On Fasting And Taking Flight
Published: February 26, 2009
Last week I was walking from one of our barns to another and happened to look up at the sky. It was a beautiful morning. It was the kind of morning that lifts one’s spirits. The air was cool and crisp. The branches of the trees swayed as they were teased by a mild wind. The sky was as blue as could be. I saw a large bird riding the winds. It was doing so at a very high elevation, and I am quite sure it was a turkey vulture. I see them often here, perched on our steeple or water tower.
I watched the bird for several minutes as it glided across the sky with ease and a kind of grace. It rose and fell, then soared again, changed directions several times as it allowed itself to be carried by the strong currents of air. Not once did it need to flap its large wings.
It was an expert in mastering the free passage across the sky. I do not think that the bird had any particular destination in mind. Nor did it seem to be seeking anything here below. It struck me as simply enjoying a morning ride across the sky.
On that same day, a few hours before I watched the vulture soar on the winds, Father Anthony gave a homily on God and animals and how we can learn from them. One of the things he said was that we are to be humble before God’s creatures, both great and small, because God made them and reveals something of the divine nature through them.
As I reflect on Lent’s discipline, I keep the bird’s flight in my mind.
Fasting is a common practice in all of the world’s religious traditions. Broadly speaking, it is a way of directing one’s appetite toward God. It is the putting aside of things in order to deepen one’s capacity for God. The practice of fasting therefore varies greatly. In the ideal, it need not be imposed if people have a refined sense of what it is that they know inhibits a sense of God’s presence in their lives. Fasting makes no sense if unmoored from the prime aim of encouraging us to choose some lean ways of living so that we can make room for God.
I think a way of keeping fasting moored to its proper place in our lives is to realize that we all know what it means to let certain things go in favor of a higher good. When you are really drawn to a goal that requires discipline, other things must be set aside in order to reach your chosen destination. Artists must focus on their craft. Athletes adhere to a strict regimen. Writers give themselves to the mysteries of words on a page, setting aside other pursuits. You promise love to one person in a vowed life, and in that promise, a road becomes more narrow, but all the better for walking it in fidelity. Choice means sacrifice.
But that bird teaches something as well.
Every day of our lives, winds shift our lives. Some may carry us with delight. Others may throw us off balance for a while. And there are others that can strike us with the force of a gale.
These are the inevitable winds of life that traverse the landscape of the human heart.
It is the wisdom of fasting that offers us a way to ride the winds.
It is as well that same wisdom that teaches us to find the nearest steeple and perch for a while when the winds are more than we can bear.
Indeed, fasting may well involve taking a break—a letting go of those things that we may deem so important but that in truth drive us way off course. I hesitate to get specific in terms of imposing a direction, or even a map, for those who seek a way to fast in the “right” way. For it seems that the winds of life buffet each of us in different ways. But what we share in common is the call to glide through this life, in peace and in love, with each other. Learning to ride the winds—be they adverse, strong, gentle—is the grace of learning how to soar through the myriad currents of being human.
We were born to take flight with God and with each other.
It is written that the Spirit blows where it will. Fasting is knowing what we need to jettison in order to rise with the winds, with God, with each other.
Trappist Father James Stephen Behrens is a monk at the Monastery of Our Lady of the Holy Spirit in Conyers. His books are available at the monastery Web store at www.abbeystore.com.