In the name of the F, S, and HS. Amen.
Yesterday, I had all the pieces of a puzzle click together and it blew my mind.
I was at the 10th Annual Diocesan Men’s Conference yesterday. I must admit, I skipped the previous nine Annual Diocesan Men’s Conferences for whatever reasons seemed good at the time, but this year the Archbishop of ACNA was the speaker so I decided to go. I figured this was my chance to meet him and hear him talk, so what the hey—let’s do this. So off I went.
I went to the opening Mass Friday night. Pretty normal stuff. Then I heard the opening address—nothing to really write home about, but not a waste of my time either. There were some opening jokes that I had heard before, but I just chalk that up to getting acclimated to room with some conservative material. So after day one of the conference, I’d give it a solid B.
The next day, I wake up and head to the Cathedral for day 2 of the conference really looking forward to hearing more from the Archbishop. He gave his talks and ditched other people’s material and seemed to really enjoy himself. There was plenty of time for our table small group to discuss the things that he brought up which was very profitable. The MC, Fr. Chris Culpepper (who spoke to us a couple years ago during one of our Lenten Speaker Series presentations) did a wonderful job of tying everything together and building on ideas during the large group wrap ups for each session. So by the end of the conference I would give the entire conference an A. I will be going back next year and encouraging our men to do the same.
But it was during the first session on the first day that I had an epiphany. We were talking about the will. As you know, God has given us free will, the ability to choose our own destiny. We are not held down by determinism—the doctrine that all events, including human action, are ultimately determined by causes external to the will. We get the ability to choose.
But the problem is that our choices are not free made since we are skewed through our sin. St. Paul talks about this in Romans: “I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.”
So it seems that because of my sinfulness the deck is stacked against me and that every time I have the ability to choose good over evil and am being drug back by my sins such that I am only ever able to choose the sin. So the good might as well be taken off the table. That sounds much more like determinism than God intended.
But sin does not get the last laugh. Jesus assumes our sinful nature and redeems it restoring it back to its original design. We conform ourselves to him and his examples and he provides us with the grace to give us the ability to do so. And here is where my epiphany comes into play.
Archbishop Beach mentioned will power or the ability to take charge of our choices and give them to God. This turned me to Matthew chapter 17. While Jesus was up on the Mount of the Transfiguration with Peter, James, and John, the rest of the disciples were below trying unsuccessfully to exorcise a demon from an epileptic boy without Jesus’ help. Jesus then exorcises the demon and the boy was instantly healed. Afterward his disciples came up to Jesus and asked why he could heal the boy where they could not. He tells them to have faith, even a little bit of faith and they could have accomplished this, but this kind never comes out except by prayer and fasting. “By Prayer and fasting,” this is source of my epiphany. Prayer is of course calling on God to aid in a given circumstance. Fasting is the willful giving up of food for spiritual benefit.
Now previous to this Lent, I had always fast one day, twice a year—Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. But for this Lent, inspired by a buddy of mine, I decided to fast all of Lent. This was the key to the unlocking of this mystery for me. Normally when I fasted it was borderline torture. After not eating all day I had a ferocious headache that normally killed all spiritual benefits that seemingly resulted from my fast, and I was always glad that the thing was over.
But this year I decided to do this the Roman Catholic way rather than my way. My way was not eating period. But I decided to take up the Roman way to ease the pain and I thought I was copping out until another friend of mine posted a picture from a 1957 of a bishop’s direction for his diocese for fasting during Lent. One normal size meal and two small meals that don’t add up to the size of the normal meal. Prior to this revelation, I assumed (wrongly) that this was providing an easy way out for the hard work of fasting, similar to the Roman decision to move the celebration of all major feast days to Sundays to ensure the greatest number of people do not condemn themselves by failing to celebrate.
From this picture I learned that this was not an easing of the practice but the way it has been practiced. So I took it up. And then in that moment at the table in the Parish Hall of the Cathedral it all clicked. Fasting, the daily decision not to eat is the breaking of the hold of sin over the individual. What fasting for a prolonged time offers that a one day fast does not is the ability to get past the crippling headache. Your body gets used to the amount of food brought in and compensates. This daily decision not to eat makes you constantly aware of you control of the situation. You choose not to eat. So this act of regularly exercising of will power brings everything back into the proper balance because it is redeemed through the Holy Spirit.
Prayer always accompanies fasting and this is the key. God gives the power to overcome the hold of sin thus skewing the decision that St. Paul was so concerned about in the other direction. Now, through prolonged fasting and prayer, one is in the habit of consciously deciding one’s actions rather than letting habitual sin override the will. Habitual sin normally takes the power of decision away from the person because it is habit and very little mental facility is wasted on a habit, you just do it. Fasting breaks this habit by reintroducing the thought into one’s every action.
Jesus regularly fasted, and in fact we are currently fasting because he fasted 40 days prior to his entry into ministry. This was to regularly remind him who was in charge. He regularly broke any chance Satan had at getting an advantage over him by taking and keeping control of his will and regularly calling of his Father that it remain so.
St. Paul brings it all together in his letter to the Philippians today: “Brethren, join in imitating me, and mark those who so live as you have an example in us. For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our commonwealth is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will change our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power which enables him even to subject all things to himself.”
This is key. Prayer and fasting into conformity to the mind and actions of Christ which in turn helps us to remember during these 40 days what we are doing and whose we are. So remember this in the things that you have given up for Lent. We are not merely giving things up for Lent because we are masochists and enjoy causing our bodies discomfort. We are disciplining our wills that we may fight sin and Satan by taking back that which is rightly ours. So go forth into the rest of Lent armed with the knowledge of what you are truly doing and whose you truly are.
In the name of the F, S, and HS. Amen.