Though we may fall, He has risen

Christ has risen. Easter has come. We have celebrated with church and feasting and games. Those of us who fasted have finished and are happily returning to our regular meals, and those other relishes that remind us of the bounty of the lives we have been given by God. As we return to normal time, it’s tempting to give up a meditative spirit as easily as we give up the privation which fostered it. Though we gladly leave behind a long dark 40 days for a renewed sense of Christ’s triumph, let us not forget the good of the fasting which whetted our appetite for the feast day.

One of the greatest gifts of Lenten fasting is that it intimately acquaints us with our limitations. I failed each one of my fasts repeatedly throughout Lent. Though I can only speak for myself, I doubt I was the only one who fell short of my own low bar. Such failure harkens back to failed New Years resolutions. Lent can make us give up trying to give up anything altogether. Lent can be another experience of inadequacy or failure. And, in a way, it’s meant to be.

The 40 days of Lent are reminiscent not only of Christ’s testing, but of Israel’s – not only of Christ’s shining moral triumph, but of the wandering tribes’ repeating moral failings. My Lenten experience was far closer to that of the faithless children of Israel than to that of the victorious Son of God, and this echo is not accidental. Where Israel failed, Christ was triumphant. Where we fall, he still stands. Lent confronts those of us who fail its rigors with our pervasive weakness, our inveterate inability to deny ourselves, to take up our cross. But even these confrontations with our own failure fit us to turn to him who denied himself unto death, even death on a cross.

Easter has come. We give up our mourning and turn to feasting. Where we fail, he has won. Where we succumb, he has overcome. Where we repeatedly fall, he has risen indeed. Glory be to God. ‘

Piped to pastures still

Lent is a time for Christians to give up what is good in order to be reminded of something better. Fasting and prayer are linked in Scripture, and it seems that fasting is a discipline which intensifies our prayers. It does so not because it makes us more holy to abstain from food, or purifies us of earthly desires, but because it creates a unique singularity of attention. Our time is not spent attending to our bodily needs in the way it is generally. This allows more time spent intentionally before the Lord. It fosters our relationship with God, because it gives we who have plenty an experience of neediness.

Our spiritual need, though undoubtedly our most dire, does not confront us with its demands the way the need for hunger or sleep will. Physical desires and needs are insistent and all-consuming when we do not attend to them; spiritual need is often experienced so subtlely as to go unfed for an entire lifetime. The God to whom we pray for our daily bread is also the God who nourishes our souls. Fasting creates a sense of dependency, a visceral experience of our own insufficiency. This fosters a felt understanding of our radical spiritual dependence on God. Fasting, like most disciplines, is a mode of self-teaching, of choosing certain behaviors and activities because they enforce to our somnolent selves the urgency and the reality of our relationship with God.

For most Protestants, “giving up” for Lent is viewed as a way to revamp forgotten New Year’s resolutions, or as an opportunity to give up what they shouldn’t be doing anyway. Fasting isn’t the same as dieting, though the two are often confused. Giving up treats or television is all very well, but Lent isn’t just an opportunity to break a habit. However much our fast may force us to attend to it – we can’t help but feel the tug of desire we are refusing – let us not forget that it is not about what we give up, but what we give it up for.

Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Catholic priest intimately familiar with the self-denial of the Christian life, wrote a poem that movingly expresses this. “The Habit of Perfection” is a series of addresses to his senses, consoling them for their privation for the sake of greater attention to God. The life of the senses is so easily distracting. We are dazzled by data and allured by experience. Divine things are often less present and less compelling. But, as Hopkins reminds us, they are more worthy of our attention. It is often through the purposeful privation of the senses for a time that we are able to better sense our God:

Elected Silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorlèd ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.

Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb:
It is the shut, the curfew sent
From there where all surrenders come
Which only makes you eloquent.

Be shellèd, eyes, with double dark
And find the uncreated light:
This ruck and reel which you remark
Coils, keeps, and teases simple sight.

Palate, the hutch of tasty lust,
Desire not to be rinsed with wine:
The can must be so sweet, the crust
So fresh that come in fasts divine!

Nostrils, your careless breath that spend
Upon the stir and keep of pride,
What relish shall the censers send
Along the sanctuary side!

O feel-of-primrose hands, O feet
That want the yield of plushy sward,
But you shall walk the golden street
And you unhouse and house the Lord.

And, Poverty, be thou the bride
And now the marriage feast begun,
And lily-coloured clothes provide
Your spouse not laboured-at nor spun.