Who Am I?

The Didache 21 – Do What You Are Able

Posted: July 1st, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Didache 21 – Do What You Are Able

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

For if you are able to bear the entire yoke of the Lord, you will be perfect; but if you are not able to do this, do what you are able. And concerning food, bear what you are able; but against that which is sacrificed to idols be exceedingly careful; for it is the service of dead gods.

Once again we encounter the idea of being perfect, this time in connection with being able to bear the entire yoke of the Lord. All who follow Jesus are called to the same yoke, the same rule, the same way. Whether it be love, prayer, ascetism, or vocation, we are all called into the fullness of life. When you read the gospels, the yoke of Jesus can sometimes seem overwhelming. It permeates every aspect of our lives and is so foreign to what we often consider “natural”. And yet there is also boundless mercy, especially in the recognition that we are to grow in faith and practice through the presence and activity of God in our lives. We are not expected to instantly be perfect, in any sense of the word. That would be a crushing weight indeed.

And here we see that reflected here in the very early tradition of the church. Do what you can. Receive the grace of God, which is to say receive God himself, and swim in the mercy of God. Move. Act. Live. And do all that you are able in the yoke of the Lord. This is reflected even today in the life of the Orthodox Church. There is one rule for everyone within the church: monastics, presbyters, deacons, and that first order of the royal priesthood often call the laity. And yet there is economy whenever needed. If in the demands of your work, you cannot pray all the hours and have not absorbed the Jesus Prayer or other prayers to the point that you pray without ceasing, pray those hours you can manage. If for health or other reasons you cannot keep the full fast, work with your priest to find a fast that you can follow. If you are fasting and are given a meal in love and hospitality by one who does not follow the same fast, thank that person graciously and eat the meal. The person is more important than your fast.

We don’t often encounter meat sacrificed to idols in our part of the world these days. It can be hard for us to recognize how prevalent that was in the ancient world. In some markets at some times, it could be hard to find any meat that was not a remnant of a sacrifice. The tension here is the one Paul addressed many times and which the Council of Jerusalem described in Acts faced also. Paul largely dealt with the love expressed to one who offers you a meal when he wrote not to ask and to share in hospitality. Paul wrote that we are free, but that some might remember their worship of those other gods and be drawn back toward. The Council was establishing rules that would allow Jewish and Gentile believers to share the same table.

It might be interesting if we attempted to identify our “meat sacrificed to idols” today. What do we blithely consume today that is in service to dead gods?


The Didache 3 – Fast for Those Who Persecute You

Posted: June 13th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Didache 3 – Fast for Those Who Persecute You

This series is reflecting on the Didache if you want to read it separately.

And of these sayings the teaching is this: Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast for those who persecute you.

What does it mean to love the other? We find the injunction to bless those who curse us, to pray for our enemies, to do good to those who intend us harm repeatedly in the Holy Scriptures. We see it lived out in the lives of the saints. But very often we do not do it. I know that, at best, I manage feeble, faltering steps in that direction.

Today, I want to reflect on the phrase I never really noticed before. My eyes, for some reason, tended to slide right over it.

fast for those who persecute you

I am developing some idea what it means to use my words and my body to bless the other. I’m slowly developing some understanding of what it means to pray. But how do you fast for another? How can our fast in our own bodies be offered up for the benefit of another human being? For surely this is what the saying means. I do understand that in the Holy Scriptures, fasting and prayer are often tied together. I have some grasp how to intercede for another through prayer. I’m less certain how I can intercede for another through fasting — how my fast can be for their good. And yet there seems to be some aspect of that here.

I don’t yet have an answer to this question. If you’re expecting answers in this series or from me in general, you probably have set yourself up for disappointment. I tend to always raise more questions than find pat answers. I even tend to find questions within such answers as I already have. But this question is important to me.

If I am going to live a lifelong fast, I would prefer it to have meaning.


The Didache – Series Intro

Posted: June 9th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Didache | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on The Didache – Series Intro

I’ve mentioned the Didache: The Lord’s Teaching Through the Twelve Apostles to the Nations a number of times in past posts and even reflected on its rules on fasting in my series, Not the Fast I’ve Chosen. It’s one of the earliest, if not the earliest, surviving written Christian writings other than those writings which were later recognized as the Holy Scriptures. In fact, the Didache and another early work, The Shepherd of Hermas, were even on some of the early canon lists. The written document dates to around the end of the first century and appears to record in writing a long-standing oral tradition.

I’ve read the Didache many times over the course of my journey within Christianity. It’s a writing that keeps drawing me back in and I leave each time with new or renewed insight, not because the words have changed, but because I have changed. These last two months since my diagnosis, I’ve noticed that it strikes me often in ways that are different from the way I remember reading it before I knew I was a celiac.

