Who Am I?

Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 5

Posted: May 12th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Fasting | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 5

As my efforts to understand this Christian faith within which I found myself continued, I kept reading both the Holy Scriptures and patristic writings from the first millenium. Nowhere could I find a change from the core communal practices of fasting, set prayer, and care for the sick and poor (at the very least through almsgiving). Other spiritual disciplines and practices were refined over the centuries, certainly.  But those, which seemed to flow directly from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew (which is recorded historically from the late first century and early second century as being the first gospel written), always seemed to form part of the core of the life of the Church. (We won’t discuss Eucharist and Liturgy right now.) There continued to be a monumental disconnect between the church of Scripture and the entire first millenium and what I personally saw and experienced around me.

In an entirely separate journey from my own, my mother converted to Roman Catholicism. She was and is heavily involved with the Carmelites. Somewhere along the way, she shared Brother Lawrence’s The Practice of the Presence of God with me. If you’ve never read or listened to that book (audio is online from several sources), I highly recommend it. Brother Lawrence greatly influenced me and continues to influence my practice of the faith today. Moreover, he is an early modern practical mystic who has much the flavor of the ancient writers I was struggling to connect to the present day church. In order to connect the dots in the middle, I began to explore ecclesial medieval history in the West. I already knew a lot of the non-ecclesial history of Western Europe from the fall of the city of Rome through the medieval period. I didn’t even realize there was this huge gap in my knowledge until I began to explore it. What happened to the Western or Latin Church after the fall of the city of Rome and the rise of Islam drove a wedge between the eastern and western church?

As Rome declined and fell, the order it had imposed in the West gradually vanished. (The Roman Empire, shifted to the capital of Constantinople, continued in the East until the 13th century, of course.) No surprise there. And no real surprise in the work done in the monastic communities preserving the ancient works and serving as centers of light and order. What I saw by looking directly at the church, though, was that during this period more and more of the activities, such as fasting, that had been the work and practice of the whole church, came to be seen as largely more centered in the monastic calling. Rather than being an expression of the fullness of the Christian life to which all believers are called (well, except for celibacy), the monastic calling came to be seen as a higher calling, a different calling, following a different rule of life. And as this happened over time, the practice of the “laity” doing things like consistently and broadly observing the rule of prayer and fasting began to decline. One rule of faith developed for the laity while a different rule of faith developed for monastics.

Then, of course, at the Reformation, many such practices that were deemed too “Roman” by the reformers were simply discarded and a rule of individual choice of discipline and spiritual practice — which quickly devolved into very little actual practice at all — began to replace them all. That which the Reformation began, the Radical Reformation with its deep iconoclasm (an ancient first millenium heresy) soon completed. The Christian church in the West, by and large, became focused purely on the “spiritual” and began to treat the body and the “natural” mind as though they were divorced in some odd way from a person’s body.

I did eventually run into Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines which seeks to correct some of that decline. And his work helped me at least understand the disciplines in a modern context better than I ever had before. And though he writes at length about fasting (which I may explore on the blog at some point), I never actually adopted the practice for myself even though I agreed in theory with everything he wrote.

That’s the first sign of the truth behind my confession at the start of this series. By this point, I knew that fasting and prayer were deeply embedded and intertwined in the practice of Christianity from its very beginning. I knew it was likely an essential spiritual discipline. Yet I did not even try to fast, even in the clumsiest of fashions.

In the next in this series, I’ll close the loop of this journey with the last bit of knowledge about current Christian practice that I was still missing.


Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 4

Posted: May 11th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Fasting | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

So, picking up in the 1990s, I want to focus on one event that sticks out prominently in my mind. At some point, I forget exactly what year, but I believe it was one of the championship years, I remember watching the Houston Rockets at a point in time when the NBA season overlapped the Islamic month of Ramadan. Hakeem Olajuwon, one of my favorite players ever (remember Phi Slamma Jamma in his college days?), is also a practicing Muslim. I remember that on day games on the weekends, he would play without eating or drinking anything to abide by the fast of Ramadan. By the end of those games, he would be hanging on the basket exhausted even with efforts to manage his playing time.

I was impressed by that degree of communal faith participation. I was still exploring Christian history trying to understand when and how its original strong, communal practice of fasting had all but vanished. Islam had never particularly interested me in my spiritual journeys, so while I had a pretty good perspective on its historical activities, particularly in the rise and fall of empires, I did not know all that much about the faith itself. Intrigued by the example of Hakeem Olajuwon, I began exploring as I had explored many faiths in the past. I learned the five pillars and the way they were interwoven in the life and practice of every Muslim. I read parts of the Qur’an. I gained some insight into sharia. I read some of the other writings from within Islam. I learned about their own major schism following the death of the Prophet. I found a faith that is richer and more complex than is generally given credence in the West.

I did not ultimately find it personally compelling. I had become far too focused upon and captivated by this strange Jesus of Nazareth, the center of all Christian faith. And even in my more widely ranging spiritual days, Islam would not have been the sort of spiritual practice that attracted me. But I did gain a deep appreciation for the communal nature of the practice of the Islamic faith.

