I’ve never been one keyed-up about fasting. It’s probably my least favorite part of Lent. One of those things I try to plan my day around to reduce its impact. I think one time in college when my friend mentioned that she had been fasting over a certain prayer intention, I wrinkled my nose a little and in my head thought, “Why would you want to do that?? You barely have enough energy to do everything in your crazy busy schedule. Why not just simply ask God about it; why all the unnecessary grieving and self-inflicted pain?” — What would self-inflicted suffering do to make anyone’s life better much less move God to answer a prayer –as if you could hold yourself or your good health hostage over God until He stopped you, saying, “No, no! Don’t hurt yourself over that! Here let me solve your problem!”
This was my thought processes about voluntary fasting and self-denial. I thought of them as saying to oneself, “Maybe if I pray really hard, it will make a difference and God will know that this is really important to me and so grant my prayer.” Like maybe if I wished hard enough, the genie would grant my request. But I know God doesn’t work like that, that if you only want something bad enough, He’ll give it to you, whatever it is. So I scoffed at the ‘overly pious’ and went on my way.
But lately a lot of my conceptions about devout Catholic practices, like novenas of the divine chaplet of mercy and saying the liturgy of the hours, have been changing. And I found myself last week embarking upon the adventure of fasting and novena-ing for the March for Life. (Never say never to God –it’s really just a challenge to prove you wrong –and oh how you’ll get the divine ‘I told you so.’) I’m not involved with any pro-life groups this year and didn’t go on the March itself, but wanted to do something. So I offered up my prayers and hungry stomach in the hopes of changing just one heart or mind to love life and not destroy it, whatever form was under duress, young or old, healthy or handicapped.
But a few days into it, the snickerdoodles that I’d baked but hadn’t found a way to work in with one of my meals yet looked pretty good during the middle of the day, and my old arguments that me-not-eating was not going to affect anyone else’s life sounded pretty smart. And then I was hit with all the Facebook statuses deploring those blindly believing Christians who were marching and shouting and spouting off trite sayings, trying to deny women their rights or warring against Congress for something that made abortions safer and more easy to swallow anyway so you might as well just go home and do something useful instead. And frustration almost got the better of me. (Sometimes nothing is more defeating than not being able to make yourself understood.)
And I thought, “What am I doing this for? My fasting and praying aren’t going to change any laws just like marching on Capitol Hill for 39 years hasn’t repealed any laws. No one knows I’m doing this and even if they did, it wouldn’t change anyone’s mind or heart. This is stupid.”
The other day my mom was telling me how my dad had started fasting to pray for the intention of my mom regaining her sight. (Most of you know this back story but for those who don’t: In August 2008 my mom failed the peripheral vision test to renew her driver’s license and within a matter of months lost the rest of her vision due to a benign tumor that was pressing down on her pituitary gland. In June 2010 she had surgery to have the tumor removed, but some optic nerves were damaged. She’s regained some of her vision –her clearest sight has been when she could make out the outlines of faces and even the mustache on my dad’s face. But her days typically alternate between white fogs of nothingness and photo negative darkness where movement and outlines are just perceptible.)
Understandably, her life has change a lot since losing her vision. No longer working two jobs and running around like a mad woman trying to be the perfect mom to six kids (even after the majority of them have moved out of the nest), she instead spends her days doing tasks around the house that she can, praying, visiting with friends and family, watching (er… listening to) tv, and trying not to fall sleep in the couch or her sitting chair. She’s living in a much more slower-paced routine, and a doctor’s check-up prompted the concern that she needed to be exercising more.
So she said to my dad, ‘Forget the fasting! Help me get more exercise!’ So he did. Every day they walk together outside or in the mall.
But I think it’s important to add that he felt led to fasting for my mom. I myself have struggled with praying for my mom. I have gone back and forth on asking for her to regain her sight, to be healed fully, or just asking that she grow in ways God is calling her to grow and become who He’s calling her to be, regardless of her vision status. It’s not that I don’t think God could heal her fully, it’s God’s purposes in the loss of her sight that I’m not sure on. And if I do ask for her returned eyesight, how long do I give it before I throw in the towel and chalk it up as not going to happen in this life? 5 years? 10? Till she goes Home? Is there even a right way to pray about this?
