To Love Fasting: Or Why Officers Eat Last
Address given at the Prairie Troubadour Conference; Fort Scott, Kansas, February 25-26, 2022
Fr. Joshua Morey, OSB
The late 15th Century Swiss mystic, St. Nicholas of Flue, was once quoted as saying, “Go to prayer like you are going to war, go to prayer like you are going to the dance.” He probably was a good warrior, and likely a good dancer too. Indeed, he had a wife and ten children before receiving the call to a hermit’s life- and yes, I know that some of you out there are thinking that many men hear the call to a hermit’s life at such a time in life, but his call was for real. “Go to prayer like you are going to war; go to prayer like you are going to the dance.” And even if hermits are not usually known as liturgists, he probably would have made an interesting liturgist too, for knowledge of war and prayer and love and dancing are a great preparation for the understanding of liturgy, and should be required pre-requisites at any serious liturgical graduate school, though I absolutely in no way whatsoever include liturgical dancing in this description. “Go to prayer like you are going to the dance; go to prayer like you are going to war.”
But prayer and fasting go together like pigs and pasture: a match made in heaven. Such has been the constant tradition of the Church and of Her spirituality, going all the way back to the Gospel and even to the synagogue:, most famously in the words of Our Lord: “Some demons only go out by prayer and fasting.” (Mark 9:28) And so in this talk, I’d like to somewhat alter the words of the good Nicholas von Flue, and say: “Go to fasting like you are going to the dance; go to fasting like you are going to war.” This talk will have three parts. Fasting as war, fasting as love, fasting as liturgical. With an interlude before the third part: fasting as practical.
I. Fasting as War
Fasting is a weapon, and like all weapons, it depends upon the will and skill of the user. A Conventual Franciscan of the Renewal tells the story of one of his confreres on an airplane. He was sitting next to a woman, and when the flight attendants came around to serve the in-flight meal, the woman said that she wouldn’t have anything. The friar asked if she were not hungry, and the woman replied that she was fasting. The friar commented, “Oh, that’s good.” To which the woman said, “I am fasting for the destruction of Christian families.” Let that sink in. “I am fasting for the destruction of Christian families.” It was something satanic. After the initial shock, one might ask what kind of efficacy such acts could possibly have. Perhaps it is best not to investigate, though one might fairly conclude that it would prove to God that our world is rather serious in its desire that there be more demons here, and that they be unleashed from the Providential restraints placed upon them. But it is a rather sobering thought that, right now as you are sitting there, your wife, your husband, your kids, your family, your marriage, all these are living in the crosshairs of a person or persons whom you don’t even know, whom you’ve never met; that all your loved ones-and their relationships-are walking around with a laser dot on their heads. Some persons are sufficiently motivated to the point of being willing to practice self-denial and to suffer discomfort in order that such harm be visited upon your loved ones, and that your family be destroyed.
But let’s return to that question of efficacy. Whatever be the power of the wicked fasting in league with devils, it remains true that we are only dealing here with a created power which, though well-nigh incomprehensible to us in its angelic magnitude, is yet nothing in comparison to the divine power. And here is where things get interesting. For it is a matter of the Faith that we receive Trinitarian powers of Trinitarian magnitude into our earthen vessels (cf. 2 Cor. 4:7) at the moment of our Holy Baptism. We are not simply given a participation in the power of angels, as great a thing as that alone would be in itself; we are given something infinitely greater: we are given a participation in the power of God Himself, as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit come to make their abode in us. ( ). In ourselves, we are by nature quasi-infinitely less than the fallen angels: in God, however, we are supernaturally “catapulted” beyond them, into a world where, at least after the Incarnation and its consequences, we become capable of actions savoring of the divine, as we live and move and have our being (cf. Acts 17:28) in the God-Man, Who, after our Baptism (and Confirmation and especially the Eucharist) lives and moves and has His being in us. And thus He has His action in us, and therefore it is He Who is fasting in us and with us and within us, and we partake of the power of His fasting. Now we are talking efficacy. “My fasting can beat up your fasting.” Or rather, His fasting in my fasting can beat up your fasting. And by the way, with God in us, we also receive the friendship of the good angels, who are the equal of the bad angels according to nature, but yet infinitely surpass them by having the grace of God which the latter lack. However, the treatment of such considerations must wait until the third part of the paper: fasting as liturgical. Here, we are still talking about fasting as war.
