Like any religious Institute of the Catholic Church, our Order has its Constitutions and Statutes to apply the monastic tradition, the Rule of St. Benedict, the Carta Caritatis of our Cistercian founders and all the subsequent developments in Church Law to our daily life and organization. Statute 28.A stipulates: “For the main meal on…Good Friday, the brothers are to be content with bread and water or something similar.” So today we will dine on corn bread and drink Cool Spring water, a Virginian interpretation of that Statute. There is some current interest in fasting, both in traditional religions and in spiritual disciplines affiliated with no belief system. Some people try fasting and are disappointed: it does nothing!
If I do fast what do I risk discovering? Quite simply, that I’m hungry! Now, if I am hungry, I would be sharing the experience of some 925 million people (or more) in the world today. That’s approximately 13.6% of the world’s population of some 6.8 billion; that’s not an insignificant percentage. Some 578 million of those lacking food live in Asia and the Pacific and another 239 million in Sub-Sahara Africa. However, 19 million struggle on in the “developed countries”; and closer to home there are 49 million American without sufficient food or 17. 2 million household in our own country; that’s 1 in every 7 people. Despite appearances to the contrary, I probably know personally people who are not getting enough to eat. If I fast and feel hungry I learn what a noticeable part of the human population experiences daily. The difference is, I will eat a good meal in the next 24 hours when some of them will no longer be alive.
When I entered the monastery, this community already observed a Lenten discipline of no prepared supper on Friday’s in Lent; only breakfast cereal was provided and a donation was regularly given to Bread for the World. That’s what we find in the teaching of the Church Fathers: what you renounce for yourself, give to the poor. That advice presumes that I make it my business to learn to recognize poverty, to be informed about the world I live in. That’s one avenue to which feeling hunger can lead me. And how do I handle the sense of being overwhelmed by the condition of that world?
Our Constitution on fasting states: “Monastic fasting expresses the humble condition of a creature before God. It arouses spiritual desire in the hearts of monks and nuns and let them share in Christ’s pity for the hungry.”
I have to admit, that runs contrary to much of what our culture tells us. Aren’t we often exhorted to take charge and let nothing stop us? That we are in control of our reality? To think positively and aim to be on top? But if I am, how many people have to be on the bottom, crushed beneath me? How many people have to reified, reduced to objects and obstacles to my progress and well-being? And what sort of well being is that? Am I really human on my own or when I am connected with other human beings–even in their brokenness and limitations? Even when it “holds me back”?
In the context of Good Friday, I’m confronted by a God who takes the part of powerlessness over and against power and priviledge. Scary, isn’t it? That just might say that being on the top of the heap is not where truth and reality lie. If the Son of God took on the human condition,aren’t I more likely to meet the Christ there, in the human condition “in the humble condition of a creature before God”? And that Constitution challenges me further: I just might share in “Christ’s pity for the hungry.” I know full well that’s a reference to the Gospel when Christ felt pity and multiplied the loaves and fishes for the hungry multitude. Significantly, the apostles had reported that there was nothing for the crowd to eat and there were only a few loaves and fishes. Jesus had suggested that they give the crowd something to eat but they left it up to him. The World Hunger Education Service reports that, despite the growth in population, the earth is already producing enough food to feed everyone. Jesus is still saying, I believe, “Give them to eat yourself.” I pray we become hungry enough to stimulate our imagination and creativity to feed the hungry.