I’ve decided I feel like writing a series walking through the whole of the Didache. It will be as many parts as it ends up being. Some days I may cover section. Other days I may reflect on a sentence. These will be my thoughts, though shaped of course by everything and everyone I’ve encountered and read over the years. I’m not an authority of any sort on ancient Christian writings. If you’re looking for scholarly analysis or insight, go elsewhere.

I’ll be writing because it’s a document that has meant a lot to me over the years and it still provokes new thoughts. I’ll be using the translation I linked above not because I think it’s the “best” translation. Frankly, I couldn’t judge that at all. I’m using it because it’s the translation with which I’m the most comfortable. I don’t really have any goal or point to this series other than to walk through the document and see what it spurs me to write. We’ll start tomorrow with my initial post in this series.


Fasting and Humility Redux

Posted: June 2nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Fasting | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Fasting and Humility Redux

I wrote a few days ago about Fasting and Humility as I’ve struggled with the necessity for being “out there” with your condition that celiac imposes on you when you have it. Since then, I’ve encountered the following quote by St. Isaac the Syrian. It’s caused me to pause and reflect a bit more.

If you practice an excellent virtue without perceiving the taste of its aid, do not marvel; for until a man becomes humble, he will not receive a reward for his labor. Recompense is given, not for labor, but for
humility.

This is, of course, exactly what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount. We do not practice any discipline or virtue for the purpose of achieving some desired goal or reward. We cannot manipulate God or other human beings in that way successfully or without ultimately dehumanizing ourselves. It is only as we learn to serve our Lord in humble obedience that we begin to see any benefit from anything we do.

Yet true humility is perhaps one of the most universally difficult things for us all to achieve, even fleetingly. I do not wish to be quietly humble. To the extent they notice me at all, I want others to notice my excellence, not my failings. We want to be first, not last. Even when we try to turn that upside down and say we are seeking to be last, we make the pursuit of “lastness” a competition unto itself. Humility itself does not seem to me to be something you can actually try to achieve. It seems to me that if it can be achieved, it is only achieved by emptying yourself of the things for which you are striving and filling yourself with God and the loving service of other unlovable human beings in whatever way God desires. That’s speculation on my part, of course, since I’ve certainly not done that at all. But it seems to me that it’s at least part of what I’ve seen in the few I’ve encountered who are humble.

If this fast can in some measure teach me humility, so mote it be.

Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.


You Are What You Eat

Posted: May 28th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Fasting | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on You Are What You Eat

You are what you eat.

As I adapt to life with celiac, I’ve noticed that every food I eat seems to somehow be in sharper focus than it was in the past. I am more acutely aware of the nature and quality of every morsel I place in my mouth. I’m aware that what I eat truly affects me to my core. As I reflect on this awareness I realize that this is true of all of us. At a very basic level, we actually do become what we eat. As we incorporate the food we consume into our body, we are simultaneously changed be it, for good or ill. I recently heard a story on NPR that exposed that reality. (The first is the shorter segment on All Things Considered. The second is the longer interview on Fresh Air.)  Take a moment to listen to the reports.

Why Do We Overeat?
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=103862714

Mind Over (Food) Matter: Combating ‘Overeating’
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=104068820

Former FDA Commissioner David Kessler has studied the food we eat, even dumpster diving behind restaurants, for clues to why we overeat. He has discovered that the food and presentation is designed to stimulate our hunger, to keep our bodies in a stimulated state. The more we consume, the more we desire to consume. The physical stimulus of fat, sugar, and salt actually conditions our minds, especially when melded with appealing visuals.  I believe this is a facet of the same reality I am discovering through celiac. We are not disconnected or separated from our bodies. As we eat, we are incorporating matter into our bodies. What and how we eat impacts all of us.

In this instance, the folk wisdom is right. You are what you eat.

That’s just particularly true for me. I know that a certain ubiquitous ingredient will poison rather than nourish me. But as I consider the above stories and survey my nation, is that not true of us all? Perhaps it’s not as clearly or sharply defined as it has become for me. But if we were really drawing nourishment at a deep level from what we eat, it seems to me that we would all be healthier than we are.

And I wonder if we still fasted together as Christians if we would not share some level of this awareness. Would fasting bring the connection between what we eat and who we are into sharper focus, especially as lived and experienced the fast as a community? Is this not at the heart of Christianity? We ritually eat the body and drink the blood of our Lord. You don’t get any more visceral than that. We consume God in order to transform our being. We swallow God in order to digest life.

