“There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before our God and ask him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions. I was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to protect us from enemies on the road, because we had told the king, “The gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him, but his great anger is against all who forsake him.” So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer.” Ezra 8:21-23
This was our reading to reflect on in our Lenten Study today. And sometimes, words pop out at you. God drops a truth bomb and this verse, these words, they bombed me. Why? Well, we are in Lent. We are more austere. We pray more. We fast. Theoretically. That is what we are called to do. I was also reading parts of the commentary wherein St. John Chrysostom said: “Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works. If you see a poor man, take pity on him. If you see a friend being honored, do not envy him. Do not let only your mouth fast, but also the eye and the ear and the feet and the hands and all the members of our bodies. Let the hands fast by being free of avarice. Let the feet fast by ceasing to run after sin. Let the eyes fast by disciplining them not to glare at that which is sinful. Let the ear fast by not listening to evil talk and gossip. Let the mouth fast from foul words and unjust criticism. For what good is it if we abstain from birds and fish but bite and devour our brothers? May He who came to the world to save sinners strengthen us to complete the fast with humility, have mercy on us and save us!”
And I was preparing our evening meal, thinking, “Does this honor the fast? Does this honor Lent? Does this bring me closer to the Kingdom of God?” Wow. In Ezra it said they were embarrassed to ask for assistance from the King. They basically had told him they were protected by God, and did not require horsemen and soldiers to protect them. And when the Levites had come among them, they chose to give thanks and to fast for three days, in order to petition God for their safety – “…and He answered our prayers.”
And I could not stop thinking about how Christ had admonished the Apostles, when they tried to free people from demonic influence and they could not do it. His reply to them was, “But this kind does not come out except by prayer and fasting.” (Matthew 17:21) And it struck me – we need prayer and fasting in our lives in order to conquer some things that leave us in no other way. There is no relief for some pressures and problems, except when we pray and fast about it. Sometimes petition is not enough, because we are not conquering our passions. “Fasting poisons sin. We battle our passions through fasting.” (More of today’s commentary on Fasting). Perhaps when life is chaotic and the noise is overwhelming, we need to take ourselves out of it by prayer and fasting.
I find that the rhythms of the Church are perfect for me. Each time the Church asks me to fast and pray, I need it. So twice a year, I can get my spiritual house in order. Twice a year I can direct my focus in a fully centered way by starting and ending my day in prayer; I can fast from temptations that are all around me (fasting also includes indulging less in those things that truly do not bring us closer to God – media, in most of its forms, comes to mind). But then it slammed into me. In Ezra, they were praying for “the safe journey of us, and our children.” They humbled themselves and prayed to God and He HEARD THEIR PRAYER.
What if all of us prayed and fasted for our children? Each of us? What if the help to our children required prayer and fasting, and humility before God? What if Lent and Advent were the Church’s way of returning us to the simplicity of praying for our kids? I don’t know about you, but in this crazy world, my children, even as adults, need my prayers. As do my precious grandchildren. Children, period, need our prayers – both the born and the unborn are in jeopardy.
After a night’s sleep (I did not have time to complete this post) I started my morning prayer. And wouldn’t you know it? God was ready for me. Our reading was: Esther 4:1-3 wherein the Jewish community, upon hearing the King’s legal enactment to kill the Jewish community, went around, “in deep mourning, with fasting, weeping, and lament…” Well, the theme this week is fasting, so this was right in there. Not only were the Jews fasting, they were weeping, lamenting, and wearing sackcloth and ashes. Most people I know do fasting on the cheap and on the sly. Fish stick Friday. Or soup kitchen Friday. I am not supposed to slam people for doing what they can do. I am not doing that. But if we set the bar low, it is pretty easy. A friend of ours, many years ago, would stop each morning on his way into Los Angeles for work and stop to get a freshly baked loaf of bread. Those long ones that are soft and so very yummy. It’s not crusty French bread, but I am not sure of the exact type. But you get it. And then he would pick up a very large bottle of this gourmet water. And he would pride himself for eating only bread and drinking water. I mean if you have to do it that way, more power to you. He was, in reality, living the fast more than most, but his gourmet choices made it not so hard. LOL. In the early Church, fasting was a real deal. They would not eat ALL DAY LONG. They would go for days (usually 3) with no food, and just sips of water. I recently had the flu. I went 5 days with just water and I am still here, fat, dumb, and happy. It can be done. Why not choose something to fast for, like our children or family members, and dedicate a period of time to fast for that intention? In the Eastern and Orthodox Churches, fasting is quite something. My first year, our pastor told us to do what we could and go with that. I was not ready to give up wine, all dairy, all meat, all Olive Oil, and live like a vegan for 40 days. I just could not mentally do that. So we did all of it except for dairy. Love my cheese! I could not imagine fasting without some sort of dairy. Then we tried a Whole 30. I learned how to eat without dairy. Without carbs. And to love what I ate. We can be trained into thinking we cannot accomplish something that, in reality, we could. But we’re pretty soft.
