Arise — go! Sell all you possess. Give it directly, personally to the poor. Take up My cross (their cross) and follow Me, going to the poor, being poor, being one with them, one with Me.
Little — be always little! Be simple, poor, childlike.
Preach the Gospel with your life — without compromise! Listen to the Spirit. He will lead you.
Go into the marketplace and stay with Me. Pray, fast. Pray always, fast.
Be hidden. Be a light to your neighbour’s feet. Go without fear into the depth of men’s hearts. I shall be with you.
Pray always. I will be your rest.
The Little Mandate of Madonna House
Pray, fast. Pray always, fast. Last week in our journey through these words that are the heart of MH spirituality and way of life, I focussed on these same words, but wrote about the aspect of prayer and its essential role in our life.
But what about fasting? What is it, and why is it? Why is it important? Is it? How does it fit in with going into the marketplace, being plunged into the human situation and its bargains and trade-offs, its cold calculations and tragic compromises? Why is fasting a right Gospel response to our being deeply immersed in the affairs, concerns, joys and hopes, sorrows and distress of all men and women, all of humanity?
I write about this in my book Idol Thoughts. Fasting essentially is a matter of establishing a spiritual order, or rather healing a deep spiritual disorder in us, by a bodily action. It bears witness, therefore, to the essential unity of our bodies and our spirits, that the two are not and cannot be at odds with each other, but form a single reality, a single person. What we do in our bodies directly affects our souls and vice versa.
The disorder that is then expressed in the more unsavoury aspects of the marketplace—the buying and selling not of goods and services, but of personal integrity and dignity—is essentially the disorder of idolatry. Human beings are inveterate idolators. That is, we look everywhere else but to God for our happiness. Whether it is sex or food or power or revenge or riches or fame or chemical stimuli or a host of other variations on those themes, we slip into idolatry as soon as we complete the sentence ‘Happiness is…’ with something other than God, something other than our living communion with the Father in our Lord Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Food is one of the lesser idols, in many ways, but our habit of overeating is nonetheless a sort of anti-sacrament of this false religion of happiness. That is, we have all sorts of desires and hungers in us, too many to count really. But when we keep shovelling ‘it’ in, when every little twinge of physical hunger is immediately filled by some morsel of food (or perhaps rather more than a morsel), then our bodies are telling our spirits that there is no happiness available outside of creatures and what they can give you.
So this little piggy goes to market, then! Off we go, confirmed by our bodies in our spirits that what we really need to be happy is to get whatever our grubby little hands can lay hold off and take it to ourselves by whatever means necessary.
Fasting, then, is the great sacramental of the true religion, the truth about human happiness and fulfillment. By choosing to embrace a little bit of hunger (we’re not supposed to starve ourselves), by choosing to have just that bit of weakness, just that bit of unsatisfaction in our flesh, we form our spirits in the deep truth of our need for God, and of God’s faithfulness in meeting that need.
Fasting is hard. Our world today is all about instant gratification, instant quelling of need. Many of us were raised in such an ethos, and so self-control, embrace of moderate hunger does not come easy to us. But the spiritual profit is huge.
And in the context of this part of the Mandate, our going into the marketplace, fasting is utterly essential. How can we preach the Gospel of divine love and mercy, of the God who meets us in our need and brings us to the happiness of the kingdom, if we are busily stuffing ourselves with whatever we think we need? Our witness to the Gospel will be hollow and unconvincing, if we are not ourselves living by the faith we profess.
So that is why we fast, essentially. The other benefits of fasting are very good and real—the mastery of the passions, the virtue of self-control and discipline, even the physical health benefits of not always being full up. But Christian fasting is essentially evangelical and kerygmatic, proclaiming the sufficiency of Christ and of God to a world mad with consumption and worshipping of creatures. So… let’s watch what we eat today, OK?