Maybe it really does matter what we eat and how we eat it?


Fasting and Humility

Posted: May 20th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Fasting | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Only weeks into this gluten free fast, I already begin to understand the reason for the linguistic linkage between humility and humiliation, at least for someone with my longstanding private and often even stoic demeanor. That private aspect to my nature is the primary reason I never started my own blog. Celiac is taking that and stomping it into the ground.

My now familiar litany when I step into a restaurant, especially if I have not had the opportunity to research it online, is: Hi. I have celiac disease. Do you have a gluten free menu? Often, I have to clarify and explain exactly what that means. Frequently I end up speaking to the manager, who consults with the chef or cook to see if they can safely feed me something. The question becomes less about what I like to eat and more about finding something I can eat without damaging my body.

It is unpleasant to have to do that – every time. The great joy for me of the meal at Flemings was that this unpleasantness almost, but not quite, vanished. For a brief time, I felt almost normal. If I’m offered something to eat, I can no longer simply take it and try it. Instead I have to ask what is in it or simply decline the offer. It becomes impossible to simply be one of the group. If food is involved, I am forced to stand apart and always will be to one extent or another.

In a very small way I begin to understand the ‘chip on the shoulder’ that some of those with real disabilities can acquire. There is something soul crushing about always being the one who is different, the one who is limited in some way. My illness cannot even begin to compare to an actual disability. But through it, I can see how the perceived humiliation could easily turn to anger and anger to bitterness. Even though my situation is not a true parallel, I understand now in ways I would not have understood before.

Fasting, at least as described by Jesus, is something to be undertaken with humility. If not, then the recognition and honor you receive or expect to receive from others is all that you will receive. It’s hard to be humble. It’s hard to accept. It’s hard to be forced to expose your weakness and rely on the care and empathy of others – even in small ways. As I proceed forward, I also begin to understand that a little better than I did before.

I don’t know that I am any humbler than I was before, but I have certainly, in some ways, been humbled.


Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 9

Posted: May 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Fasting | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I closed my train of thought in my last post with the idea that, though God has not given me celiac disease for any reason whatsoever, he has been quietly at work preparing me and giving me the tools, should I care to employ them, to stand and perhaps even grow in the face of this disease. For the reality is this: though the diagnosis is still so new to me that I have a difficult time truly wrapping my head around it, celiac disease has been working havoc in my body for years now. My gastroenterologist can’t even say how long it’s been active, but from the visible evidence and the other physical effects, it has clearly been a long time. That means that for at least some significant portion of the journey of discovery about Christian fasting that I have described in this series, I was actually suffering from this autoimmune disease.

I may not have known I had celiac disease, but God certainly did.

Now, I suppose I could be angry at God for knowing I was sick and doing nothing to heal me or somehow making me aware of it sooner. But that seems rather pointless to me. Further, I know that God’s purpose is to bring me into his life, to have me and all humanity participate in union with God and with each other, to conform us to the image of his Son, who lived the life of the faithful man God intended each of us to live.

My core cultural formation was such that the center of my being was shaped in more hedonistic and narcissistic ways than not. Would God physically healing me, especially if I didn’t even know I was sick, move me closer toward the center of the life of God? Or is my true and holistic healing to be found in the proper ascetical practice that allows me to heal from the effects of this disease? Might not that path carry healing not only of body, but also of spirit and will? I see the possibility. I see it through the lens of all I have read and heard and encountered of Christian fasting. No, I’m not angry at God at all. I know him. I know how much he loves all of us. And I’m beginning, just beginning, to understand something of the way of life. I understand enough to know that I desire more than simply a body which functions properly. I want to become truly human.

So no, this is not the fast I’ve chosen. It’s not a fast I want. But this is the fast I’ve been given. Will I have it be a fast for the physical and spiritual healing of my whole soul? Or will I have it be a fast of misery and destruction? Will I take advantage of the tools that God has graciously prepared me to use, even if I am still a neophyte and clumsy in their use? Will I choose instead to fast the fast of demons, a narcissistic fast, a fast that is all about me? Or will I ignore the fast altogether and destroy my body? Those are truly the only real choices I face at this  juncture. As the Didache says, “There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways.” Narrow is the way of life. Broad is the way of death and destruction.

I choose life, in the fullness of the sense of the word.

This is my fast.


Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 7

Posted: May 14th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Fasting | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 7

But it is the fast that I’ve been given.

As I’ve written the posts traveling the thread of my own experience and personal journey, it’s dawned on me that some, perhaps even many, might read that statement from my earlier posts as some form of fatalism or even is if I’m blaming God for this disease. Neither is even close to the truth, as I’m sure anyone who knows me well would recognize, but I should spend some time to explain why that’s so.