Some demons are only cast out by prayer and fasting. So Christian fasting is where the map of the battlefield is turned around, so to speak. Christian fasting is where the hunted become the hunters. One is reminded of the scene in the autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux, where she, being perhaps around eight years old, saw two demons fleeing in terror from her, and trying to hide in the garden shed behind her house. “Ah,” you say, “but I am not St. Therese, and I do not have visions.” True, but she had very few, anyway; for her, it was mostly a walk of faith, as it is for all of us. And yet we can know the power of fasting by a certain experience sometimes. A while back, a group of married men, loosely grouped around the monastery, would meet together from time to time. One time they were discussing the difficulties of being a husband and father in today’s world, and they decided to try something practical about it. They all agreed that they would, each of them, fast one day a week for their families: in the course of the day, they would eat one full meal, plus two smaller meals which don’t add up to another full meal. They settled on Wednesday and, helped by the knowledge that all the others were out there doing the same thing, they began. And they all rather quickly reported an improvement in their family lives. Hmm.
Speaking of fathers and husbands and fasting, I am reminded of an old priest I knew back in Seattle, with a reputation for giving good advice, to the extent that occasionally a young woman would go to him and ask, “Father, what sort of man should I marry?” And he always said the same thing: “Marry a man who can fast.” (By the way, it’s the same priest who says, “The glue of marriage is prayer and children.”). Marriage is largely about self-sacrifice, self-denial. If a man is able to fast– deny himself– for the sake of God and his own soul, then he will be able to deny himself for the sake of his wife and the sake of his marriage. If he can say no to small things like the Twinkie in front of him on the table, then he will also likely be able to say no to bigger things, for example, to things on the Internet which he must avoid at all cost, out of fidelity to God and fidelity to his wife. (And when I say “at all cost”, I do mean “at all cost”. Men need to relearn that some things dishonor their own self, their own manhood.) But if he cannot say no to small things, then sooner or later, he will not say no to larger things, and he will not deny himself for his family. If there are any young ladies out there listening to this, who are engaged to a young man who is unable to fast, my best advice is this: break it off, send the ring back. I am very much in earnest. If he cannot fast, he has no business asking any girl to marry him; he will break your heart. He may smile and repeat that tired old line from the 1960’s: “I’m a lover, not a fighter.” But please burn this idea into your soul: while it is true that not all fighters are lovers, yet all lovers are fighters. Some men forget that their obligation to provide for and protect their family is not primarily a material one. The material aspect is secondary. The primary provision and protection is to protect their loved ones from the demons. This must come first. Men must return to being protectors of life, providers of life, givers of life, in imitation of the Holy Spirit, Whom we call in the Nicene Creed the Dominum et Vivificantem, the Lord and Giver of Life. And this will involve fasting. There are many males in the world who can’t or won’t say no to themselves: the news headlines are full of them, and the world is dying because of them, and we don’t need any more of them. Pope Benedict XVI used to tell young people: “The world promises you comfort, but you were not made for comfort. You were made for great things.”
So let’s go back to great things, and to fasting as war. Some demons only go out by prayer and fasting, and it is the second half of this duo which is often overlooked. As said above, fasting requires faith, living by what we do not see. But can we fight according to what we do not see? Is it not “shooting in the dark”? Let’s use an analogy, which may help some more than others. Many of you are familiar with the mechanics of a scope as it sits on a rifle. The scope has two knobs, one on the top and the other on the side of the scope, and by means of a screwdriver , one can swivel the scope vertically and horizontally, so as to account for variations of distance and wind when shooting. The scope and rifle could, at least in theory, be pointing in vastly different directions, such that one could hit a target which one could not be seeing through the scope. On a bench rest, the rifle could remain stationary, while the scope swivelled above it. But take it a step further: the scope could, at least in theory, be what remains stationary, while the rifle moved beneath it. Harder to picture, but it could happen. In theory, then, one could be looking through a scope at a scene which never changed, and yet hit a wide variety of targets. In spiritual combat, we could be looking through the scope of our seemingly-monotonous daily lives, and hitting a wide variety of targets, as long as we keep firing. And here is where St. Louis de Montfort enters with his teaching of Total Consecration to Our Lady. Give her the screwdriver and let her manage the movement of the rifle which sits beneath our unchanging scope its seemingly-unchanging view of our daily humdrum existence. Give her all your actions, your prayers, your mortifications, and allow her to use them as she will. In short, let her guide your bullets. “Whoa,” you are saying, “but does Our Lady actually do things like that?” Here let’s quote St. John Paul II, though using his words in a rather different context. Regarding his assassination attempt, he said, “One hand fired the bullet, another hand guided it. The first was