The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.”
At a recent workshop for Franciscan friars I learned an important distinction about Christian fasting, especially as Saint Francis approached the ancient monastic practice.
The best of Greek philosophy encouraged the disciple to practice discipline. He (it was usually "he".) should lift himself above the common run of men who whined and grumbled and complained about their human condition. The Stoic is "not like the rest of men." By will power he teaches his body to accept hardship and disappointment. The athlete, the warrior and the scholar all expected and embraced less food, less sleep and more vigorous activity to keep their minds and bodies sharp.
Whatever the body wanted -- ease, satiety, sexual pleasure, indolence, security -- were suspect. Whatever the body shunned -- hard work, hunger, weariness -- were embraced. The body should obey the mind.
This stoic model has never gone out of fashion and Francis was just as familiar with it as Jesus before him and our latter day ascetics.
But what was the point of such rigorous discipline? You're going to die anyway. The stoic simply wanted to be better than others; he took the insult of human frailty personally and fought against it. But again, to what end? Is being superior to others really worth the effort? Most of us give up that quest pretty soon, saying "I'll be superior in some other way, while I enjoy that chocolate bonbon."
Francis discovered a deeper reason for the ascetical practices of hunger, exposure to the elements and sleeplessness. He would know in his body the physical suffering of the Crucified and enjoy communion with his Savior. That communion, of course, was not limited to Jesus of Nazareth. Communion with the Christ includes the entire Church -- and all people -- and all sentient and insensate beings. By his love for Jesus which he practiced with his beloved "Lady Poverty" Francis became a brother to the universe. Like the birds of the air, he did not reap or gather into barns. With the wild animals he slept with clouds for blankets and stars for nightlights.
Although the bridegroom seemed to be taken away, Francis enjoyed his immediate presence through hunger, wintry cold, summer heat and insects. This was clearly the simplest, easiest and most accessible way to know the Lord. Anyone could travel this way to the Lord and Francis shared it with the men and women who came to follow him.
As we enter the Season of Lent, especially during these first few days, we should consider by what reasonable, moderate ascetical practices we might experience a deeper communion with the Lord. We are compelled to this as we remember that he freely chose to go to Jerusalem where he knew death awaited.
He embraced us through his passion and death, so we embrace him and our brothers and sisters -- especially those who know deprivation not by choice but by injustice.