OPINION

On "repentance, fasting and reflection"

From a CathNews Discussion Board Lenten Reflection...

Dear Jeannie and UDS, Thank you for the thoughtful reflections and dialogue you have engaged in for today's Lenten Reflection. I've been mulling over this for a few hours since I first read what you've had to say.

I really do think we (the Church) need to nuance this whole "repentance, fasting and sacrifice" stuff a lot better. The first reading for the Friday after Ash Wednesday took a reading from Isaiah which covers similar territory to this one you have chosen from Hosea. (I should point out it is not from the readings for today for those who come here expecting a reflection on the reading of the day.) The reading from Isaiah includes this:

Lo, on your fast day you carry out your own pursuits,
and drive all your laborers.
Yes, your fast ends in quarreling and fighting,
striking with wicked claw.

Would that today you might fast
so as to make your voice heard on high!
Is this the manner of fasting I wish,
of keeping a day of penance:
That a man bow his head like a reed
and lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?

This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:
releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke;
Setting free the oppressed,
breaking every yoke;
Sharing your bread with the hungry,
sheltering the oppressed and the homeless;
Clothing the naked when you see them,
and not turning your back on your own.

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your wound shall quickly be healed;
Your vindication shall go before you,
and the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer,
you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am!

Where I think all this needs to be better nuanced is this. The impression I grew up with in my childhood, and which I find as a touch of the flavour in what you are writing, presents this whole "fasting" or "penance" business as a sort of button you push, or lever that we pull to gain favours from God. Give up chocolate for Lent, or go on a fast, and it's sort of like buying a Lotto or Lucky Dip ticket and we'll see what "surprise" God spits out in return.

I honestly do think this is wrong and ends up painting the wrong picture of who God actually is and what is the nature of his relationship with us. This helps paint the "Wizard of Id" picture of God sitting up in his heaven with his pots of magic brew and his magic wand that he'll just wave and make everything hunky-dorey in our lives.

The older I become the further and further I am moving away from all that. I don't think God sits up in heaven handing out the equivalent of "shiny stars" or "elephant stamps" like some glorified kindergarten teacher. These readings from Isaiah and Hosea are, I think, trying to take us to a more authentic understanding of the relationship God calls us to.

The business of "disciplining" is not some business of trying to earn brownie points that may in some way offset all the mistakes we make in our lives — or earn us special treats or even some "healing" in the sense of a "magic wand" intervention from God. This is why, in these readings, God is disparaging of those who engage in fasting and penances in that sort of attitude.

So what IS the alternative picture we ought be trying to get our heads around?

This is what I think it is but I would be interested in alternative thoughts from others (and I am still open to be being convinced of your charismatic-inspired understandings, Jeannie, that God runs around "healing" us in the ways you describe).

At the heart of a relationship God calls us to is "the Way (of thinking and acting)" like Christ. The way of thinking and acting like Christ is not one of trying to mimic some Grand Kindergarten Teacher in the sky. It requires a whole paradigm shift in our outlook. It is not "the ways of the world". "The Way (of thinking and acting)" like Christ is none other than "The Way (of thinking and acting)" like God (as Trinity) him/her/itself. We are called "to think and act" like the Father, Son and Spirit. None of us can do this though as we are all imperfect. But we are not meant to stay imperfect. We are not invited to wallow in our human imperfection. The very journey of life, the very relationship God calls us into, is one of learning "to think and act" like God himself. This is what the Church today calls "the universal call to Holiness". But it's not holiness in some kind of "wow, look at me Mummy, look at what a goody little two shoes I am being through doing this penance for you". It is rather "a building of the very sinews of our bodies and the character of our mind, emotions and spirit".

The whole purpose then of these disciplines God suggests we follow is not to be perceived of in the sense of accumulating brownie points, or obtaining special favours or healing, rather they have a much longer-term goal of "forming" us and "teaching" us so that we become "more holy" or more "balanced", more "in equilibrium", more "whole", or filled with more "equanimity" across the four dimensions that make up our being — the physical, the mental, the emotional and the spiritual "me". The alternative "kindergarten teacher model" of our relationship to God is what leads to a Church that does engage in abuse and can't see when it needs to acknowledge its errors.

I think there are short term "rewards" in this in that, as we become better and better at "thinking and acting" like God, we become more likely to think the right thoughts, or take the right actions, that do lead to positive things happening in our lives. If we are sick, our mental and emotional disposition may change that makes a healing more likely or faster in its manifestation.

What brings about our salvation, or earns us our place in heaven, is the gradual process, pursued over our lifetimes of improving our minds, our bodies, our emotions and our spirit or souls, so that we become "more holy" or "more like God". These disciplines of fasting and penances are not some "brownie point accumulating endeavour" though. They are the means by which we gradually learn to discipline the four dimensions of our being to literally "think and act" like God!

©2005Tom Scott/Brian Coyne/Vias Tuas Communications
Written: 01Mar2005

Tom Scott

"In spite of all that might be said against our age,
what a moment it is to be alive in!" James McAuley