that of the would-be assassin, Ali Agca, the second was that of Our Lady, who deflected it, thus saving his life. So you have the word of a canonized pope that Our Lady guides bullets, and the pope went so far as to place the bullet extracted from his body into the crown of Our Lady’s statue at Fatima. But can she guide them to their target? In spiritual combat, yes, of course. Have you ever seen a mother whose children are threatened? Do you know what a mother grizzly bear does when her cub is endangered? It isn’t pretty. Now, is a grizzly stronger than Our Lady, or does it love its cub more than Our Lady does her children? It would be blasphemous to say so. She has an incalculable interest in delivering her children from all dangers. So get shooting, and leave the results of your fasting to her. I recall seeing a book about American snipers in Vietnam; the book had an intriguing title: it was called The Thousand-Yard War. Any decent Marine sniper must be able to consistently and repeatedly hit targets at one thousand yards. And any decent Christian soul, inhabited by the Most Holy Trinity and guided by Our Lady, must be able to consistently and repeatedly knock demons off of peoples’ shoulders at ten thousand miles. The Ten Thousand Mile War. There is no lack of targets, perched on the shoulders of an alcoholic in Bolivia, a man struggling to convert in London, a persecuted prolife pharmacist in Arizona, a problem pregnancy in Indonesia.
And the leaders in war must fast, as is even true on a merely natural level, and as, once again, the Marines can teach us. In a book entitled One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer, former Marine Recon Captain Nathaniel Fick describes a scene he witnessed at Camp Matilda, Kuwait, around February of 2003. He writes:
A long line of Marines stood outside the chow tent. NCOs hovered near the end of the line, turning some people away. I walked over. Apparently, the field kitchens had been spread too thin, and there was food for only about a third of the men in the camp. In Marine Corps fashion, that food would not go to the first Marines to arrive, and not to the senior Marines who could pull rank, but to the most junior Marines at Matilda. The NCOs were allowing only privates and lance corporals to get in line for dinner. I remembered a story I’d heard from General Jones…. He’d quoted a former Marine officer who went on to be a Fortune 500 CEO. When asked for his guiding principle, the CEO replied, “Officers eat last.” The philosophy is simple, and it goes a long way.
II. Fasting as Love
Tolkein’s character, Faramir of Gondor, in the midst of many battles, says, “War must be while we defend our lives against a destroyer who would destroy all; but I do not love the bright sword for its sharpness, nor the arrow for its swiftness, nor the warrior for his glory. I love only that which they defend: the city of the men of Numenor; and I would have her loved for her memory, her ancientry, her beauty, and her present wisdom.” G. K. Chesterton reminds us, a bit more simply, that the true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him. And St. Benedict, simplest of all, uses only two words in his Rule: Jejunium amare- “To love fasting.” (cf. Holy Rule, ch. 4, #13). War, like everything else, is ultimately a simple question of love. Fasting, like everything else, is ultimately a simple question of love. And we need to love our families at least as much as the woman on the plane hates them. Asceticism, which is a bigger and broader thing than a mere stinting of food, is a question of love, of self-gift, even if it may begin with self discipline and self-denial. We must love something, and it takes a greater love to kick out, or at least discipline, the lesser loves, the often parasitical loves.
We need a love like St. Joseph had. One of the monks told me of a painting he once saw, representing the Holy Family resting during the flight into Egypt: it showed St. Joseph taking his own ration and breaking it in half, giving half to Our Lady and the other half to the donkey carrying her. Officers eat last. The man called “Terror of demons” eats last. But he is also married to a woman who is called “Cause of Our Joy”. And so what joy St. Joseph would have had in his acts of self-gift to her, for her. And this is perfectly logical: being a man of enormous love and self-gift, St. Joseph would have known unspeakable joys, for joy is a fruit of charity, according to both St. Paul (cf. Gal. 5:22 on the Fruits of the Holy Spirit, Who is Love in the Trinity) and St. Thomas Aquinas (cf. Summa Theo., IIa, Ilae,q.28,a.1). And if we have joy, we can do anything, even fasting and penance, and happily. Having joy is like in playing Super Mario Brothers, when your character is glowing and you simply run through the bad guys. And we are made not just for virtues (like charity and penance), but for the fruits of virtue (like joy). St. Benedict’s Rule often seems a bit of a “downer” upon one’s first reading of it, but we must learn how to read the ancients. They do not speak like moderns on a daytime talk show, spilling their every emotion to the audience in a stream of consciousness. One must know how to find their meaning and the clues which they scatter. For example, the word “joy” is not on every page of the Rule. But where you do find it, and even twice in the same sentence, which ought to set all the bells off in your mind, is—of all places—in the chapter on Lent, where he says that we ought “with the joy of the Holy Spirit” await Holy Easter “with the joy of spiritual longing.” Lent goes with joy, and if joy be the fruit of love, then Lent is a time of love. In this life, be very suspicious if you ever find joy without penance, which is the spiritus mundi, or penance without joy, which is Jansenism and Puritanism. Joy and penance are, and must be, inseparable; they go together like whiskey and cigars, like bacon and acorns.
