|Let us exercise moderation
Meeting people who are addicted to alcohol or drugs can be very confronting. They are like an enlargement of what is present deep within us all, and there is probably no one who can fully control himself in all areas. For that we are too human.
The possibility of becoming addicted is always lurking around the corner, and sometimes it surprises us how hard it really is to give up a habit, something we can have or a certain form of comfort in which we are used to live. This is the experience with which the desert fathers had to deal once they were confronted with their true self and could run no more: how the demons took the shape of a burning desire for food, sex, the company of others. Some of these desert fathers literally fled so that they would no longer be haunted by these passions, others took refuge in all sorts of activities and silenced those passions by doing so. Still others fought the demons and tried to penetrate ever deeper into their true self and, ultimately, they were able to defeat those demons. Nevertheless, they continued to desire food, sex and the company of others but these desires lost their power to dominate and to take them in. They became passions with which they were able to live, which they were able to control and deal with in peace. Those demons that entered as enemies became friends who let go of their firm, conquering grip and changed it into positive forces.
Jesus’ period of fasting in the desert is exactly this battle against the demons that wanted to win Him over with passions of having, ruling and enjoying. Covetously, they appeared before his eyes looking like food, power and pleasure. And everything time we can hear Jesus say: No. He does not renounce his passions; He makes them subordinate to the Will of the Father. His answer to the devil was almost like a refrain: “Not your will but the Will of the Father shall rule my life. Only then will His kingdom grow within Me and can the kingdom be proclaimed to all people.”
Nowadays, when we refer to fasting, it is highly concentrated on the restraint with regard to food. With Jesus, it was more than just about the stones that He wanted to change into bread, but still it was food, the exaggerated longing for food, a part of this temptation. We learn from this that we should not spiritualize the time of Lent too soon, not push it away as if it were something from the past, but practise it like a concrete experience. Because, when limiting food, we do touch on several passions and several passions do crop up.
For some, good food is the ultimate. Few conversations with them will not cover the topic of food. They look for the best restaurants and when they are travelling they want to sample all exotic foods. Also, they start complaining when food is trivial and dull or when it was not all that good, or when they have to do without their favourite foods. They have turned the basic need for food into a source of pleasure, which gradually starts occupying centre stage and becomes a true passion. Good food and drink becomes one of the main concerns for which they are willing to give a great deal.
In places where people hardly have enough food to get through another day, particularly the passion of having will play a dominant role. It always strikes me to see how people in poor regions spend a great part of their day’s work on gathering food. We see them working hard in the fields, we see them hauling produce from the fields for kilometres on end, bearing the heat when they try to sell their produce on the market, and the women who take hours to prepare the food. One could say that they eat to have the energy to go and find food again. Life becomes a vicious circle of food; passionately engaging oneself in food.
Enjoying good food and seeking to find enough food to survive can hardly be considered reprehensible activities, of course. Within the proper bounds, these are vitally important activities; they are part of the development of life as essential elements. However, as it is with everything, they can abandon their subordinate task and start claiming the centre of life in a very intrusive fashion. The Bible says that with people, their belly has become their god.
Nowadays, we can notice a different way in which food is occupying centre stage in our life. Healthy meals and going on a diet to improve your health or keep your weight under control is the latest craze for some. Just leaf through the pages of a few popular magazines and you will find numerous lengthy stories about food. Wholefood shops and health food shops do good business. Again, we would like to mention that healthy foods and going on a diet should not necessarily be frowned upon. However, the threat still remains of it becoming life’s main concern. It is also striking to see that New Age movements, which focus man’s attention on his own well-being, spend so much time and attention on alternative foods. With the rise of ecological movements, focus was placed on healthy foods, so there is a very real danger that nature as such will develop into a new deity. It is as if we are travelling back in time and are about to cut some mistletoe along with the druids.