Last summer we went to McCarthy, Alaska. We visited the largest Copper Mine in the USA. And the only way they got things there was by the train lines they constructed themselves, the boats on the rivers, and by pack mule up the mountains. The Kennicott Mine was the richest Copper Mine in America for over 30 years. The women who lived there were literally living on the sides of a mountain, in amongst mining operations. This is the era of stockings and garters, of heels and dresses. Every day. In temperatures that sometimes got to the -50’s or worse. They were cooking meals, doing laundry, and raising their children in an environment I cannot fully explain in words. But I know this – I would have, quite honestly, died. I do not think I was capable of getting there, first of all. The road we took was over 60 miles of dirt, where parts of the road had washed away and we clung to the edges. Traversing over a bridge I will never forget. Far too high, rickety, and made entirely of wood. No thank you. These people were tough. The mountain had churches and pastors, too. They had some of the largest brothels in the state, as well. Ha-Ha. But life was tough. Profitable but extraordinarily tough. And I think about that as I go to my front loader right off the kitchen in my luxurious laundry room (in comparison to Kennicott) to move a load to the front loading dryer, or grab the polska I am thawing for dinner out of my stainless refrigerator. Or as I sit at my dining room table typing this on my laptop. And I know I could not measure up to a life of such hardship. I am a total wimp in comparison to the women who braved Kennicott and McCarthy. Even some of the people who live there now, with their 20-foot snow drifts and the only way they get in supplies is by plane because half the year the 60-mile dirt road is snow-bound. And when I think of the time of Esther, when Mordecai was lamenting and leading the Jews in prayer and fasting, I wonder if I would ever be that brave.
“When Mordecai perceived all that was done, Mordecai rent his clothes, and put on sackcloth with ashes, and went out into the midst of the city, and cried with a loud and a bitter cry; and came even before the king’s gate: for none might enter into the king’s gate clothed with sackcloth. And in every province, whithersoever the king’s commandment and his decree came, there was great mourning among the Jews, and fasting, and weeping, and wailing; and many lay in sackcloth and ashes.” Esther 4:1-3
And here we are in Modern America (at least I am in the USA) being asked to pray and fast and we do McDonald’s fish sandwiches on Fridays, or maybe drink veggie soup on Wednesdays. The Church used to ask that we fast EVERY day of the 40 Days of Lent. And in the eastern and Orthodox Churches, that is still asked of us.
Is it obtainable? I think so. Perhaps when we fast, as St. John Chrysostom said, we need to fast from “foul words and unjust criticism” – maybe that is where we start. Not just fasting from “birds and fishes,” but that we take fasting a step further and use this time to walk away from those things that are not good for our souls and incorporate those habits that are. For me, Lent is like free-range kids and kids with rules. My boys thrived with rules because they were free to operate within a pre-set list of guidelines. They were not running around, getting into mischief because they had no fence, no edge, no line they were not to cross. Children respond better to a set of rules and guidelines; it gives them safety and freedom. We are the children of God. The Church has given us rules and guidelines in order to live a more Christian life. And for me and my soul, Lent hauls me back into the playground, where I am safe to play as I wish. For me, Lent grounds me. It gives me focus. It grabs me and allows the Words of the Scriptures to mean something unique and special, and they help me stop and think, and muse on things. Lent is a time where we can improve our soul and get our spiritual house back in order. It is where we come in from the playground, find our knees, and dedicate our prayers and fasting. I am dedicating my Lent to my marriage in particular, my husband and my family in general. I find that if I have something in mind when I fast during these 40 days, the fruits it bears are life-long. And I know the fruits will be there, long after my own lifetime, alive in the hearts of my family.