Is there a right way to pray about anything that tugs on the deepest concerns in your heart?
I’m not sure. But I am sure that I admire my dad for fasting for my mom. I’d want my husband fighting like that for me too. He didn’t know if it would do any good, but he did it anyway. He showed the depths of his love and care for her by doing whatever he could to help her. I am truly grateful for this circumstance in our lives that has revealed the strength of my parents’ faith, and the resulting strength of their marriage.
Some people have expressed the concern that my mom could be doing more for herself so she is not so limited in her capabilities –seeing-eye dogs or something to get her more mobile and out of the house and doing things again. For most of her life my mom thrived in being independent and now her life seems to be ever shrinking. But not in her eyes.
In her eyes she finally has a chance to slow down and enjoy life –enjoy time with friends (a rare occurrence in her past life), enjoy doing simple tasks like washing the dishes and folding the laundry without rushing through them to get to the next hundred things on her to-do list, enjoy spending more time with my dad going to morning mass together and exercising at lunch. But mostly she enjoys the increased time for prayer.
“Does a cloistered nun live a shrinking life?” she asked.
When I was discerning, I’ll be honest, I breathed a sigh of relief when I realized God was not calling me to be a cloistered nun. I’m an introvert, and I love being by myself, but I don’t know if I could handle such an enclosed world. But then again, talking with those women, they didn’t seem like prisoners behind bars. Their lives seemed peaceful, purposeful, and joyful. The majority of people they prayed and worked for they would never meet or get to know, yet that didn’t stop them from living their lives for others.
And I don’t think being mostly blind and homebound keeps my mom from living her life for others either. She told me that she is happier now that she has ever been in her whole life.
And I get it. Different parts of life call us to use different gifts and grow in different ways. For the past six or seven months I have been struggling to figure out where God is leading me, where I’m supposed to go and what I’m supposed to do in this next part of my life. I got hung up on the question God posed of where He was calling me to serve. I was geared up and ready to go anywhere that let me out of St. Louis. I was ready to prove my independence and spread my wings and make it as an adult! I wanted a challenge! I wanted adventure!
It took a while to realize God wasn’t calling me anywhere or to do anything, but to grow in certain ways and to love Him in a new way. Imagine the deflation that my challenge wouldn’t be to navigate a new city or build up a new system of support, but to trust God that my perseverance in these matters of faith would pay off, and that my adventure wouldn’t be to see new sights and travail unknown pathways, but to follow after God when all I can see is a step in front of me and it feels like sheer rock face on one side and a steep gorge on the other.
And everything is uncertain. I constantly question if anything I’m doing will make a difference. Like job searching and resume building. It is so hard to work on perfecting a cover letter for a job you know a hundred other people are applying for that have better skill sets and experiences than you. And it is so hard to keep networking when nothing you try seems to pan out. And you go back and forth about settling for a temporary or lesser job when you want a job that uses more of you, but you don’t even know what that job you are looking for is.
I certainly have fallen prey to perfectionism many times in my life and believed the theory that it’s not worth trying unless you know you won’t fail. So this has been a difficult lesson in trying when I know that there’s a strong likelihood that I won’t get the results I am looking for. It’s certainly been faith building to push along through the sludge and muck of tough questions without answers especially when there’s no solid ground in sight. Picture being given the task of getting up a steep incline that is all mud and leaves and pocked with hidden holes and very little trees or branches, so that you sometimes find yourself scraping and crawling with only your own grit to keep you moving up when you slip and slide out of control. But God is crawling there with you.
It’s a trust in the process of life. It’s a trust that this is worth something. Like fasting. (Hah! And you thought I was getting horribly off-topic.) Sometimes the point of fasting is not to see a result in someone else’s life, to know that your sacrifice made a difference, but to go through the process of suffering with intention. Maybe you won’t know the difference you make in any tangible way, but you yourself will have changed for having done it. And sometimes, that makes all the difference.