During the time of Lent, when we are asked to limit ourselves with regard to food, it should be considered an exercise that goes far beyond eating a bit less. Food, which does not play an unimportant role in our lives apparently, becomes the gateway to positively influence an entire attitude to life. It becomes an exercise in sobering down, in learning to be moderate, in being able to say no to the passions that want to captivate us. It is known about possession that the more we possess, the more we are possessed by it. Addiction begins when our free will becomes inferior to the obsession of wanting to possess ever more, to enjoy ever more. We are unable to say no and end up never having enough, always wanting more and always wanting it again. In this, a peculiar mechanism of denial develops: we continue to convince ourselves and others of the fact that we are not becoming the plaything of our passions. A certain blinding starts taking control and we keep defending ourselves that it is but a small step to quit. However, in reality, that ‘no’ is not forthcoming and we sink ever deeper into the lie within ourselves.
Being overcome by passion – we will leave aside which particular passion – absorbs all of our energy and, eventually, makes us deviate from our calling to evenly develop our lives as human beings. Every man’s life’s vocation is essentially directed toward God and his neighbour, and in this movement of giving oneself away, man receives his life fulfilment. However, when a passion in life has the ascendancy, man starts falling back on himself and becomes disoriented regarding God and the neighbour. When giving oneself away, one tries to stop that exaggerated and exclusive orientation towards the self so that one can focus once again on God and the neighbour, in line with life’s true calling. And from this movement toward God and the neighbour, we will find ourselves and we will learn to handle ourselves in a healthy way.
By being passionate about the self, man secludes himself from God and the neighbour. Passion continues to win man over and claims man for itself. And that is exactly why passion should always be controlled, stripped of its gripping force, and used in a positive sense in order to let man develop himself and grow in all of his dimensions. For that purpose, passions can and will help us, yet only when they are channelled correctly and remain subordinate to free will, which, in turn, should always be tuned to God’s Will in our lives.
Jesus said no to those all-absorbing passions of possessing, ruling and enjoying by making them subordinate to his will and by completely tuning his will to God’s Will. This is Jesus’ path, which we have to follow, as well. It is the only path that can lead us to real life.
Jesus dealt with earthly goods; He ate and drank but did not allow that these goods and this food started taking over his life. That is why He voluntarily renounced all earthly goods and led a life in which He had enough with what was given to Him every day. The exaggerated worries for tomorrow were put off; every day had enough worries of its own. He ate and drank and voluntarily entered the desert where He consciously limited his food intake.
Not becoming attached to earthly goods, not being overly concerned what the future is going to bring and consciously building in a period of limited food intake were Jesus’ external means, ways to completely gear his free will to the Will of the Father. That is why He needed that free space, consciously limiting goods, worries and food, to continue to give his Father the most important place, and, as a consequence, becoming very available for the people and realising himself from this relationship with God and the neighbour.
And that is the path we must take. That is why limiting ourselves when it comes to food can never be a goal as such, merely the path to become more open to The One who provides us with eternal food and from that point on our availability and our dedication to our neighbour will be nurtured and we will be able to achieve to right self-fulfilment.
That is why it is wholesome that we honour this time of Lent and try to realise it in reference to our food, among other things. It is an exercise in moderation, in learning to control ourselves, in being able to say no to that one passion because we do not want to put ourselves first but God, and from this divine relationship we want to go to others and we will find ourselves.
But that which we practise explicitly by limiting our food, is like a learning process, a form of training, which will have its consequence in other areas. Eventually, it will become a basic attitude; moderation in all areas, in order to place God and God alone first, and not ourselves.
The time of Lent is therefore a deeply religious time because it involves God and because it opens up the way to God. No, we do not fast to lose weight or be more conscious of what we eat or for purely economical reasons. Above all, our fasting has a religious motivation, although we will not scorn the positive consequences for our health and that which we save with it, we will gladly share with those in need.
Therefore, we continue to say: “Have a blessed Lent!”
Bro. René Stockman