March 2, 2018

Christ the Cornerstone

Lent and fasting for a healthy mind, body and spirit

Archbishop Charles C. Thompson

“The fourth precept of the Church [‘you shall observe the prescribed days of fasting and abstinence’] ensures the times of ascesis and penance which prepare us for the liturgical feasts; they help us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart”
(Catechism of the Catholic Church, #2043).

The season of Lent reminds us that, as missionary disciples of Jesus Christ, we are called to observe the spiritual disciplines of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

Prayer ensures that we are in contact with God, open to his will for us and engaged with him in profoundly personal ways.

Fasting provides us with opportunities for self-denial that teach us gratitude for all the gifts we have been given and humility in the face of temptations to greed and other self‑serving desires.

Almsgiving takes us outside ourselves in order to share with others both the spiritual and material gifts that we have received from our generous God.

The fasting and abstinence that the Church obliges us to observe during Lent are meant to remind us that the life of a missionary disciple is seldom easy. We are called to follow Jesus on the Via Crucis, the Way of the Cross, and to experience the same kind of suffering that the saints and martyrs all underwent (to one degree or another) in their witness to the Gospel.

Several years ago, as the so-called Cold War was at its height, a book was published titled, With God in Russia. This fascinating book tells the story of Father Walter J. Ciszek, an American Jesuit missionary priest who spent 23 years in prison in the former Soviet Union.

Father Ciszek’s witness to the Gospel comes through powerfully. The deprivation and humiliation he experienced, which might easily have broken his spirit and destroyed his faith in God’s providence, are seen for what they truly are: the wounds of Christ crucified which this faithful disciple shared in willingly for the greater glory of God.

Throughout the various stages of his long imprisonment, Father Ciszek was housed in conditions that were often appalling. At one prison, 120 men shared a cell that was damp, cold and foul-smelling. Their daily food rations—when available—consisted of a piece of bread for breakfast, thin soup for lunch and a form of gruel in the evening.

This was a severe “Lenten fast and abstinence” that lasted for most of Father Ciszek’s 23 years of confinement. His descriptions of the hunger he experienced himself and observed in his fellow prisoners, many of whom succumbed to dysentery, is heartbreaking. It is also a powerful reminder that we need more than bread alone to thrive and grow as human beings.

In his afterword to With God in Russia, Jesuit Father James Martin writes:

“Ciszek is hunted, captured, tortured, beaten, interrogated, imprisoned and nearly starved to death. The Jesuit priest endures long hours in dank jail cells, endless rides on cramped trains and freezing days and nights in the labor camps. … Yet he endures these things with grace.”

Reading Father Ciszek’s story, we can’t help but feel that our obligatory Lenten fast and abstinence is merely a token gesture —albeit an important one—in the journey to martyrdom that all of us are called to make in our own unique ways.

Think of all the conveniences we enjoy daily. Many of these are nice, but not necessary. Many of the things we take for granted, including food, clothing, shelter, employment and health care, too many of our sisters and brothers here in Indiana and throughout the world go without.

Our Church’s Lenten observance is not intended to be as severe as Father Ciszek’s deprivation behind the Iron Curtain. It is also far less intense than the physical and emotional suffering of the poor here at home and around the world. But it is a strong reminder that if we really want to follow Jesus, self‑mastery and fraternal charity demand that we set aside our own interests and look to the needs of others.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that “the way of perfection passes by the Way of the Cross. There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle. Spiritual progress entails the ascesis and mortification that gradually lead to living in the peace and joy of the Beatitudes” (#2015). This is the meaning and purpose of our Lenten observance: to gradually lead us to the joy of Easter, which prefigures the joy of heaven.

May the Lord who suffered humiliation, torture and death for our sake, walk with us on our Lenten journey. May he lead us by the Way of the Cross to the joy of everlasting life. †

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