Advent, Seasonal

An Ancient Custom Revived for Advent

Advent seems to most of us to be a time of joyful anticipation. Christmas presents are being purchased and wrapped, wreaths hung, trees decorated. It’s definitely a time of getting ready: getting ready for travel, for receiving friends and family, for parties and potlucks and oh, yes, for the miracle of Christmas. We’re all aware of how the “reason for the season” can get lost in all the other activities, concerns, and stresses that accompany it. I’d like to suggest one activity that, this Advent, might help to keep you more focused.

I’d like to suggest fasting.

Despite its liturgical color, Advent is not considered a penitential season by the Catholic Church, so there is no requirement for fasting enjoined upon the faithful. This wasn’t always the case. In the medieval Church, Advent was every bit as strict as Lent. St. Martin’s feast day was a day of carnival (the word comes from carnis and vale, which means “farewell to meat”). In those days, the rose vestments of Gaudete (Rejoice Sunday, the third Sunday in Advent) were really something to rejoice about, since the fast was relaxed for a day. We’ve left those customs behind: the worst penances of Advent, these days, seem to be standing in line at the shopping mall.

Perhaps it is precisely in the way the secular world “does” Advent that makes this season such an appropriate one for fasting.

Fasting, more than any other discipline, does not let you forget for one moment what it is you’re doing. You’re hungry. You feel deprived. Your body is reminding you something is different, uncomfortable. That discomfort gives you focus: What better way is there to balance the excessive consumerism through which the world around you celebrates the season than with a constant reminder of what it is that we as Catholics are about now: the anticipation of the coming of the Lord?

What is fasting?

In a sense, fasting isn’t about food itself as much as it’s about abstinence; you could, theoretically, fast from something other than food. And in fact the discipline of fasting doesn’t say consuming the food of our choice is bad—quite the contrary. Abstinence is the act of voluntarily giving up something that is good.

It’s enabling the spirit to focus.

So why choose food? Well, have you noticed how you feel after a large meal? Sleepy, possibly uncomfortable, lethargic, distracted. Notice that these are all feelings that go against the spirit of Advent. Advent is a time of anticipation and watching, of preparing yourself spiritually, of holding your breath with the longing of centuries, waiting for the Messiah to arrive. You cannot wait and watch if you’re replete from a large meal.

Fasting doesn’t need to mean abstaining from all food; though Jesus fasted in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights, most of us would die with nothing. God wants us to survive! Fasting does mean, however, abstaining from enough to allow you to keep coming back to the discomfort, and—through it—to the reason for the discomfort. It keeps you coming back to God.

Have you heard the expression “give until it hurts”? Fasting is very much like that: give up until it hurts. Literally. Feel the hunger. Feel the discomfort. And feel the spiritual longing for the Son of God singing in your body and in your heart and in your soul.

How to fast

There are many different ways to fast, and a good place to begin is by asking God for discernment: what kind of fast are you being called to this Advent? The Bible gives examples of one-day, three-day, seven-day and forty-day fasts. But you’re not required to follow any of those: you can fast on Fridays, on Wednesdays and Fridays, or (in a modified way) every day.

Some people abstain from food altogether for short periods of time. Others give up one or two meals a day. Some prefer to give up something they love (chocolate, for example, or alcohol, or even television) while still having regular meals.

So what do you do instead of eating?

Use the energy of fasting. That may sound counterintuitive: it’s food that gives our bodies energy, so how can we be energized by fasting? Yet time and time again, in various religious traditions, people report fasting brings them clarity of mind. An experiment at the University of Chicago showed an increase in mental alertness and better schoolwork performance when participants were fasting. So take advantage of that clarity and focus to open yourself up to new ways of being with God.

You spend time preparing and consuming the meals you’re giving up. Use the gift of time the discipline has given you in spiritually constructive ways. You might want to spend that time in Eucharistic Adoration or other prayer; in reading Scripture; in organizing an Advent discussion group.

You also spent money on the food you’re not consuming anymore. That money could well be spent this Advent on those people less fortunate than you: donating it to a local food bank or soup kitchen will help you address the needs of those for whom fasting is not optional, for whom the feeling of hunger is all too familiar.

Fasting and Advent

You are not just abstaining from food in preparation for the coming of the Messiah; you are also echoing and remembering the centuries of longing as God’s people waited for his coming. At some point during the season you’ll be singing the haunting O Come O Come Emmanuel: “…and ransom captive Israel/that mourns in lonely exile here.” We were indeed wandering a barren wilderness before the Good News of Christ was revealed to us.

How do you feel that mourning? That sense of exile?

Fasting and Advent both remind us of that journey, the journey from darkness into light, from wandering into finding our home, from law into love. The longing of our bodies for food echoes the longing of our souls for the coming of the Savior. What more fitting way to live it out in our lives during this Advent season than through a fast?

by Jeannette de Beauvoir

 

 

 

Inspiration, Lent, Uncategorized

“We are fools on Christ’s account”

A lot of people found it odd that Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day were on the same date this year. But we have an even odder one for you… Easter is on April Fools’ Day!

