Thursday, March 24, 2011

Fasting as Tool, Not Penitence

As Marjorie Thompson illustrates, we often do not talk about the spiritual discipline of fasting in Protestant churches. I grew up with the notion of forced abstinence from meat and fasting on Ash Wednesday. I rejected this practice at a young age because I was not given choice in the matter. However, as I reoriented my spiritual practices among my own choices, I have reclaimed this practice occasionally, now better understanding both its value and purpose. I think fasting is kind of like the sacrament of reconciliation.

For me fasting is something I try to do in Lent although it is something that can be done all year round. I think it creates a space for God that I might not otherwise have. I’m trying to fast one day a week, although I sometimes deviate from this practice. I don’t know that fasting helps us enter into the presence of God but it makes me conscious of what I am doing. I am more reflective of what I am doing throughout the day and I plan my eating: bagel for breakfast, soup for lunch and apple and cheese for dinner. The fast is not eating at all but a reduction in what I would normally eat. By focusing on less consumption, my body is freed up to belong more to me and more to the Spirit.

I would say that offerings in the refectory make fasting easier, but last night they offered turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes. I felt like it was a feast during the middle of Lent! But today I am more conscious that I need to scale back, being more careful with my intention.

“A life that recognizes no limits cannot recognize the sovereignty of God” writes Thompson. What exactly does that mean? And what does that mean in relation to the spiritual practice of fasting. To say our (and sometime mine specifically) lives seem out of control, and perhaps spiraling if I chose to deal with feelings through comfort food. I do not like the language about sovereignty, as it suggests imperialistic imagery. I would prefer language that God is at center, something theocentric. So fasting is a discipline that reminds me God is at the center of my spiritual life, not me. Thompson goes on to say that when create things become things unto themselves they can become life-denying as opposed to life-giving, where grace can shine through. So fasting is really just a way to kick my butt into gear and remind me that I’m also not alone, my feelings, however, bad do not have to consume me. There is something else out there.

So really fasting is just a tool like any other spiritual discipline, it’s been tested time and again in many different traditions. I have an acquaintance who is exploring Native American spiritual practices and went on a vision quest in California. As part of her experience, she fasted in order to gain the clarity of needed to receive the message from the universe. Fasting for me in my own context then is a tool for clarity (discernment) and receptivity.

Those seem to be desired outcomes—if more of us thought of fasting as tool rather than penitence to enhance our clarity and receptivity to God’s message, maybe more of us Protestants would try it.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Peace Treaty

I find that there are so many components to practicing love and compassion. At the core of this practice and cultivation is the notion of being in right relationship with others, which in turn expresses being in right relationship with God.

In Teachings of Love Thich Nhat Hanh provides a very practical tool for the practice of love, compassion, and being in right relationship with those around us. The Peace Treaty provides a relational, behavioral, and therapeutic framework on how to live in right relationship so that people may live long and happily together, develop and deepen understanding and to observe and practice compassion and reconciliation.

I suspect the Peace Treaty could be most helpful in a church setting, especially where there may be a history of trauma or ruptured relationships due to enduring interpersonal conflicts. I think some spiritual that have been communities are crying out for practices that express love, compassion, justice, nurturing, and gentleness. Churches go in cycles of periods of health, decline, and ill health. Some might say that the pattern of common life traces the cycle of birth, life, death and resurrection. That no practical way exists to defy that cyclical pattern. On the other hand, the Peace Treaty could also be a proactive tool to help ensure ongoing health. How can we diminish suffering? How can we increase periods of joy and spontanaeity in community? How can we achieve a better balance of emotional health in groups and in communities?

The Peace Treaty offers one way to achieve and maintain spiritual, emotional and psychogical health. It is only a tool and it success depend on its disciplined use.

The anecdote of the Vietnam veteran who witnessed the death of the young woman in Vietnam moved me. He kept the hammock she slept in as a way to hold on to his suffering. The question is how might he let go of his suffering. And what if the trauma happened to a group within a community? The Peace Treaty would not work in this situation given the depth of the pain and intensity of the trauma. Other tools would be needed to help work through this trauma so that those suffering can let go of their suffering. Ritual, litury, and therapy would be likely methods to help ease the suffering of those traumatized.