I have a confession to make. I am horrible at fasting. Epically horrible. My Lenten fast usually devolves into me eating precisely that from which I have vowed to abstain in a shameful and ridiculous display of my apparent lack of self-mastery. And then (good Catholic that I am) I feel guilty. Epically guilty. There are some for whom this sort of fast (minus, of course, my aforementioned pre-Easter meltdown) is spiritually gratifying and meaningful. To you I say a hearty and sincere, “Huzzah!” It just does not suit me. It does not make me feel any more prepared to walk with Jesus on his way to Calvary and it does not call me to joyful anticipation of the Resurrection. It makes me feel cranky… and ashamed.
Fasting, I think, is meant to be transformative. Actually transformative. I think it is meant to operate like a controlled burn in the decaying and overgrown wilds of our hearts; letting what is broken and hazardous turn to ash so what is good can take root and flourish. Lenten fasting is an invitation to God. We are saying, “This is my heart. It is wounded. It needs tending.” God makes verdant the wrecked and jagged places, but we need to get down in the mire and participate. We need to see the bramble and the rot. We need to roll up our sleeves and clear it out.
Cultivating the heart is serious business — not something accomplished by token acts of self-denial. What if the fast we embrace this Lent has nothing to do with chocolate or coffee or meat but instead calls us to pour over the everyday stuff of our lives and abstain from the ways in which we either actively or passively participate in injustice? The fast I am proposing is just this: a fast from injustice. In the Hebrew Bible, the Prophet Isaiah speaks of God’s desire for us to abandon the superficial (and, dare I say, even religious) trappings of fasting and repentance. Sackcloth and ashes and self-denigration are an invitation for others to observe our piety and not an invitation for the Holy One to dwell in us, transform us, liberate us from our own brokenness. “Is this not, rather, the fast that I choose: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking off every yoke?” (Isaiah 58:6 NAB)
If we want to be liberated, we must do the work of liberation. If we want to be forgiven, we must practice forgiveness. If we desire healing, we must bind the wounds of others. Lent is ultimately about radical, scandalous, reckless love — God’s love for us laid agonizingly bare on the cross. Our Lenten fast should make it possible for this love to grow unfettered in our hearts until we are absolutely lush, unkempt and holy.
Where should we begin? Here’s a list we came up with for our family Lenten observance. Feel free to jump right in mid-Lent. Add, subtract, and edit as necessary. Once you get into the habit of fasting from injustice, keep going. Consider this Lent the beginning of your new injustice-free spiritual diet.
Start at home
I know. You were probably anticipating an exhortation to stop supporting retailers who take advantage of cheap foreign labor or to volunteer at a local soup kitchen or to recycle. All of these are honorable endeavors. By all means, do them… just don’t start there. Sometimes it is easier to look at how we participate in social injustice “out there” in the world. Start at home. Jesus teaches us to make things right with our sisters and brothers before we approach the altar of God. Doing the will of God is a hundred thousand times more beautiful than even the most poetic and heartfelt prayer. Start with those closest to you. God gave them into your care. Deal justly with them. Make amends. Uproot an old grievance. Unbind someone you know from loneliness or isolation.
Call them by name
My husband knows the name of every maintenance worker in every building he ever worked or lived in. He knows the name of the waitress who brings him his lunch. He has an easy, generous way about him. I do not. I am regrettably aloof. This Lent I am going to learn the name of the postal worker who brings our mail. I will finally learn the name of the nurse who has lovingly taken our children’s temperatures, administered their vaccines, and doted on them like they are the most beautiful and agreeable children in creation (which, of course, they are). I will learn the name of the guys who pick up our trash. Their work has dignity. They deserve to be noticed. We live in a world that makes it increasingly more difficult to recognize and experience our shared humanity. Think of the people in your life whose work and service benefit you everyday. Make an effort to know their names.
Make a staple
Instead of buying one of your grocery staples, make it. You can make your own bread, yogurt, condiments and cereal with little to no domestic aptitude or kitchen-related drama (no fooling). Nothing will make you respect your food like making it yourself. Put the money you save in a jar on the kitchen counter. Donate it to a charity that feeds the poor or give it directly to someone you know who is in need. Here’s our favorite easy little bread recipe. Or try your hand at making yogurt. Make a double batch. Share half with someone else. Nothing is more comforting than freshly made bread.
Judge not… yourself
Remember when Jesus tells his disciples to judge not? That means no judging yourself either. Sometimes the process of spiritual weeding can reveal to us that we have nursed poisonous and ugly growth where we ought to have sown love. Newsflash: you are not perfect. But — and this is infinitely more important — God made you. You bear the divine imprint. You may struggle and you may fail, but you will not be overcome. Know that God does not delight in self-centered self-abasement. God means for you to have life and have it abundantly. Living justly within our families, communities and world is about fulfilling our ultimate end: to live in friendship with God and to be happy. So, go ahead, be happy this Lent, because, “if you lavish your food on the hungry and satisfy the afflicted; then your light shall rise in the darkness, and your gloom shall become like midday; then the Lord will guide you always and satisfy your thirst in parched places, will give strength to your bones and you shall be like a watered garden, like a flowing spring whose waters never fail.” (Isaiah 58:10-11 NAB)