Dearest monks and artists,
We have ten days until the start of Lent. How will you consecrate that holy season in the wilderness? We are hosting an online pilgrimage with a companion retreat to my book A Different Kind of Fast. Read on for an excerpt:
The forty days of Lent are a sacred journey through the wilderness which means there will be moments of challenge. Even if we live in the middle of the suburbs or in the heart of the city, the wilderness becomes a metaphor for those places we need to wrestle and ultimately soften toward ourselves, bring lavish compassion to the things we struggle with and listen for ancient wisdom to practice our way into a renewed way of being.
You may wonder if a forty-day retreat is even possible for you in the midst of work commitments, family, and other things which demand your time and energy. Contemplative theologian Barbara Holmes writes that she is convinced “that contemplation can occur anywhere; stained glass windows and desert retreats are not necessary.” In fact, she continues, our times of “duress may facilitate the turn inward.”
Often it is precisely in those seasons of life when we are stretched thin, feeling overwhelmed, and completely vulnerable that our hearts start to dig a little deeper within ourselves to encounter the loving presence of what the mystics have told us is the divine spark within each of us.
In the second and third centuries the desert mothers and fathers sought out wilderness places for simplicity and to fast from their compulsions in service of cultivating greater love for the divine and the world.
One of these elders, Amma Syncletica, makes it clear that it is our intention, rather than our location which makes all the difference:
“There are many who live in the mountains and behave as if they were in town, and they are wasting their time. It is possible to be a solitary in one’s mind while living in a crowd, and it is possible for one who is a solitary to live in the crowd of his own thoughts.” (Syncletica 19)
The ammas and abbas of the desert knew that simply going off on retreat in silence and solitude does not automatically mean we will find inner stillness. In fact, many seek this kind of experience and yet their thoughts are filled with chatter, worry, and distraction. And similarly, those who live in the cities can cultivate a loving presence to each moment so that they find stillness no matter what is happening around them.
We might be tempted to think that if only life could slow down and we could have a period of retreat, then we could cultivate our spiritual life. But our wisdom teachers are clear, the wilderness is right in our midst and our invitation is to practice here and now.
In a culture that has everything available to us 24-7, it can feel like an act of deprivation to give up certain things. Yet what I keep discovering is that in a world glutted by choice, my heart feels more at peace in releasing what is not necessary and in fact weighs me down or numbs me out.
Ultimately, the practice of fasting is about making more space within us to encounter our deepest, most radiant selves. How do we listen to the whispers of the Holy One when we constantly distract ourselves with social media and doomscrolling. How do we discover the radical abundance available to us, not of food or entertainment, but of nourishing gifts like joy, peace, love, and gratitude? How do we make room for the grief inside us which is a witness to how much we have loved if we are fighting to be strong and keep control in an unpredictable world?
One of the issues I have always had with Lenten fasting though is that it seems to have become for many a second chance at new year’s resolutions. Fasting from chocolate is not a bad thing in itself, but if we approach it from a diet mentality or a sense of shame about eating certain foods, then we are not in the spirit of fasting as a spiritual practice. In fact, for those of us with a history of any kind of disordered eating, fasting can trigger our need to eat the “correct way” — whatever that might mean for you. This kind of fasting is merely an extension of the cultural mindset of body shame and control.
I invite you to release the deprivation mindset as much as possible. It is not by eating as little as possible or denying ourselves that we transform and grow in holiness. Fasting is ultimately a paradox of emptying out to be filled, paring back to receive a different kind of feast, one that nourishes our true hungers. Our fast is an act of discernment of the habits which keep us from this rich feast available to us.
Please join us for Lent and our online companion retreat to the book A Different Kind of Fast.
Our contemplative prayer service is tomorrow! I am joined by Simon de Voil and Therese Taylor-Stinson! We would love to have you with us.
With great and growing love,
Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE