Friday, March 5, 2010

Fasting of the heart

The days are growing longer. The sky is clear. The snow is almost melted. Into my room come gentle rays of evening light. The trees are still bare; but there's something in the light of the sun at 6:00 in the evening that says Spring is coming.

I sit and soak in the gentle light. My heart is open. Feed slowly, I tell it. Just as a hungry man must keep himself from eating too quickly, lest he regret it shortly thereafter, so also I must tell my heart to pace itself. Soak it all in, but not all at once. These are magical moments, but they are fragile.

We are a couple of weeks into the season of Lent, a time of prayer, fasting, and examining ourselves to see where we have fallen short and in what ways we must repent and turn ourselves toward God. I have learned in recent years the benefits of literally fasting. The body is good, but it must be made to serve a higher purpose than its impulses.

But we must eat. Why would we deny the body something it needs? The body needs food, yes, and that is exactly why fasting helps us gain control over the body. When the body gets comfortable having all of its needs met instantly, it is easy for the self to be guided by the body, rather than the other way around.

(And anyway a fast doesn't have to be total abstinence from food; it can be simply eating no meat, or eating half as much as usual, or leaving something out that usually seems essential. But abstaining from food for, say, 24 hours, is not an insurmountable feat. It can be done, and it is a useful exercise of the will.)

The Eastern Orthodox are very thoughtful about this topic. I've been reading a blog with daily thoughts on spiritual practices such as fasting (see also here and here). The practices they prescribe can be intense, as in this post, which makes the reason for such extreme measures clear:
Saint Theophan advises us that the flesh should be persecuted in all it parts and functions so that it can be transformed into a keen weapon of righteousness.

This is not the kind of theology of the body that is usually taught in Protestant circles. Judging by the teaching that comes out of evangelical sermons, one might be led to believe that Christian spirituality ought to involve no physical effort whatsoever.

For instance, in the sermon I heard last Sunday, the pastor explicitly said that it makes no difference what posture you take when you pray, and I'm sure the vast majority of Protestant Christians would be inclined to agree. God judges the heart, not the outward appearance. I suppose that's true.

But the heart, like the body, is prone to various lusts. The body may lust after food and sex, but the heart lusts after beauty, power, status, recognition--not that these are inherently evil, but neither are food and sex; yet lust after such things is spiritual darkness.

A frightening question occurred to me the other day. What else does the heart lust after? Just as the body needs food, what does the heart need, which it then learns to lust after? Friendship, perhaps. Love, romance, beautiful art, beautiful nature, hope, ecstasy, happiness--God?

Can the heart possibly lust after God? Isn't the greatest commandment to love God with all our heart? Yet love is not lust. Lust does not make a marriage. Seeking to make other people look at you is not true friendship. Lust turns inward; love turns outward. Is it not possible to do the same thing with God?

I fear it is. And there is practically no recognition of this in the culture in which we live, perhaps especially in the Christian subculture forged by evangelicals.

Lust after God begins innocently enough, with a deep and ecstatic desire to have a "personal relationship" with God. We pray to God earnest, heartfelt prayers, not mechanically, as the error-prone traditionalists are apt to do. Then "Our Father" becomes my Father, my Jesus, my personal Lord and Savior, mine, all mine.

There is this insatiable hunger for an experience of God, a prayer life that is ecstatic and intensely personal. There is an unquenchable thirst for real worship, the kind you feel when you are waving your hands in the air to music that really moves you. There is a desire to read the Bible and see what it really says, so that you know how to avoid all the errors of the dead, traditional church.

Or perhaps there is simply a desire for something different, something new, something that the masses can't handle because of their simple minds or their hardened hearts. Perhaps there really is something there...but you crave it so badly that you can never really have it.

But God wants our prayers and our worship to heartfelt! But sometimes the heart seeks God, and other times it seeks to devour God. The heart is not so different from the stomach. The stomach craves food, but if it is not disciplined, it will simply devour, rather than eat.

Is it really so hard to believe? Was it not in eating the very body and blood of Christ that the Corinthians displayed their selfishness and gluttony? (1 Cor. 21) Every Sunday before communion, our pastor tells us, "Feed on Christ in your heart, with thanksgiving." I wonder if the pastors at my church ever thought to add, "Eat slowly."

So it occurred to me this Lent that my heart, too, needs a certain amount of fasting, just like my stomach. It is always tempting for a Christian to go into prayer with the heart in a posture of grasping, rather than receiving. But what does the Lord's prayer say? Not "my will," but "Your will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven." It is not for the heart to ascend into heaven to take the things of God, but rather to stay on earth, and to receive God's gifts from heaven.

What would that fast possibly look like? It is quite simple, really. Pray the Lord's prayer. Oh, but your pastor will tell you that the Lord's prayer should never be just a formula. Yes, it should. My heart needs a formula, or else it will always be greedy. It needs to be restrained by the words Jesus taught us to pray, so that it will not seek to devour God, but rather to love God.

The only pronouns in the Lord's prayer are our, us, you, and, your. There is no I, me, or my. Prayer is not about me. And prayer (and all of life) is first and foremost about loyalty to the Kingdom of God. Your Kingdom come; your will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.

So I will say the Lord's prayer, slowly, on my knees, not adding any of my own words--mechanically, even. This will protect the heart from reaching out to devour. It will be a fast. Just as for the stomach, I don't eat food, so for the heart, I don't feed it with its desires.

But the heart needs God! Yes, it does; that is the point. Just as the body needs food, yet we deny it food for the sake of making the body a "weapon of righteousness," so also the heart needs God, or rather to feel intimate with God, yet I will deny it for the sake of making the heart, too, a "weapon of righteousness," capable of feeding on Christ slowly, rather than simply devouring.

And then, perhaps, the heart will be liberated from its selfishness, so that it can truly pray those beautiful words, "Our Father," and actually feel that the Almighty God is indeed Father.

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