From Isaac of Stella

"So, brother, make for yourself a hidden place within yourself, in which you can flee away from yourself and pray in secret to the Father." Isaac of Stella

Passing From Self to God: A Cistercian Retreat, Robert Thomas, OCSO Cistercian Press, 2006, p. 4

Friday, June 3, 2011

A Meditation on Fasting

Today I am fasting in support of my wife who is forgoing food as part of a time of self imposed penance.  I have had problems with fasting.  The exuberant demands of the flesh have always tended to have their way with me.  When I would think about it I can see that I would put it this way to myself, "life has enough troubles without my manufacturing discomforts for myself."  But there is a difference between discomfort from without oneself, from the vast realm of indifferents over which we have no control, and discomfort from refusing to answer a call of the passions from within.   The first comes as a gift of nature, from the beneficent hand of God, and is, it seems to me, to be an opportunity to lay down self will and accept gratefully the opportunity to practice the humble virtues of perseverance, patience, and self abnegation.  The second is an act of the personal will to refuse something.  It is not an acceptance, but an assertion.  It is a positive act against the default settings of your body.  It is an act of asceticism, of anti-nature.  Why would a man want to do an ascetic act?

Schopenhauer teaches that asceticism is actually like the first sort of discomfort discussed above in that it is a laying down of the incessant driving of the "will", the "thing in itself" which is the hidden reality of all existence.  Through music, art, beauty and asceticism we can escape the suffering that is existence and know peace, and perhaps even joy.  It is different from the first sort of discomfort in that the first does not see existence as suffering in itself, but as the gift of a beneficent God who give both suffering and pleasure as opportunities to chose virtue, and so these things are neither good or bad in themselves.  This passive acceptance requires active choosing, often against the loud internal arguments of passions, appetites and instincts.  The second sort of discomfort, the self imposed suffering of an ascetic practice, uses the same tools of acceptance, but in an artificial setting, a self imposed situation of discomfort.  The discomfort itself then becomes the object of active choice rather than the object of passive acceptance.  A subtle difference, but one which is important.

Schopenhauer gives us one reason why asceticism is important.  By refusing the rule the appetites and training them to submission by ascetic practice we are distancing ourselves from the roar of the demands of our individual presentation of the universal will to exist.  This removes us from the suffering which is the reality of that will in its individual presentations.  We will know peace.
There are other reasons.  Freedom from slavery to non rational passions, mastery of the various demands of the flesh and the world.  Freedom to really choose what we think is right and true and beautiful- every act of asceticism helps to strengthen the musculature that is needed to rise up and walk against the immense gravity of the massive temptations of the world, the flesh and the spiritual temptations (the devil, if you will).

Mary embodies the virtues inherent in the first sort of discomfort.  She gives her "fiat" to the angel, telling him, "let it be done to me according to your will."  She suffers the piercing of the seven swords in her acceptance of the Father's will for her only son, Jesus.  Her virtue is shown to be without comparison, but she takes not the Stoic's comfort of distancing herself emotionally from the consequences of her fiat.  She suffers truly, and mixes the virtues of her acceptance with those of her son for the benefit of us, her children.

Jesus choses the severity of the cross so that he might win for us the new life of self abnegation and union with the Father.  He is the Logos, the will behind all creation, its warp and woof, and he chooses to take death on the cross, not passively but actively, like an ascetic choosing a painful practice.  In the painful travail of this birth of the new race of men, with Christ as the new Adam and all of us one with him, the suffering that is life is consummated into joy and peace, and the tears are wiped away.  In the evening, we go weeping, weeping into the growing darkness.  But joy comes in the morning.

May the fast be good today.
The life of men is indeed a mystery

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