At first glance, they might seem difficult to integrate, and the juxtaposition somehow disrespectful to contemplate. But there’s another way of looking at it.

In his first letter to the Christians in Corinth, Saint Paul says, “We are fools on Christ’s account.” And Saint Francis of Assisi was known as “God’s fool.” But most of the time, we’re urged to not be fools. Looking foolish is something to be avoided at all costs. Being treated like a fool is an insult.

What kind of foolishness is it that Saint Paul is talking about?

Everything about Christianity seems foolish to the world. Think about what we believe to be true:

  • God became human. The all-powerful, all-knowing God not only embraced humanity, but started out as a vulnerable baby.
  • God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are three… and they’re also one. Wait—what?
  • God’s mercy and love are unconditional. That kind of love can easily be called foolish.

God has a history of using people who society sees as weak and unimportant (we could call them “foolish”) to do amazing things. And our history as people of God—no matter how literally or figuratively it’s interpreted—is also filled with “foolish” events. Just a few examples include:

  • The Israelites wandered in circles in the desert for 40 years
  • Noah built an ark despite there being no signs of a flood
  • A donkey talked Balaam out of his plan to put a curse on the Israelites
  • Lazarus died, but came back from the dead

You can probably add any number of events to that list!

The early Church was largely Hellenistic, and the cerebral Greeks had a difficult time with some of this foolishness. None of Christianity was in synch with the culture in which they lived. This was the Church Saint Paul addressed: be fools, he urged them. Do the unexpected. Believe something your culture doesn’t support.

That same allegiance to God over culture is what earned Saint Francis his title. He grew up when a merchant economy was starting to take hold and flourish in Europe, and he saw how it valued people according to their wealth. He turned his back on this worldview because he understood that Christianity calls its followers to a greater priority: that of relationship over personal wealth and power.

Francis called his way the vita evangelica, and the people of Assisi made fun of him for it—called him a fool. Even today many don’t take him seriously, seeing him as something of a madman who liked to hang out with birds and animals. That has to be the epitome of foolishness!

But as Saint Paul makes clear to the Corinthians, being a Christian means shedding what society tells you is right and proper and embracing instead what God tells you is right and proper. The two seldom coincide, and society mocks what threatens it.

Some see it as a vocation. In the Orthodox Church, certain saints actually have it as a title: Fool-For-Christ:

One form of the ascetic Christian life is called foolishness for the sake of Christ. The fool-for-Christ set for himself the task of battling within himself the root of all sin, pride. In order to accomplish this he took on an unusual style of life, appearing as someone bereft of his mental faculties, thus bringing upon himself the ridicule of others. In addition he exposed the evil in the world through metaphorical and symbolic words and actions. He took this ascetic endeavor upon himself in order to humble himself and to also more effectively influence others, since most people respond to the usual ordinary sermon with indifference. (The Law of God, Holy Trinity Monastery, Jordanville, NY: 1993)

Still writing to the church in Corinth, Saint Paul concludes, “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”

Perhaps it’s not so odd that Easter coincides with April Fools’ Day. There is nothing so foreign to our culture—so foolish—as a religion that is based on someone dying and being resurrected from the dead. In the next few weeks, we’ll be talking about how this foolishness plays out (or doesn’t play out) in our lives as Christians today. We hope you’ll stay tuned!

(Just as a postscript—in France, where I grew up, April Fools’ Day is known as poisson d’avril (“April Fish”), which is a neat connection, since early Christians recognized each other through the sign of the fish!)

by Jeannette de Beauvoir

Lent, Uncategorized

A Refreshing Look at Lenten Penances

Repent. Believe in the Gospel. You are dust….

Lent begins tomorrow with the solemn reminder that we are sinners. After we are signed with the ashes, we’ll get absorbed in conversations about what we’re giving up for Lent. Okay. That’s what we do during Lent. But why? What is the goal? What is the purpose?

If you told a small child to stop doing various actions because they were wrong, and that was all you told her, she would conclude, “Well I can’t do this. I shouldn’t do that. I am attracted to the things I shouldn’t do, and find it hard to do things I’m supposed to do. I have to constantly make up for my shortcomings. Sigh.”

Instead, imagine telling the same child, “God loves you and wants you to be happy. Do you know how happy God wants you to be? As happy as he himself is. God is happy because God is love and gives himself in love to others. You can be happy when you love others, when you share with them, when you learn about God and love him in return, when you give God some time in prayer and worship. These things will make you a beautiful person that everyone will want to have around. Goodness is very attractive and makes other people happy too.”

The first approach could seem like a downer or dead-end. The second approach, instead, opens up the mind and heart in excitement and determined desire to do good and to please God.

