meal for the day - a bowl of porridge, and if there wasn’t enough to go around, those at the end of the line would shrug their shoulders and walk home, only to return the next day in hopes of getting there in time for something to eat. Missing your one meal a day… this is true hunger. In the grand scheme of things, two small meals and one regular sized meal is no great sacrifice. Those little hunger pangs I feel throughout the day are a reminder of the truly blessed life I lead, and that I need to do more to help those who are less fortunate.


Catholics are called to truly fast only 2 days a year: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Traditionally, Catholics have practiced fasting and abstinence (not eating meat) on Fridays throughout Lent, and for many, this is a practice on Fridays throughout the rest of the year. If we were to go back to the Early Church, in the formative years of the Church Fathers, the practice was to fast on both Wednesdays (when Judas took it into his heart to betray Jesus) and Fridays (when Jesus died on the Cross).


No matter if one choses to fast on only the two required days, during Lent, throughout the year, or even to add days of fasting and abstinence for various reasons. We need to remember that fasting is not simply a Catholic weight loss program, but a sacred practice calling us to penance, prayer and thanksgiving.

Monday, March 6, 2017

A Pocket Full of Coins



Dear Theophilous,

I used to be like pretty much everybody else. Whenever we would venture into downtown Toronto, I’d be on the lookout; making wide detours when needed; directing my son’s attention the other way.

Then something changed. I can really pinpoint a moment in time when it happened. It was more of a gradual process than an Epiphany experience. But somewhere along the line, my heart softened. I began to see the homeless as human, created in the image of God, and deserving of the dignity that entails.

I had often heard the old argument for not giving money to the homeless: They’ll just use it on drugs. But then I began to wonder, what if a few coins were all they had to get a meal for the day, or week even. I realized I could no longer ignore these poor souls.

My new resolution to do something firmly in mind made for an awkward encounter our next trip into the big city. Seeing a homeless man ahead, his up-turned hat on the sidewalk, I was ready to make good on my promise to help out, even if it was to be only a few small coins. Hand fumbling through my pocket, I soon realized that in our cashless society, I had nothing in my wallet but plastic and large bills. Sheepishly I walked by, avoiding eye contact as I had done so many times before.

I learned my lesson. Now I go prepared. Before any excursion into the city, whether it’s for a sporting event or dinner out, I pillage our spare change jar, making sure I have at least $10 to $20 in coins in my pocket - $1 to $2 for each person we might come across in our travels.

I will do this when we’re going out as a family, or if I’m heading to a sporting event as a friend. While others will circle around the homeless sitting on the sidewalk, I will walk by, dropping a couple coins in their hat or cup, look them in the eye and give them a short “God bless.”

The reaction I have gotten has ranged from silence to a mumbled “God bless you too.” To a thankful 6pm: “You’re the first one today.”

The reactions of friends and family have been initial fear and embarrassment, which slowly give way to a certain humbleness. My son will now even look for these opportunities when we foray into the city.

Still, I understand that some people are remain leery about giving cash to the homeless (no matter how small the amount). My brother-in-law and his family have found a great way around this quandary. Every so often they will descend into the heart of downtown with a mission in mind. They will buy a dozen or so hamburgers from a local fast-food chain (nothing fancy, just a simple burger) and hand those out to the people they come across on the street. A beautiful gesture that will fill a belly, at least for a day.


**Addendum**

Just last week we went to a junior hockey game in the town next to ours. We were with a service group that my son belongs to, so to give him his independence I passed him $20 and sat a few rows away. Throughout the game I watched him come and go, laughing with his friends; and as we walked out after the final buzzer his grin told me he had had a fantastic time. Making our way along the cold snowy streets to our car, he spotted a homeless man sitting on the corner, cup in hand, ignored by the throngs leaving the arena. Silently, without any prompting my son let his hand slip from mine and he walked over, digging the change out of his pocket to drop in the poor man’s cup.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Lenten Sacrifice = Easter Habit



Dear Theophilous,

Sometimes I think it’s worse than Christmas… Every year Lent sneaks up on me, and I feel unprepared; left scrambling to put together a Lenten sacrifice. Forced to make a decision on Ash Wednesday, I either fall back on traditional favourites (chocolate & booze), or I try to become an aesthetic monk overnight. Much like the Christmas gifts purchased on December 24th, these last minute Lenten ideas are doomed to fail from the start.

