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The Fast That God Wants

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Sermon delivered on the first Sunday of Lent 1992 by the Prior of Parkminster in the Chapter-house.

Lent is a time of fasting. We abstain from certain satisfactions of the appetites of the body in order to purify the passions and liberate the spirit. That this is not automatic is clearly enough stated by the ironic attack of Isaiah on the fasters of his time, that we read at Mass last Friday (Isaiah 58:1–9a NAB). 'Is this the manner of fasting I wish, says the Lord . . . that a man afflict himself, bow his head like a reed and lie in sackcloth and ashes', while at the same time indulging in injustice, 'quarreling and fighting?'
 
The exterior practice is not enough, it is even of no value whatsoever, if it is not accompanied by an interior fasting directed towards a purification of the inner heart. A fasting from what, then? From injustice towards our neighbour, from 'quarreling and fighting', from all the works of selfishness, pride, vanity, self-affirmation, aggressivity, in a word, from all the manifestations of non-love.
 
Or put more positively, the fasting God wants are the works of love of our neighbour: compassion, sharing, helping the needy in whatever way we can. How far this goes is indícated in the gospel of the same Friday. We must be 'perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect'. In what way? By loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:43–6:4). By not loving only those who love us, but by loving those who do not love us. Therefore, not only the works of love, but love of the heart itself.
 
We want to, but can we? Some of the exterior works of love we can rise to, perhaps, but love itself, the movement of the heart? Is it always love that moves us, is it not often irritation, censoriousness, rivalry, plain dislike? And it is the heart that counts. It is out of the heart that come evil thoughts, attitudes and acts (Matthew 15:19). The fasting that God wants will seek to purify the heart. It will abstain from, not only the exterior acts, but also the inner thoughts of non-love. But how? This is delicate. It is not enough to repress these thoughts from our consciousness. This is a way of denying their existence, of not owning them and consequently of not healing and going beyond them.
 
No, these thoughts and impulsions are ours, our hearts are not free of the self-love and pride which makes everyone a potential enemy. Let us own the sin within us. We will gain in self-knowledge, in humility and in realisation of our need of God's pardon and of the gratuitousness of his love. Thank God for Christ!
 
There is a subtle perversion one sometimes meets nowadays, that of the person who not only acknowledges the passions within him, but who flaunts them openly as a sign of superiority over less strong characters who dare not show the evil undoubtedly present in their hearts also. It is not enough then to own our passions, we must try to purify and transform them. It is no hypocrisy, not to make others suffer at the level of exterior acts, even if the tempest rages within; but we do want to calm the tempest, at least in time. There is a fasting from injurious acts, and there is a fasting from injurious thoughts, if we use the word in the sense the desert fathers gave it, i.e. the thought plus its emotional charge.
 
This fasting from thoughts may take the form of an interior vigilance over what thoughts we allow into our mind, rejecting thoughts of judgement, criticism, violence, and accepting those of understanding, patience, love. It is in our power, usually, to fix our attention on the good qualities of a person or a situation, and not on the less good. Our thoughts will then be thoughts of peace and our acts will follow. We can choose to counteract any movements of aggressivity towards others, by deliberately, in our minds, affirming the other who annoys us in what he is and can become in Christ. All this within our own heart. The acts will follow. This is a form of intimate self-denial, a fast that pleases God who is love. For all non-love flows from love of self.
 
One could think of this also as interior silence. It cannot be sustained though, unless it draws its force from that silence of God which is his infinite love and mercy. Everything in Christ and in God is yes: yes to all the beings the gift of his love sustains. Never no: you shall not be.
 
It is prayer, the opening of our hearts to the silent love of God within us, which will gradually purify the source of our thoughts and passions. Not that they disappear necessarily. Rather, prayer enables us to enter into the depths of our heart, near to the creative source of God's love. Rather like a person diving into the sea, plunging through the moving surface of waves open to every wind, then through the upper water where fishes of many sizes and colours — some dangerous — come and go (these are our thoughts and passions), and finally attaining a depth where all is calm. From this place of the deep heart, the swimmer can see the movement of the surface, the busy world of the upper water, but is not carried along by it, the peace of the depths is not disturbed. The words spoken from this silent place will be words of love. These are the alms in secret which the Father rewards.
 
The fast that God wants from us then is the abstaining from the thoughts and works which do not come from love, and the doing of those that flow from the source of love within our hearts, that we reach in prayer. Do this and Our Lord promises:
 
        Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
        and your wound shall quickly be healed .. .
        Then shall you call, the Lord will answer,
        You shall cry for help, and he will say,
        Here I am!
                                                           (Isaiah 58:8—9 NAB)

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