That’s why I appreciate Blessed James Alberione’s spirituality because he always takes the second approach! Instead of penances that take away something from our life, he suggests penances that build up, improve, maximize, strengthen, and multiply… all in a dynamic energetic movement that involves the holiness of every aspect of our life and person for the glory of God and the good of others.

When Lent comes around I always reflect on the three penances that Blessed James Alberione gave to us Daughters of St. Paul. They really aren’t unique to our way of life as sisters and you might find them a wonderful springboard to a more beautiful Lenten journey.

  • The first penance is to live our life in community with love, constancy, and joy. All of us live in some form of community and this “penance” builds virtue, perseverance, and gratitude.
  • Alberione felt that this next penance is the most important, and yet it doesn’t seem like a “penance” at all: “It is the development of one’s personality so as to progress more, that is, developing one’s gifts and aptitude of nature and grace.” So this means becoming better at what we do in life, developing our minds through study and learning, setting aside time for leisure, appreciating beauty, developing our spiritual life, immersing ourselves in culture, praying with more fervor and developing our life of faith, reflecting on the signs of the times, honing our skills in ministry, etc.
  • Apply, utilize and make everything converge for the glory of God, for the mission (in whatever way each of us is called to carry it out), and for heavenly treasure.

The secret for Alberione is this: “Always on the move, always progressing, always preparing for the celestial life that awaits us. Oh, the holy torment of the one who aspires to greater heights, who strains forward, who has recourse to new means and uses them. Be persons who move ahead, who every day reach conclusions both in regard to their spirit and their actions, and who feel they are living their days usefully.”

Penance, for Alberione, should not weaken or exhaust a person, nor reduce our health, our aptitudes, energies of intellect, heart, and body. Instead, our penances should make these grow and use all of them for God, for souls, and for holiness.

So maybe Lent is more about rising from the ashes and giving ourselves entirely over to God’s glory, leaving behind anything that hinders us from flying on the road to holiness. So leave aside things, yes, but make sure you combine this with the holy torment of aspiring to greater heights of holiness and wholeness.

Seasonal, Uncategorized

How do you celebrate Epiphany?

I almost broke my tooth on it.

It was the evening of Twelfth Night, the end of the Christmas season, and my parish church was celebrating as many churches and families do in France, with a galette des rois—what might be translated as a King’s Cake.

We don’t just sit down and eat this cake, mind you. There’s an age-old protocol that needs to be followed having to do with the little charm that bakers hide inside the cake. The youngest child present must hide under the table and tell whomever is cutting the cake who should get which piece. Whoever finds the charm, known as a fève, in their slice gets to wear the crown that comes with the tart and then names their king or their queen.

That year, I found the fève in my slice, and I can still remember my excitement (even though the tooth that had crunched it hurt!) I got to wear the crown. I got to be queen. I think I was all of six years old. I will remember it forever.

For many people, Epiphany is a matter of ending Christmas. We take down the Christmas tree, we put away the decorations and lights until next year, we give the place a good cleaning. But Epiphany as its own celebration often gets lost in all of that.

Epiphany, for Catholics, marks the coming of the three kings, the wise men, the Magi, who arrived from the mysterious East and brought exotic gifts rich in symbolism to the newly born Jesus. Epiphany means “showing” or “appearance,” and it’s traditionally associated with bringing Jesus and the Gospel out into the world, making it clear that he came for everyone.

In a sense, Epiphany is the perfect New Year’s celebration. Every year we make resolutions that we hope will help us somehow “get it right” this year. The Feast of the Epiphany is also about getting it right: making sure that the whole world, and not just a chosen few, can be offered the gift of salvation. Epiphany teaches us that nothing divides us: not skin color, not language, not place of birth, not social standing, not wealth or poverty: we are all called to the manger, and we are all welcome there.

German poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote, “And now we welcome the new year, filled with things that have never been.” The Magis’ journey brought them to something utterly completely miraculously new, something that had never been: a baby born to be a king. Epiphany reminds us to keep the wonder of that new year in our hearts. And that is cause for celebration!

A traditional French galette des rois is a frangipane tart made with pastry, butter, ground almonds, and a few extra ingredients. Want to try one yourself? The recipe is below. Don’t forget the fève!

2 sheets ready rolled puff pastry
140 g ground almond
75 g soft butter
80 g sugar
3 egg whites
1 yolk

Mix the butter and the sugar until the mix whitens, then add the beaten eggs and the ground almond. Mix well.

In the middle of the first sheet of puff pastry, pour the mix. Lay the second sheet on top, and roll the sides of the sheets together towards the inside to seal the galette.

With a knife, draw diagonal lines in both directions (so that they cross each other) to create the pattern. Spread the yolk on the whole cake with a brush to give it a golden color.

Put in a 200-degree oven for 30 minutes. Serve it hot, but leftovers (if any!) are delightful when eaten cold, too. Bon appétit!