Moses at once bowed down to the ground in worship. Then he said, “If I find favor with you, O Lord, do come along in our company. This is indeed a stiff-necked people; yet pardon our wickedness and sins, and receive us as your own.” (Exodus 34:8-9)
Why does God call food addicts to regular fasting? A similar question came up on one of the BSP* forums one day. I am one of those food addicts. Food used to get me out of bed in the morning. If someone had told me a few short years ago that I would be fasting for 40 days twice a year I would have laughed out loud (between cookies). I found two days a year excruciating. And they were almost 40 days apart! It is still the part of the Rule that I struggle with the most.
Another member discussed with me that she was having trouble accepting the clothing restrictions of the Rule. She is a lovely young woman and although she always dresses modestly, having to give up patterns and colors is a great sacrifice for her.
A while back a friend told me that she would find the regular prayer routine tedious. She prefers variety and spontaneity to structured prayer. Routines put her to sleep.
Does feeling this way about one aspect or another of the Rule (or all three!) mean we are not called to this lifestyle? Not necessarily. We should remember the “widow’s mite” (Mark 12:41-44).
“(Jesus) sat down opposite the treasury and observed how the crowd put money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow also came and put in two small coins worth a few cents. Calling his disciples to himself, he said to them, ‘Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.'”
So what can we learn about the penitential lifestyle from the poor widow? Our Lord wants us to give, not of our excess, but of our substance. If we give what is easy to give, what merit is there in that? For a food addict to give up that second piece of pie may be of greater value than someone who gives up pie for 40 days, but has no special attachment to pie or to food for that matter. A woman who likes to dress well, but buys only her second choice instead of her first may be giving more than someone who always shops in second-hand stores, but has no attachment to fashion in the first place. A penitent who sticks to the prayer routine through a sheer effort of the will, for love of the Lord if not out of love for the exercise may be giving more than someone who finds great consolation in the prayer of the Rule.
My point is that we should not judge ourselves or others by the little or the great things we are able to do for God in the practice of penance. Only God knows the true cost. Often we do not know ourselves, for God loves to hide the merit from us to protect us from pride. Our part is to persevere in the marathon, keep running the race to the end. Pray and do not give up. That is the path to holiness, and holiness is the entire point of the Rule.
And if you need one more reason to say Fiat to the life of penance, consider this. What are the idols of this age? What good things have people turned into gods? Money, sex, power, entertainment, food, materialism. What remedies has God sent for this idolatry? The religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience are the remedy against the idolatry of money, sex and power. And the Rule of 1221 counters the rest: time spent in prayer counters the worship of leisure, periods of fasting make reparation for the worship of food, and the life of penance and simplicity is a remedy for the materialism of our society. Our Rule is precisely what is needed for this age. And to think that our Lord planned it to be so almost 800 years ago.
So if you are called to this lifestyle, do not look at the difficulties or the failures you may encounter. Keep praying, persevere and give everything to Jesus – even your failures. The Lord can use it all. His mercy is unfathomable. His mercy is what gives us the courage to stand in the breach repeating with Moses: “If I find favor with you, O Lord, do come along in our company. This is indeed a stiff-necked people; yet pardon our wickedness and sins, and receive us as your own.”
Why does God call us weak sinners to a life of penance? Because he is a good and merciful God who wants to give us everything that we need to fulfill his plan for us and for the whole world.
(*Brothers & Sisters of Penance of St. Francis – www.bspenance.org. We follow the rule of life that St. Francis gave to his third orders in 1221, adapted to the modern age. There are three aspects to the Rule: prayer, periodic fasting and abstinence from meat, and simplicity of life.)