“So, then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (Romans 8:12-13)
This summer will mark nine years since I made my profession to live the Rule of The Brothers and Sisters of Penance of St. Francis for life. Thanks be to God! I am constantly amazed that God would call this particular sinner to the way of penance.
Long ago I came to the realization that God has not called me to the way of penance because I am strong, but because I am weak. I have spent most of my life in love with food and even now the fasting and abstinence of the Rule is the aspect with which I struggle the most. However, the paradox is that I prefer the discipline of Lent to the Octaves and Solemnities where the Rule is relaxed. I take this to be a confirmation of the call, for the Lord knows my weakness. He knows I need discipline to be imposed upon me as I have no discipline on my own when it comes to food. The discipline gives me freedom from the slavery of my disordered passions.
For many years I tried to get a handle on my obsession with food. I tried diet after failed diet. All that did was mess up my metabolism. I was no more disciplined at the end of it than I was before. Lately I have been pondering this aspect of my life and have had some insight into this ongoing problem of mine. The truth I have come to realize is that for many years I had been trying to treat my problem with earthly solutions, but that my obsession with food is really a spiritual stronghold that can best be treated with prayer and—you guessed it—fasting!
I recently read an article that talked about spiritual strongholds. The article quoted several “experts”, one of whom explained it this way:
“A stronghold is a faulty thinking pattern based on lies and deception. Deception is one of the primary weapons of the devil, because it is the building blocks for a stronghold. What strongholds can do is cause us to think in ways which block us from God’s best.”
When one has an obsession with food or any other created thing, there are many lies one can buy into:
Lie: “One more won’t hurt.”
Truth: “One less could be offered in reparation.”
Lie: “Sure I overeat, but I’m not hurting anyone else am I?”
Truth: “When you hurt yourself you are hurting God.”
Lie: “I’ve tried everything and I just can’t stop!”
Truth: “Some demons can only be defeated through prayer and fasting. Have you tried that?”
The first line of defense against a stronghold is the TRUTH! Even calling it overeating is whitewashing. It is the sin of gluttony and that is a capital sin. Viewed in this way, one can cease to be obsessed with “managing” one’s eating, and begin to fight with spiritual weapons.
St. Paul tells us that “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Ep 6:12)
So we need to be honest about our sin, call it by its name and repent with our whole heart. What if our whole heart does not want to repent? We need to be honest with God. “I am willing to be made willing!” God will never turn from a humble prayer, and there is nothing humbler than acknowledging our wretchedness. We need to go to confession—every week if need be. We should confide to the priest our struggle with this sin and ask for his prayers, and tell him we will be back as often as it takes!
Another step is to pray every day in the name of Jesus that this spirit of gluttony (or whatever our personal weakness is) be cast out of us. It is important not to address the spirit in the first person, but do everything in the name of Jesus. Then replace the spirit with its opposite virtue. For example, one could pray each day something like, “In the Divine Will, in the name of Jesus Christ, crucified, died and risen, I bind and cast out the spirit of gluttony over me and mine and over the whole world. In its place I place the spirit of temperance and ask the Holy Spirit, all the angels and saints to intercede for me. Jesus I trust in YOU.”
It is good to reference the story of Esau who traded his birthright for a bowl of lentil soup. (Genesis 25:29-34) What are we trading when we prefer the flesh to the spirit? The wages of sin is death!
If we want an example of how to live the rule well we should of course read St. Francis:
“Francis had only two mites of which he could dispose in generous charity, his body and his soul. But in his love for Christ he spent them so uninterruptedly that he seemed to be always immolating his body by rigorous fasting or his soul by his ardent desire. In this way he offered a visible holocaust like the priests in the court of the temple, while burning sweet-smelling herbs on the altar of his heart.”
Do I live the rule perfectly? I always mean to, but there are days when my weakness is always before me, days when I may live the letter of the rule but not its spirit. Is that an excuse to quit trying, a sign that I am not called to the way of penance? Not at all! I need the rule, and I have been called to the rule for a higher purpose. My weakness cannot be an excuse to shirk my duty. I need to pray and trust that God wants to heal me of my weakness, but in his timing, not mine.
My weakness is all I have to offer, and by grace God is turning it into strength. Surely the fact that we struggle gives greater value to our sacrifice. Therefore I do not judge my own efforts but give all to Jesus trusting that whatever miserable offerings I give him will be transformed by the power of the cross. “Here is my weakness Lord. Give me your strength. Jesus I trust in you. Save souls!”
 St. Francis of Assisi: Omnibus of Sources Volume I p. 700
Note: For more information about the Brothers and Sisters of Penance of St. Francis, please see our website: www.bspenance.org.