One last point on fasting as love, and this may help lead us to liturgy. John Senior threatens us modern men with a sentence which, if you really ponder it, is truly awesome in its fearfulness. One might even term it a “inetaphysically-thermonuclear threat”. He writes, in Restoration of Christian Culture: “If future generations exist and think of us at all, they will say, digging in our ruins, ‘This was a people who lived unconsummated lives.’” What are we made for? It is St. Augustine who cries out the answer to us: Non consumptio, sed consummatio. (Tractates on John). Not consumption, but consummation. For much too long, we have been looking for consummation in consumption, and not finding it. Here is where St. Augustine understands us very well, as we do him. We are not designed to be consumers, moving from one edible to another, consuming one product or person or experience after another. We are to manage the rotational grazing of our cattle, but we are not to be those cattle ourselves. We are not made for the consumption of consumables and consumer products; we are made for consummation. Fasting helps clear our vision; it helps us to avoid all of those little, parasitical, illusory consummations. Non consumptio, sed consummatio. And it is a fearful thing to lose sight of that distinction, for we shall miss not only love, but the full and fine expression of love: consummation.
Interlude: Fasting as Practical
Where do we start with all this? We have not been prepared for any of this by our world, perhaps not by our families, or even by the Church. And yet fasting is supposed to be a standard part of the Christian life. Our Lord tells us that His disciples will fast when He is taken from them. (Mt. 9:15; Mk. 2:20; Lk. 5:35.) So if we actually are His disciples, we must practice some kind of fasting. St. Paul says that we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that the Holy Spirit helps us with unspeakable groanings (Rom. 8). Likewise, we do not know how to fast as we ought, so let us likewise look to the Holy Spirit’s help, and start there. And we do need His help for, as Fr. John Hardon used to say, only heroic Catholics will even survive the times to come; and we will need that Gift of Courage in order to fast. And if we want the Holy Spirit, St. Louis de Montfort teaches, we need His spouse, the Blessed Virgin Mary. Before fasting, think of her.
St. Josemaria Escriva used to say that a meal without a mortification is a meal taken like a pagan. What did he recommend? He meant take one less dash of salt, take your second favorite soda or salad dressing, a little more of what you don’t like or a little less of what you do. Delay that sip of your drink for a few seconds. This is nothing that will affect your physical health or your performance at the rugby game in the afternoon. Your neighbor at table will never notice anything, God alone will see it. (cf. Mt. 6:18) Indeed, your neighbor should not notice it, for you are supposed to be mortifying yourself, not him. Or what about fasting for a little while from noise, the media, the Internet? These are small acts of love, and also provide a means of keeping up a running battle with the demons, making them keep their heads down.
Let us all, all of us in this room, right now, this instant, commit to this much: that we will never again let a meal go by without a mortification, and that we will turn down our every shower at least a few degrees. If we cannot commit to this, then it follows automatically that we must never, ever complain about the problems in the Church, in the American political situation, and in our families ever again, for we are part of the problem, rather than part of the solution. If we cannot commit to this much, we must resign ourselves to living unconsummated lives, and we must forever renounce the art of living liturgically. We are neither lovers nor fighters, neither dancers nor warriors, even incipiently. We can go beyond this minimum, either now if we are able, or later if we need more training, but let us at least agree to what has been said. If we are not fasting and praying for Dan Kerr and St. Martin’s, what are we doing?
