Following on from yesterday's post on fasting, today I would like to add another voice to our understanding of the Lenten fast. About a week ago, I mentioned that joy underscores the Liturgy of Lent and this is again expressed in today's reflection by the American Trappist monk, Thomas Merton:
"The Paschal Mystery is above all the mystery of life, in which the Church, by celebrating the death and resurrection of Christ, enters into the Kingdom of Life which He has established once for all by His definitive victory over sin and death. We must remember the original meaning of Lent, as the 'ver sacrum', the Church's 'holy spring' in which the catechumens were prepared for their baptism, and public penitents were made ready by penance for their restoration to the sacramental life in communion with the rest of the Church. Lent is then not a season of punishment so much as one of healing. There is joy in the salutary fasting and abstinence of the Christian who eats and drinks less in order that his mind may be more clear and receptive to receive the sacred nourishment of God's word, which the whole Church announces and meditates upon in each day's liturgy throughout Lent...
It is not that food is evil, or that natural satisfactions are something God grudgingly allows us, preferring to deprive us of them when he can. Fasting is a good thing because food itself is a good thing. But the good things of the world have this about them, that they are good in their season and not out of it. Food is good, but to be constantly eating is a bad thing and in fact it is not even pleasant. The man who gorges himself with food and drink enjoys his surfeiting much less than the fasting person enjoys his frugal collation.
Even the fast itself, in moderation and according to God's will, is a pleasant thing. There are healthy natural joys in self-restraint: joys of the spirit which shares its lightness even with the flesh. Happy is the man whose flesh does not burden his spirit but rests only lightly upon its arm, like a graceful companion.
That is why there is wisdom in fasting. The clear head and the light step of the one who is not overfed enable him to see his way and to travel through life with a wiser joy. There is even a profound natural rightness in this fast at the spring of the year.
These reasons are true as far as they go, but they are not in themselves a sufficient explanation of the Lenten fast. Fasting is not merely a natural and ethical discipline for the Christian. It is true that St Paul evokes the classic comparison of the athlete in training, but the purpose of the Christian fast is not merely to tone up the system, to take off useless fat, and get the body as well as the soul in trim for Easter. The religious meaning of the Lenten fast is deeper than that. Our fasting is to be seen in the context of life and death, and St Paul made clear that he brought his body into subjection not merely for the good of the soul, but that the whole man might not be 'cast away'. In other words the Christian fast is somethinge essentially different from a philosophical and ethical discipline for the good of the mind. It has a part in the work of salvation, and therefore in the Paschal mystery. The Christian must deny himself, whether by fasting or in some other way, in order to make clear his participation in the mystery of our burial with Christ in order to rise with Him to a new life."
(Meditations on the Liturgy
, pp100, 108-109).
The illustration above is taken from an 1845 edition of the Pontificale Romanum and depicts the reconciliation of public penitents by a bishop.