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The Christian calendar year:

The Christian calendar year:

Lenten disciplines: Fasting

by Steve Bell

 

If asked, “What is the defining feature of the Lenten season?” most people would quickly respond with one word: fasting.

Every year at this time, you’ll hear friends ask each other what, if anything, they plan to give up for Lent. Given how untethered our society is from church tradition, a surprising number of people have a ready response: chocolate, coffee, Facebook, television…. Whether or not they’ve thought it through, most people intuitively appreciate the practical merit of voluntary abstinence, either to free up resources or simply declutter their lives from lesser things so they can better attend to greater things.
There are many reasons for, and approaches to, fasting.

My friend Tim likes to say, “Fasting teaches us that there’s nothing wrong with the world when we don’t get what we want.” In a social climate possessed by the twin spirits of immoderate consumption and entitlement, this custom is probably a good discipline.

Health gurus and naturopaths understand the merits of fasting for reasons of weight loss, detoxification, addiction withdrawal, digestive rest, and so on, and medical doctors recommend limited fasts for a variety of reasons, including preparation for surgery.

Personally, even a modest fast sharpens both my attention and intention. I become more focused and my experience of life seems more immediate and meaningful. As a songwriter, whenever I’m experiencing writer’s block, a solitary retreat with a fasting component usually does the trick. Typically, after about three days, the dam bursts and melody flows.

Most of the world’s great religions and spiritualities have traditions of ascetic practice. The Latin root of the word ‘ascetic’ (meaning: disciplined abstention) is the word askein, which means exercise. This is key to the Christian understanding of Lenten fasting.

First, it shouldn’t bother Christians that the physical merits of fasting are recognized widely across traditions and various health practices. We understand that we are embodied souls, the goodness of which is eternally affirmed by the Incarnation of Christ and His resurrection, which used the material of His pre-resurrection body. In short, matter matters. What we do to our bodies has direct consequence on our souls, and vice versa. Contrary to some theologies, our soul’s embodiment is not a disease from which to be healed. Christian disciplines do not imply contempt for the body, but rather a fight for it: a fight for, as Alexander Schmemann says, the “restoration of the body to its real function as the expression and the life of the spirit, as the temple of the priceless human soul.”

Second, it would be a mistake to think of fasting as the end game of spiritual practice. Such an understanding would make God akin to that dour “mind and code of morals that pinned down and beat the brains out of nearly everything that is pleasant to do.”

Rather, by way of example, consider the practice of making music. No teacher tries to convince a student that the reason we practice scales is to play scales well. And no student is drawn to lessons because he or she witnessed someone who is good at scales. The entire effort anticipates the deep pleasure of music making. It is the fruit of scales, not the scales themselves, that inspires students to the disciplined work of mastery. So it is, with those who would aspire to be masters of the Christian life. The goal is beauty, not bleak duty.

Let me come at this from another angle:
When I was 12 years old, I asked my dad, a Baptist minister, how one should pick a life profession. “Don’t ask yourself what you want to be,” he said; “better to ask yourself who you want to be. Find someone you respect for who they are, not what they do. Find out, if you can, what they did to become who they are, and do that.”

From then on, I began to pay attention to people whose character I admired, whose lives and spirits were exemplary. Among other things, most of those people turned out to possess great ascetic discipline, as did most of the saints, living or deceased, whom I discovered and admired in the ensuing years. These men and women played a music with their lives that I wouldn’t have known to listen for, but once heard, created a restless longing in me to join the ranks of the spiritual masters.

I am now 59 years old, and although I am by no means a spiritual master, every once in a while my life produces a fragment of melody with something of the tonality I’ve come to love in the lives of others. The fragment may be incom

plete, but it is melody nonetheless. Its potential makes me want to go back and work those scales just a little harder… metaphorically speaking.
Here’s a song that came from one of my fasting retreats:

BIRTH OF A SONG 

music and lyrics by Steve Bell

God is everything to me
I myself can do nothing
Spare nothing, bare nothing
Old weathered womb in waiting
Author of the mysteries
Ecstasy of blazing suns
And swooning moons and these
crooning
Winds and water, earth and fire

Yearning spirit, burning flesh
Consummating desire
Tossing off the soul’s attire
Ever I in you and you in me
Mirroring the ancient crèche
Now absorbed in awed emotion
Disturbed and shocked devotion
Child of mine, child of eternity

Agony of love divine
Send me as a lark ascending
Befriending skies, attending
Ever to the vast and to the still
Infant Christ enfleshed in mine
You and I might say something
Sing something, kiss something
Ever as you would and as you will

God is everything to me
I myself can do nothing
Spare nothing, bare nothing
Old weathered womb in waiting

Listen to the above song at www.pilgrimyear.com/songs: Lent Chapter Two
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Steve Bell is a storyteller through and through. For 30 years, he has offered encouragement to audiences throughout North America through concerts, song-writing and teaching. With a vocational calling to “refresh Christian faith and spiritual tradition for the weary and the wary,” Steve is known as much for his award-winning musical career as he is for his social commentary and theological insights. He has written numerous articles for online and print publications and has penned books on Scripture and the Liturgical Year. He lives with his wife Nanci in Winnipeg, Treaty 1 Territory and homeland of the Métis Nation.

Steve’s Pilgrim Year series (Novalis Press) is a 7-volume collection of reflections based on the Christian calendar year. It is available for purchase at www.pilgrimyear.com.

 

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