So, with a week to go before Ash Wednesday, I’m beginning in earnest to think about how best to use Lent to bend my own stiff-necked will towards God’s. As I have done the past few years, I want to build my sacrifice on the 3 Pillars of Lent: Prayer, Fasting and Sacrifice. And like every year, I have a hard time figuring out where to start.

This year, however, as my preparation for Lent has been percolating in the back of my mind over the past couple of weeks, the Holy Spirit has continually whispered that I need to use Lent to look beyond Easter. At first this idea seemed silly, Lent is a time to prepare for Easter, and the sacrifice is supposed to end with the greatest feast in the Catholic calendar. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. Lent is supposed to be a life changing experience; and how can our sacrifice have any value if we simply slip back into our old habits once the 40 days are over?

So this year I am planning my Lent with an eye to beyond Easter. By leaning on the Three Pillars of Lent, I hope to make changes that after 40 days will become habit.

Prayer

As those who have followed this blog over the years know, I’m quite honest about how my prayer life tends to ebb and flow like ocean tides. There are times (weeks and months even) where I can be on a spiritual high; while there are other points in the year when I beat myself up for letting my prayer life slip. I find this ebb and flow of prayer life tends to follow the seasons, and it’s during the dark days of winter that I fall into the dark days of my soul. I need an extra push to get out of bed before the sun rises in the morning, as well as a (not so) gentle nudge to pull on boots and parka to walk the dogs and say my Rosary. It’s as though my prayer get-up-and-go got-up-and-went with the end of the Christmas season.

Although Lent is meant to be a season of barren preparation to mirror Christ’s 40 days in the desert, I see it as a season of renewal in my prayer life. Lent is a time to take up once again all of those prayer promises I have made throughout the year, yet have let wane. I won’t go out of my way to start any new prayer practices during Lent; I’ve already done that sporadically throughout the year. What I will do, however, is make good on those promises, hopefully making prayer habits that will endure day 41 and beyond.

Fasting

Much like my prayer life, when it comes to fasting I all too often make promises that I can’t keep, so Lent is also a time of renewal of lost habits along with a season specific sacrifice. Recently, I have tried to take on the Early Christian tradition of fasting on both Wednesdays and Fridays – something that is easy enough to do while busy at work; an all-together much more difficult beast to tame once I get home or on holidays.

Although fasting can take on many different forms, and the rules put out by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops are probably purposefully vague (“Fasting means cutting down on the amount and richness of our food and drink), on days of fasting I try to limit myself to 2 small meals (usually breakfast and lunch) and one medium-sized meal (dinner). My Achilles heal is snacking. Getting home from school ravenous, I’ll look to the cupboard to see what can tie me over until dinner. The problem is, once the first snack is munched, the floodgates open and I can’t stop until I feel guilty having taken seconds at supper. The only strategy I find that works is to avoid the temptation to sin, keeping the cupboards bare.

The other challenge I find during times of fasting are weekends and holidays. There is always that awkward moment when visiting friends or family when I need to explain why I’m not eating, or at least not eating as much as I usually do. As I look forward into lent, however, I see this as a chance to witness and explain the faith, as well as an opportunity to strengthen my Christian resolve. If I can be strong is something as small as fasting, I’ll be all the more ready when God calls on me for a bigger sacrifice.

Almsgiving

Charitable giving seems like the forgotten Lenten Pillar. Everyone is so focussed on what they are giving up for Lent, they forget that there can be a positive side to this season of sacrifice, and we can do something to help our fellow human. In past years my Lenten resolve has been to put a certain sum of money into the poor box on a weekly basis. Happily, this has become a habit that has extended beyond the Lenten season, so I can no longer lean on this as part of my Lenten sacrifice. So now I need to get creative…

Having prayed on this aspect of my Lent for this year, I have thought to link my Lenten fasting to almsgiving. Lately, as a family, we have become more and more susceptible to the habit of eating out. Over busy and over tired, we will quickly fall for the quick solution of eating out instead of preparing even the simplest of meals at home. This year (with my family’s cooperation, of course), I would like us to fast from eating out, and using the money we save (which has the potential to be considerable) for almsgiving. Hopefully this too will become a habit once Lent is over.



