Originally posted on the Diocese of Long Island website
At about four on Shrove Tuesday, Father John called to ask an odd question. "Do you have a frying pan?" I was a few blocks from Ascension helping my older daughter with her homework. "Not on me; I'm at the library on Norman with Ella."
We were at the church a few minutes later. Bacon smoke filled the air. Father John was tense; someone was waiting to do confession. He needed enough pancakes to feed the congregation, or at least whoever showed up before Ash Wednesday. Ella played in the big empty space coming to help from time to time, and I got to it. Diana came by to help, and we really got cooking. A couple hours later folks came by to get full for the long fast on Ash Wednesday. It all worked out fine.
I told John that I planned to keep a strict fast for all 40 days, eating only one small meal a day -- one that would not include meat, cheese, butter, or anything else that makes you feel full. John suggested I add the stability of prayer, because otherwise it would be mere deprivation. I remembered Psalm 69: "I humbled myself with fasting." I wanted to experience that. I'd need plenty of humility to weather the worldly reactions from friends and stay on course. To the more cosmopolitan non-believer, I had just found a way to justify anorexia. To a person without any spiritual bearing in life and to my atheist counterparts, I was crackers. To the Franciscan monk who preached at our church on the first Sunday of Lent, I was doing something he did only once -- and he wasn't a single dad. There was a lot of faith implicit in the decision, and I felt much as I did that crisp autumn day when, strapped to the chest of a skydiver two miles in the air, I hurtled 150 miles per hour toward an upstate apple orchard hoping the parachute would work.
John suggested that I do the Daily Office. Now, I am a cradle Episcopalian (confirmed and everything) yet I had no idea what that was. I learned. It is the work of being Christian, or what Buddhists call "the practice". The prayers, psalms and lessons were an essential part of my observance this Lent. I have done the Office every day since Ash Wednesday -- on good days going through the morning rite, the service for midday, evening prayer, and a compline before bed; on days when I performed the tasks of a single dad sometimes only saying part of the Office. But I read the prescribed psalms and lessons without fail, and I found myself deepening on many levels as the days passed. My mind was quieter, and my heart was calmer. Sure, I was starving, but there was more to it. Prayers were in my head often.
On the second Friday, John took me out to lunch to show me through the Office. He ordered a hamburger (did I mention it was a Friday?), and I took it badly as I sipped peppermint tea and swam in the soup of my starvation. But that was part of the humbling. The word humble comes from the same root as humus, or soil. It has strong connotations of fertility and potential for growth. Anger, frustration, resentment, confusion, fatigue; they are all spiritual tools when harnessed to reflection. Fasting chipped away at the everyday concerns of my ego-driven life. I became more and more dependent on the comfort and protection talked about in the psalms (they can be quite macho and warring), more sensitive to the nuances of the lessons and the themes that coalesce and drift off the trail of the lectionary. As I write this, I am more in the moment. I am happy.
John had been talking about the similarities between Moses and Jesus over the course of the Sundays leading up to Lent. From my fast-centric view, they were both fellow fasters, and thus fellow travelers I could trust; unlike Father John the Friday hamburger-eater! (Yeah, I know ... he's Episcopalian.) The lesson at the Three Decker diner that day was illustrated with a glass of water, a bottle of ketchup and the good priest's hamburger deluxe. It's too much to go into here, but imagine looking at the ketchup bottle through the glass of water. That would be God as seen through Mosaic law. Now imagine the people as the French fries. Now imagine ketchup on those fries. (I could've killed him.) The ketchup on the fries -- that was done courtesy of Jesus -- who was the only one who could be among the fries and also in the ketchup bottle. Presumably that which conveyed the ketchup from the bottle to the fries was the Holy Spirit? I left hungry and edified. Excited. I had been instructed on how to use the Office. It seemed very important to me that whatever privations I suffered, I should do it with a happy way about me, so the few people who knew about my practice might be curious enough to try it too. (I was cranky way too often, in my opinion.) The Office organized my attempt at an ideal fast.
As the fast progressed, I found that I allowed certain indulgences like cheese, and even fish a couple times when I thought I might keel over. I became calmer still. Things and people who normally bothered me, had less impact. I felt my will turning. My day to day was as before, save that I was occasionally smiling through conversations during which I was more or less unconscious. It was comical when I had the kids (they live with me half the month) and played the part of short order cook: quesadilla for Essie, waffles for Ella. Seriously? Even the dog food smelled good. Curious about how it felt to do what Jesus did, I tried a water fast for three days. That was plenty I realized, when picking up the girls from school, and so I went back to the daily meal after my own private Vespers. A forty-day water fast made possible with constant prayer was a luxury I could not afford and also live up to the unspoken promises that guide a single parent on a 24/7 basis (fifteen days a month). The Jesus fast will have to wait till I'm an empty nester.
More than anything else, I became interested in the law talked about in the lessons, and how good orderly direction in my own life was a proper mirror for it. It started changing my conception of God and the Trinity. I liked saying confession in the morning and at night. It gave me the chance to keep a spiritual scorecard on my days. Oddly, as I became more fatigued, my house became cleaner. The laundry was all done. The girls seemed to be having fun. I lost 25 pounds. I wrote a book outline, a couple chapters for another project, and a business plan. I was getting skinny but my soul was getting fat and the exigencies of daily life weren't a big deal. In a house with two kids, three dogs, a cat and a bird -- all was pretty ok. There were days when my character flaws simply would not fit in the same room with that big old fat soul.
As Easter draws near, I am grateful for this practice I've discovered in the Daily Office and my much fatter soul, but I look forward to the uncovering of the crosses. The stability that prayer has introduced to my day is serious and real. I will continue to use the Daily Office. Easter has never been more joyous and spiritual and I am grateful John took the time to guide me through the process, even as I look forward to a less spiritual experience at the Three Decker with a hamburger deluxe.