This same sort of communal life had once been at the core of the Christian faith. That faith grew out of Judaism as changed by the revelation of God made known to us in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Where had those practices gone? What happened to them? I still didn’t know the answers to those questions. Nor did I change anything in my own practice of the faith at that time. I knew what Christians had once done. But they had done it together. My spiritual journey had been broad enough that I had learned the danger of an individualistic approach to spiritual practices, especially those that directly engage the body. You do not always know what you are engaging when you open yourself up or act to change your spirit. And without some community to guide you, things can go easily awry.

Yes, this meandering journey will, I think, eventually reveal the reason for my confession that I might never have chosen a fast. In the next in the series, I’ll continue my journey as I dove ever deeper into Christianity.


Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 3

Posted: May 10th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Fasting | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 3

I ended my first post in the series with the confession that I might never have chosen truly to fast. The reasons are many and complex and I’m not sure I even have them all worked out. It is true, however, that I am a product of our present American culture. And by and large, we do not fast. In this post, I’ll weave through aspects of my formation and journey that seem relevant to me at this moment.

I’m not certain, but I believe I first encountered something of the idea of fasting in practice (as opposed to literature) when I attended a Roman Catholic school a block from our home in Houston for 6th through 8th grade. Even then it had faded as the practice has faded across the board in Roman Catholicism in America. But there were some adults who, for instance, did not eat meat on Fridays. It was discussed in Religion class. And even though the practice of Lent had largely become one of each individual selecting something for themselves to ‘give up’ from Ash Wednesday to Easter, it was still a definite practice and fasting was discussed.

I was not Catholic and I did not participate in any of the fasts. In truth, my attention at that time, to the best of my recollection, was primarily focused on the practice of Transcendental Meditation, numerology, palmistry, astrology, tarot, and a number of similar avenues of spiritual exploration. But I did pay attention. I was interested in all things spiritual. I would not say I understood on any visceral level. But I was aware.

Flash forward now through the twists and turns of close to two decades, soon after the time when the idea that I was acknowledging Jesus of Nazareth as my Lord and my God and attempting to follow him had become a core piece of my identity. (The word ‘conversion’ always seems inadequate to me. Plus, in a sociological sense, I probably had many ‘conversions’ both toward Jesus and away from him over the course of my life. All were ‘real’. That’s the best way I can describe what finally happened to me.) A lot happened over those years, some of it probably tangentially related to this discussion, but not central to what I want to explore right now.

Given my longstanding interest in history, especially ancient history, it did not take me long to begin reading ancient Christian writings and history in addition to the Holy Scriptures. Most particularly, it did not take me long to run across the Didache, a teaching and apparent baptismal confession recorded in the late first century and likely capturing an established oral tradition spanning back decades, very likely to the period of time when Paul and Barnabas were engaged in their early missionary journeys both together and separately. It’s a rich and haunting document, but for the purposes of this discussion, I want to focus on this excerpt.

But let not your fasts be with the hypocrites, for they fast on the second and fifth day of the week. Rather, fast on the fourth day and the Preparation (Friday).

The hypocrites is clearly a reference to Matthew 23 and those to whom Jesus was speaking. And we know it was the discipline in Judaism at the time to fast on Monday and Thursday. This is part of what Jesus is referring to in the Sermon on the Mount in the section when he discusses how not to act and how to act when (not if) you fast. The assumption was that everyone fasted and his point was not to act in a manner that you drew attention to your fasting or the recognition of men would be all you would receive. In order to distinguish themselves from the unbelieving Jewish communities (and for theological reasons) the church from a very early time moved its days of communal fasting from Monday and Thursday to Wednesday and Friday. They did not cease observing days of communal fasting. They moved them to days that related to Jesus.

The Holy Scriptures, of course, speak often of fasting. You encounter it everywhere in the Old Testament. Jesus speaks of it. James speaks of it. It’s littered throughout the New Testament, where it frequently seems to be almost taken for granted rather than explained. I saw how the communal form of the practice quickly developed in the church. But I hadn’t really seen fasting like that anywhere in my life. And I saw no fasting anywhere in my particular community of faith. Feasting? (Or maybe gluttony, since I’m not sure you can properly feast if you never fast.) Oh yes! So much so that it was a topic for jokes. (When we meet, we eat!) But no communal practice of fasting. The only place I had encountered something close was in the Roman Catholic church. But even there, it was more a memory of the recent past than a present practice in the form I encountered.

This brings us up to the mid to late nineties and this post is more than long enough. We’ll continue this journey in the next post in this series.


Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 2

Posted: May 9th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Fasting | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 2

Before I continue in the direction I pointed at the end of my first post in this series, I want to spend a little more time on the intertwined, interlocking, and interpenetrating nature of our body, mind, and spirit. I know it is often a foreign idea to those shaped within our American culture, but the concept is central not only to this series, but to the formative thoughts behind this entire blog. I think the common attitude of our culture is captured by a statement like this:

Celiac is an autoimmune disease. It’s a medical condition and the medical prescription is a gluten free diet. It’s purely physical (or some might say secular or natural). What does a disease or medical condition have to do with anything spiritual?

