Friday after Ash Wednesday
When I was on a contemplative retreat a few years ago, I had a conversation with one of the monks about contemplation and the spiritual life. At that time, I had in mind that contemplation was supposed to be about attaining greater and greater spiritual heights. I supposed that I would find God and fall in love with God more and more through my own silent prayer and my time spent thinking about God.
The monk had a rather different take, though. He said, "If prayer and contemplation don't lead you to love people more, then it is for nothing." His words shook me out of my lofty idealism about prayer - it wasn't really supposed to be about ME. Christian life, including prayer and contemplation, is supposed to be about cultivating love for others - self-sacrificial love that enables me to focus more on my neighbors than on myself.
I had that monastery moment in mind when I read today's scriptures. The first reading from Isaiah (58:1-9a) describes people who are self-satisfied about their fasting. They believe God will reward them because they have done the best and most renunciation of food; they have done the best and most praying. What benefit does that have for them, however? God reminds the people that if we are concerned about whether we're the best at prayer and fasting, we have missed the point. If we even have a whiff of feeling superior about giving up chocolate AND pop AND alcohol compared to a friend who has merely given up chocolate, we've missed the point. If we think our own prayer is heroic compared to our neighbors, we have missed the point.
Rather - what helps us to love better? The fruit of fasting and prayer should not be anything about ourselves. Rather it should lead us to want justice for our neighbors; it should want us to feed the hungry, seek out the company of oppressed people, and desire to be friends for the lonely.
Jesus underscores this point in today's gospel (Matthew 9:14-15). The Pharisees and the disciples of John were both considered groups of people who practiced their faith well. Jesus' disciples pale by comparison. Look, they can't even maintain a fast! How weak they are, some might have proclaimed.
Yet Jesus points out that when the bridegroom is with them, why should they fast? That is to say - when God, love himself, is with us, we should not fast - for that puts attention on us, and takes attention away from the Lord himself. When Jesus is no longer with us, then we might fast - for sometimes, too much food, or rich food, makes us think more about food and our own desires, rather than about love of God and neighbor. Fasting can help us bring our attention back to the justice God desires, and help us remember other peoples' needs over our own.
As we begin this season of Lent, let us pray that our Lenten practices will enable us to love each other, and God, more and more.
- Jana M. Bennett