As we move into Advent, I have been thinking about something our Superior, Brother Robert, says from time to time: We don’t know how to feast, because we don’t know how to fast. Like Good Friday and Easter, the one does not make sense without the other.
We have lost the rhythm of feast and fast. The disappearance of Advent as a liturgical and spiritual season is a perfect example of this dynamic. The Christmas season creeps earlier and earlier with every passing year. If a little joy and wonder is a good thing, surely more joy and more wonder is a better thing. No matter that all the pressure and business and shopping and spending of the Christmas season leaves so many people in debt and miserable in the effort to create that magical experience they long for.
We live in a society that is addicted to fullness and novelty. One scoop of ice cream might satisfy a craving for sweetness after a meal, so we eat a whole pint. We think that every craving must be met, every itch scratched, every desire fulfilled in order for us to be satisfied. And so we go beyond fullness to the point of physical and spiritual obesity. This problem is primarily a spiritual one. Addiction to fullness in whatever form–be it with food, sex, material possessions, knowledge, or anything else–divides us from ourselves, isolates us from one another, and dulls our longing for God.
If we don’t allow ourselves the experience of emptiness, we can never know the experience of emptiness filled and longing met. Consciously to move into our emptiness is a powerful spiritual practice. When we put down the bowl of ice cream, when we stop distracting ourselves with all the work that needs doing, when we turn off the cell phone, we have to face into the emptiness that lies at the center of our being. Often this encounter produces intense anxiety. When faced with this anxiety most of us are tempted to throw in the towel and eat something or drink something or check our e-mail yet again.
The solution to this anxiety, though, is to move deeper into it, not away from it. We need to allow ourselves to be hungry so that we can discover what we are truly hungry for. If we’re always stuffed we can never really know ourselves or the God we seek. Rather, emptiness hollows us out and wakes us up. Entering into emptiness is a way of creating space for an encounter with God and offering God the opportunity to fill us with what we need, which ultimately is to be filled with God’s own self.
We would all benefit from a rediscovery of the art and practice of fasting. For some of us this really does need to be a fast from food. For others, perhaps it is work or judgment or buying stuff that we need to withdraw from. Although Advent is not a penitential season, it is a season of waiting and watching, a season of expectation. Our Christmas celebration will be all the sweeter if we sit in the gathering darkness of winter and allow ourselves to long for the dawning of the light rather than turning on every lightbulb in the house in an effort to cast out the shadows. Let’s relearn how to fast. It will make our feast all the more joyous when it comes.
This reflection is the first in a series of three Advent reflections on fasting. Check back the next two weeks for reflections on the ecclesial and political dimensions of fasting.
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