Such is the nature of our age. Even if we’ve never read Plato and never studied philosophy, we have absorbed from the cultural air we breathe and within which we live something of his deep dualism between the material and the spiritual. We see the two as separate categories. And thus we talk about a person’s body or a person’s spirit as though they were separate things and had little to do with each other. But that does not describe reality. Change the chemistry of my brain and you will change my personality. Much of the life of my spirit, for good or ill, is played out in the field of my body. I am not a spirit contained in a body nor am I wholly defined by the matter which forms my body. As a human being I am the union of the spiritual and the material. I am the dust of the earth imbued with the breath of God. I am a living soul – the union (and often disunion) of body, mind, and spirit. You cannot alter or remove any of the three without changing who I am in essential ways, without changing my very being.

So yes, celiac is a medical condition, an autoimmune disease. The treatment is a strict diet that requires me to fast from anything containing gluten – an entire category of food. And a fast is always spiritual as well, for good or ill, whether or not we acknowledge it as such. As the faithfulness of my adherence to this fast will heal or harm my body and my mind, so the spiritual impact of the fast will propel me along the way of life or along the way of death (as the Didache describes the two ways).

If I ignored the spiritual dimensions of this fast, I would effectively be fasting without prayer. And the Fathers of Christian faith have many warnings about such fasts. Fasting without prayer is the ‘fast of the demons’, they say, for the demons do not eat at all because of their incorporeal nature but they also never pray. So I see already that this fast must be intertwined with and shaped by a strong rule of prayer if it is not to shrink my spirit. Interestingly, we also find that fasting without love is another fast of the demons. St. Basil the Great writes:

What is the use of our abstinence if instead of eating meat we devour our brother or sister through cruel gossip?

I do not believe it is at all wise to be careful in the physical aspects of this or any fast and ignore the spiritual dimensions. I also do not believe our actions or inactions in such things are morally neutral by default. If I do indeed follow Jesus of Nazareth, then I am saying something definite about both God and man by doing so. And I must act and live accordingly.

In the next post in this series, I’ll continue in the direction I had originally planned for the series.


Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 1

Posted: May 8th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Fasting | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Faith, of any sort, necessarily colors the way we perceive, interpret, process, and interact with the world around us. While many of my thoughts are still half-formed, I can tell already that there are more threads than can be contained within a single post. As such, I’m declaring this my first series. That didn’t take long, did it? Those who know me already know that I’m not by nature a man of few words when I write.

The title of this series is actually a phrase that popped into my head when it began to be clear that I likely did have celiac disease. On one level it seems straightforward, but I find as I’ve reflected on it, that it is deep and rich in meaning. Let’s begin to unpack the thought.

What is a fast? That question is central to this discussion and will likely be central to many questions I will explore on this blog. On one level it seems like such a straightforward question, but in truth the core meaning of a fast has been virtually lost today in the Western world. Fasting has come to mean almost any form of abstention. Thus people say they are fasting from TV or they are fasting from facebook or they are fasting from their iPod when they actually mean that they are abstaining from those activities for a period of time. There is nothing wrong with abstaining from various things for a time for spiritual reasons. But that is not what it has traditionally meant to fast.

If you truly fast it means that you abstain from some or all food and drink for a period of time. While I expect to primarily speak from and through the lens of Christianity, my spiritual journey has been far too wide-ranging for me not to note that that is what fasting means across a broad spectrum of spiritualities. This definition is not and has never been uniquely Christian, though why we fast will vary greatly from one spiritual perspective to another. I think we have broadened the definition in the Christian and post-Christian West today to cover all forms of abstention because we largely do not fast anymore in any meaningful or communal sense. Even our Lenten preparation, for those traditions who still observe it at all, has become a highly individual activity. We each separately decide what we will “give up” rather than fasting together as a community.

The diagnosis of celiac demands a fast. It is a strict fast. It is a difficult fast. And it is a lifelong fast. If you break the fast, you will damage your body. It is uncompromising. No, I did not choose it and I do not want it. This is not the fast I’ve chosen. But it is the fast I’ve been given.

I could try to act as though this was a merely medical condition. I could try to live as if there were some sort of division or distinction between my physical, my mental, and my spiritual being. Many shaped within the context of the West, including many Christians, would have me draw such a distinction. But I’ve never been able to find that dividing line. The things I do or which happen to my body affect my mind and my spiritual condition. It’s clear to me now that I experienced and endured a period of serious depression because of the chemical changes in my body wrought by a combination of sleep apnea and celiac.

The manner in which we think and the condition of our spirits always affect our bodies, for good or ill. We know that and acknowledge it every time we talk about the physical damage stress causes. And yet we still try to draw lines between the two as though they could be separated.

And while this is not the fast I’ve chosen, I must confess that I might never have chosen a fast at all. But I’ll explore that in my next post.