On this happy day of Sr. Ellen Reilly’s vows, I hold out to you what might seem to be a strange topic: fasting. It’s got somber associations with negative things like restraint and refraining and penance. How does all that fit into an upbeat event like this?
For one thing, it’s mentioned in today’s reading from Isaiah. We hear Yahweh’s voice booming out, “This is the fasting I desire.”
And indeed, it’s not our usual sense of fasting. Yahweh asks the Israelites not to refrain from something, but rather to do something; i.e., set the imprisoned free, take the burdens off the backs of the oppressed, set up homes for the homeless, feed the hungry.
Here fasting (personal restraint) is being played in its almost opposite key; not restraint and deprivation, but positive action on behalf of others. How to understand that?
One approach is to look at fasting from a different angle. And that angle is, “choices made for things other than myself.”
As an instance, there’s the mother sitting with her children at a table where there’s not enough food to go around. Of her own free will, she chooses not to take a piece of meat as the plate passes by.
Is she fasting? Yes. But her reason is not restraint for its own sake; it’s rather her seeing that one thing (her children’s welfare) is more important than another (her own immediate hunger). To say it another way, this kind of fasting is all about putting one value (another’s need) in front of another – and then acting on that changed valuation.
And so the “reverse” idea of fasting we heard in Isaiah comes into focus. I put sheltering these homeless people higher up on the list than staying home around my own fireplace. And I then leave the fireside to help out at the shelter.
Is there restraint here? Yes. But it’s restraint put at the service of something greater than my first impulse to stay at home that night.
Is it fasting? Yes. But the positive, purposeful, other-directed kind of fasting that Yahweh asks.
Other perhaps more modernly in-tune ways to hear this type of fasting? It’s the holding back from satisfying my immediate want for the sake of some greater good for the other.
A heavy strain in the culture sees it the other way. As in the wag who said “the problem with instant gratification is that it’s not fast enough.” Or, a like observation of one commentator that “for some people, the very first question to ask about anything is the WIFIM question – what’s in it for me?”
Fasting is about putting the brakes on that initial me-centered impulse, so as to free myself up for helping in a bigger universe.
And thus the vows, those promises Sr. Ellen will make in our presence today — actually reinforcing lots of intentions she’s had (and lived out) all along. These particular promises are meant to line up a person’s life more tightly with the north, south, east and west of the Gospel. They’re meant to free someone up to more closely follow that gospel way.
And so for instance, evangelical (i.e., gospel) poverty. Is there restraint involved? For sure, giving up, to a certain extent, the control of one’s property, agreeing to live from a common pot, as it were, as needs arise, looking in concrete ways to live in some solidarity with people who are economically up against it.
Restraint? Yes. But is there increased ability to help? Hopefully, yes too, in the willingness (and discipline) to forgo my every immediate want so as to help others to meet their needs.
Then there’s gospel chastity. A willingness to forgo the immediate and close blood-family for the sake of making the energy of one’s love more available to a wider family — especially again, the neediest of the families.
Evangelical Obedience. The promise to back off some from my own independence so I can work better with other people trying to follow a like vision — and once again, for the sake of helping others.
Then there’s the 4th Vow Daughters of Charity take: Service to the Poor. It becomes clear how this is the one that pulls together the other three.
And that’s because it so pointedly sets out the direction of the whole enterprise; i.e., Yahweh’s signature brand of fasting, which would have me take the focus off myself alone, so as to put it on those hungry children sitting around the mother’s table, to put it on the homeless and the burdened down person.
And so, in Ellen’s making promises today, we’re catching an echo of the sound God wants to hear coming from his people.
And that is, God’s insistence that we all “Cry out full-throated and unsparingly, lifting up our voices like a trumpet blast.” But further, that we make this cry through the sounding board of special kind of fasting. And again, not the self-referenced, flashy, “me-at-the-center” kind, but the type that “releases those bound unjustly, breaks the yoke on the oppressed, shares our bread with the hungry, clothes the naked and shelters the homeless.”
That’s the kind of fasting these evangelical councils would embody. That’s the brand of it these gospel vows would put flesh on.
One final, not-quite-connected image for what’s happening here: “Open hands.”
Henri Nouwen made much of this, a picture of slowly relaxing hands that, rather than grasping something tightly, are opening and loosening up their hold.
For one thing, these hands are now in a better position to give, to hand over what it was they were so possessively holding onto before. But for another, they are now better able to receive. Now they’re open not just in their giving away, but in their ability to take in.
Our prayer for Ellen is that her vows (and renunciations) here, her promises to fast, so to speak, that they in fact open her hands not just so that they can give, but can also receive and abundantly so.
And indeed, receive the kind of things Yahweh promises in Isaiah’s words, “Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound be quickly healed. Your vindication shall go before you, and the glory of the Lord shall shine brightly in you and all around you.”