III. Fasting as Liturgical
St. Paul tells us: “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation: behold, the old has passed away; the new has come….” (2 Cor. 5:17). By Baptism, we go from being a creature of God to being a child of God, not by a legal fiction, but by a real adoption by the Father and a real assimilation to His Son, Jesus Christ, and the cry “Abba, Father!” comes from our hearts in the Holy Spirit. (cf. Gal 4:6). At the Baptism of each one of us, the Father’s voice is heard once more, at least by those who have ears to hear, as it was at the Baptism of Christ in the Jordan, as He says, “This is my beloved son.” For the Father sees us as “sons in the Son”, as participating in the Divine Sonship, as “partakers of the divine nature” (cf. 2 Peter 1:4). And as the Eucharist is the extension of the Incarnation throughout time and space, so one who receives the Eucharist becomes an extension of the Eucharist. (Which should obviously make us treat each other differently.) We are called not simply to take Christ as our role model for virtuous deeds, but to live in accord with the divine principle placed in us at Baptism, and to live the “Christ-life” in us, or let Him live His life in our life. St. Elizabeth of the Trinity prays in her famous prayer which begins, “O my God, Trinity Whom I adore…”, that she may “be another humanity for Him in which He can renew His whole Mystery.” This, in one way or another, is the meaning of the Incarnation- “God became man, so that men might become God,” says St. Athanasius. It is the meaning of the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ, extending the Head of that Body through time and space, the Church wħich takes Her life from the Eucharisi, as John Paul II reminds us in his encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia. It is the meaning of our spirituality, as witnessed by Cardinal Newman in his prayer entitled “Radiating Christ”, in which he asks that Christ may so penetrate and possess him as to make his life only a radiance of that of Christ; and it was this prayer that Mother Teresa made her sisters pray first after Holy Communion every day. Enter into all of this, and you will understand why Pope Benedict XVI was accustomed to repeat that the Catholic Church is not a set of prohibitions. Rather, it is the Mystery of the God-Man remaining present and active in the world and in us, living and applying the Redemption which He won for us, and allowing us to partake as true agents in that Redemption. The Apostle invites us, even as he speaks of his own experience: since “with Christ I am nailed to the cross, and I live, now not I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:19-20), therefore “I rejoice in my suffering for you, and fill up those things that are wanting to the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for His body, which is the Church.” (Col. 1:24). And he urges us to redeem the times, for the days are evil. (Eph. 5:15). Thus, we are all called to be redeemers in the Redeemer. (Side note: there is a controversy over calling Our I.ady “Co-Redemptrix”, which title some would wish to deny to her. This attempted denial is rather absurd, for St. Paul says that we are all supposed to be co–Redeemers though of course she would hold that title in a supereminent way.)
The liturgy is not a commemorative reenactment. Civil War reenactors are not actually
fighting the war, making it actually present, even if I know that some of them would like to do so. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “Christian liturgy not only recalls the events that saved us, but actualizes them, makes them present.” (#1104). The liturgy does this with the whole life of Christ, especially the Paschal Mystery of His passion, death and resurrection. And as this is true of all of Christ’s life, so it is with His fasting. He still suffers in His martyrs (“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”), He still walks the roads of the world with His apostles of every age and century, in us He still prays to His Father, He still offers Himself to the Father through the hands of His priests. And He still fasts in those who fast in Him. Earlier in this talk I made mention of the good angels. How much we need them today! It is interesting to note that it seems that there are only two times in the Gospel that they come to aid the Sacred Humanity of Our Lord: the first is at the forty days’ fast and temptation (Matt. 4:11, Mark 1:13); the other is during the Agony in the Garden (Luke 22:43). And the Church, knowing that the wicked angels are not distant during our physical and moral suffering, makes sure to entrust us to the good angels at the start of Lent, invoking them in the Tract of the Mass of the 1st Sunday of Lent. They will come to our aid too, in our own fastings and temptations and agonies, and the more so as they recognize the image of Christ their Master in us, and Him acting in us. If humbly we are in Christo, we can say to the diabolist on the plane, “My fasting can beat up your fasting,” for it is Christ saying it in us. But even more interesting than some kind of polemical approach is the giving of glory to the Father, and the salvation of souls. And we will be, as the good Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins says, “lovely in features not His”. And then we shall be not only “fishers of men”, but “kingfishers” as well. And we will catch fire. For while Ecclesiastes assures us that there is a time to embrace and a time to be far from embraces (3:5), and while it would seem that fasting is a time to be far from embraces, yet all of the liturgy is an embrace, a union with God, unbroken contact in the “sacrament of the present moment”– in short, a consummation. And Dr. Senior will be proud of you.