So, my dear Theophilous, I encourage you to take this last week before Lent begins to prayerfully think about the sacrifices of Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving that you want to undertake. When preparing for your Lent this year, have and eye to beyond Easter so that your Lenten Sacrifice can become an Easter Habit.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Lost Art of Tithing



Dear Theophilous,

There’s an awkward moment we go through each week at Mass. Over the years we’ve gotten used to it. But it’s still awkward none the less.

Each week at the offertory the usher hands me the collection basket. I then pass it along to my son, who gives it to my wife, who hands it to the next family in the pew… Empty! No envelope. No bills. No coins. Nothing! Making this all the more awkward is the fact that because we are so involved in parish ministry, we’re usually in the front pew; so the empty collection basket we pass along really is empty.

I always get a kick out of sharing this story with my students. They know how important my prayer life and the sacraments are to me, so their eyes open wide in unbelief when I tell them I put nothing in the collection plate. Then one by one they clue in, and somebody from the back will pipe up, “They take it right from your account, don’t they? Like a car payment.” All I can do is smile.

Yes, our parish has pre-authorized giving. The regulars who are at Mass every Sunday know this, so they don’t bat an eye when we pass them the empty collection basket. Christmas and Easter are another story… I don’ turn around to look, but I can imagine the confused stares of people thinking, “Hey! Didn’t that guy just read? And he’s not putting anything in the basket?”

It’s probably the same incredulous feeling I had when our pastor pulled me aside during the Archdiocese of Toronto’s Family of Faith campaign to tell me that our family is one of the parish’s more generous donors, so would we consider helping out even more. Really? We’re one of the more generous? I get the tax receipt every year and feel ashamed that we haven’t given more.

All of the faithful are called to help with the needs of the Church:

The fifth precept (“You shall help provide for the needs of the Church”) means that the faithful are obliged to assist with the material needs of the Church, each according to his abilities. (CCC 2043)

Traditionally this has been seen as one-tenth, 10%, of one’s income; known as the Tithe or in French la dîme (hence the name of our 10-cent coin). Again, looking at our taxes, I know we are far from being close to tithing our income – it’s more like a nickel. Hence my uncomfortable surprise to learn that we are one of the more generous families – especially when we put nothing in the basket.

This got me to wondering, where did the notion of 10% come from anyway. Was it just a tax dreamt up by the Church when Pope was also a temporal ruler over central Italy? The first ever income tax?

Actually, tithing pre-dates the Church as we know it. It was even in place before Christ walked on the earth. The faithful were called to give 10% long before the priests instituted the temple tax. Giving one-tenth of all one’s possessions goes all the way back to Abraham:

King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. He blessed him (Abram) and said, ‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!’ And Abram gave him one-tenth of everything. (Gen 14:18-20)

Out of thanksgiving for the blessings he had received – thanksgiving for victory; thanksgiving for the abundance bestowed upon him – Abram gave the priest of God Most High 10% of everything he had.

When I look at my paystub every two weeks, 10% before taxes, seems pretty steep. There is a mortgage to pay, car payments to think of, government taxes to consider, and food to be put on the table. I’m not so sure there’s room for another 10% to come off the top.

Christ never said it would be easy, that’s why he made such a big deal out of the widow who placed two pennies in the poor box:

“Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put everything she had, all she had to live on.” (Mk 12:43-44)

Giving is supposed to hurt.

However, the Church in her wisdom understands that the faithful must also live so that we can spread the Good News. That is why the words “each according to his abilities” is added at the end of the teaching in the Catechism.

This isn’t meant to justify putting less in the collection basket so we can afford to go out to a fancy restaurant or make payments on a luxury sedan, but it does open up opportunities to give in other ways. A part of your 10% could be in donations to other charities. There are so many worthy causes, both local and global, but do your homework first to make sure that your charity of choice does not actively promote teachings or actions that are contrary to the Gospel. Marx coined the phrase time is money and this couldn’t be more true when it comes to volunteer hours lessening the financial burden of a local charity. Find out where your hidden talents lie, and you will be surprised at the satisfaction you get from helping out.


This generation seems to have lost the art of tithing, of giving from our needs rather than our abundance. In a society based on consumerism, it’s too easy to put tithing, especially to the Church, last. We need to realign our priorities, distinguishing between needs and wants. Most of all we need to remember the Church and to give generously, it’s what keeps the lights on.