Last Tuesday, at a lunch, I had a conversation, which we have all had in different way many a time. The person next to me was a bit surprised, I think, that I had done a science degree before becoming a priest. She assumed that science led people away from religion. When I explained that many of the central scientific discoveries had been made by persons of faith, and that science typically confirmed people’s faith, I think she was a bit shocked. When I told her that science was perhaps one of the most faith-filled actions in society based as it was on a belief in truth, she was quiet for a bit. Then she said, “You’ll probably have realised that I am not a religious person.”
As I said, I am sure we have all had this conversation before. Someone distinguishes religion from life, whereas we think that religion is just life at its most profound, most coherent, most intelligible and intelligent. Deep down, I wonder whether both parties to such conversations feel that the other party is superstitious. The secular party thinks all religion is superstition, the religious party thinks belief in truth and meaning without God is superstition.
We don’t really find such a distinction in the early church. The Fathers of the Church talk very basically about life and faith. They are one and the same thing. For instance, I recently came across some writing by St Maximus the Confessor. He was writing that all personal difficulties stem from four causes. The first cause was evil spirits. These were always trying to get us to fall and despair. As we have said before, this spiritual battle is central to the whole Bible, and it is precisely this from which Christ liberates us.
But the other three causes were so basic. St Maximus the Confessor says that besides evil spirits, our difficulties arise from memories, the weather and food. He is basically talking about what puts us in a bad mood. And whereas the Holy Spirit is the answer to the evil spirits, we are the answer to our own bad mood.
St Maximus the Confessor makes the obvious point that many of our difficulties – and clearly he is talking about our attitude to our lives, not things like loss of job, earthquakes or bad crops – that many of our fundamental difficulties arise when these other things dictate our mood. If we let ourselves be buffeted by our memories or by the weather or by our appetites, then we are never free. We are always reacting. We never have peace. We are therefore less likely to make good decisions.
As I said, this is all obvious stuff. Likewise, the remedy is obvious. Self-control. The more we can control ourselves, the less our peace is dependent on the world. The more peaceful we are, the better we can hear God’s word in our lives. This is the lesson from every retreat.
The more we can hear God’s word, the better we can incarnate it. The more we incarnate it, the more we grow in likeness to Christ. This is what growth in holiness looks like. This is the way of true stability, true meaning, true joy. Again, not magic, not superstition, just the hard work of getting free in relation to myself and therefore in relation to the world. It is the hard work of letting Christ be king in my life, rather than my appetites.
This is the truth behind fasting. As you know, Advent is a penitential season. A penitential season, no matter how much the world seeks to distract us from this truth. We use Advent to prepare for the coming of Christ. The Church has often spoken about the three comings of Christ. There was his coming at the Annunciation and at Christmas. There will be his coming in glory at the end of time. And there is his coming to us at every moment of our lives. God the same yesterday, today and tomorrow.
And so we are called to prepare. We are called to master ourselves. We are called to quiet our appetites, clean our houses, get our affairs in order, so that we are ready no matter what Christ asks of us and when.
And fasting with prayer and charity has always been the first step. We should notice that Christ assumes we are fasting, just as he assumes we are praying and assumes that we are serving our neighbour. Yes, he is concerned about how we do this, that it not become an exercise in ego and vainglory, but Jesus does assume we are doing these things as part of our daily lives. For there is no other path.
So, this Advent, as we prepare for the coming of Christ, it might be worth thinking about fasting. How do I build up my self-control? What measures do I take as a matter of course to become more free? This Advent season, I might ask myself: from where am I taking my rule of life: from a commercial society that seeks to enslave me to my desires, or to God who seeks to free me to love and be loved totally?