It’s extremely common in our culture for people to have an image of God as a figure who stands apart from us, guiding and intervening in our lives. There are a variety of different images of this sort of God. I want to take a moment to explore a few of the more common ones.

Sadly, some people have internalized an image of an angry God smiting those who cross him and punishing those who screw up in some way. It might be all people with whom this God is angry or only certain ones. It seems to vary. This is also one of the more common images of the God whom those who have abandoned God have rejected.  Personally, I don’t blame them. If I believed that God was anything like this particular God, I wouldn’t worship him either. This God is a God unworthy of worship and certainly unworthy of love. Worthy of fear, maybe, in the same way you would fear a rabid wolf, but not worthy of love at all. So no, I don’t believe that God is ticked at me for not adopting and practicing the “right” rule of fasting and prayer and celiac is his way of punishing me for my failure.

Others hold a milder version of this same God. It’s not a God who is necessarily angry with us, though perhaps he does get disappointed. This is a God who is, perhaps, more like the stern parent who will sometimes reward you and sometimes punish you in order to train you properly. I don’t believe in this God either. Yes, God teaches us. The Dark Night of the Soul shows us one way that he sometimes teaches us and moves us on to deeper and more solid practice of our faith and lives. He never actually leaves, of course, but for a time he lets the strong sense of his presence fade so we trust him and not that emotional experience. He also teaches us through the consequences of our actions, through illumination and revelation of Holy Scriptures, through other people, through the saints, and in a host of ways. He is the one truly good Father. But as such, he does not “teach” us by doing evil to us. Never. So no, I do not believe God gave me celiac disease so I would be able to move past the point where I have been waiting these past couple of years.

Still others imagine God controlling the minutiae of all that is. Of course, God does sustain and create all that is, but that is a different concept than the concept of control. Still, there are a small minority of ‘Christians’ who perceive a universe without any freedom whatsoever. God manages everything down to the smallest of subatomic actions and absolutely nothing ever happens at any level that is not precisely and exactly as God intended it to happen. There are varying degrees of this perspective and I will point out that I’ve never seen anyone who actually lives moment to moment as if they truly believed this were so. This God is perhaps the worst God of all of these. This is the God of scientific determinism. This is a personal, active God who originates all evil as well as all good. In such a scheme, there isn’t really any such thing as evil or good in any sense we would recognize. Every permutation and manifestation of this God that people paint makes me absolutely shudder. No, I do not believe that God foreordained I would have and manifest celiac disease and is putting me through my paces for his own narcissistic self-glorification and honor.

Indeed this is the fast that I’ve been given, but God didn’t give it to me. More on this in the next post.


Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 6

Posted: May 13th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Fasting | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

This post in the series should wrap up the meandering thread I’ve been tracing through the story of my life. For no discussion of encounters with fasting communities could ever be complete without discussing Orthodoxy. Somehow, in all my wide-ranging study, modern Orthodoxy still managed to catch me off-guard. Like many, at least in the US, I thought of them as an Eastern or even a Greek sort of Catholic (as defined by my encounters with Roman Catholicism) rather than as another Tradition of the faith. And as such, I never really spent any time looking at the thread of the Orthodox Church following the Great Schism of 1054.

Oddly, it was a distinctly Protestant book, Praying with the Church by Scot McKnight, that abruptly shook me from that complacent (mis)understanding. That book explores the tradition of set prayer within the church and includes a chapter on the manner in which it is practiced within Orthodoxy. If you recall from earlier in this series, I mentioned my love for Brother Lawrence and his The Practice of the Presence of God. One of the disciplines in that book is the discipline of breath prayers, short prayers that you can say, almost with the rhythm of your breath, as you work or engage in other activities. I’m not particularly skilled or disciplined in any of the Christian spiritual practices, but I had been using breath prayers for some years by that point in time. I had several that I found particular helpful and even compelling. These were the prayers to which I kept returning. When I read the chapter in the book above, I was shocked to discover that the breath prayer which I most used, the short prayer I had thought I had found on my own, was in fact a common variation of the Jesus Prayer, one of the oldest prayer traditions of the Church!

With that, I began to truly explore Orthodoxy to better understand it. You can’t do that for very long at all without running into their ascetical practice of communal fasting. It’s deep and rich. I would say that even after several years I’m only beginning to scratch the surface of the subject. The typical Orthodox fasting regimen is a fast from meat, fish with a backbone, dairy, oil, and wine. It’s very similar to what we would call a vegan diet. There are various periods of fasting in preparation for feasts. And they fast most weeks of the year on Wednesday and Friday. Perhaps you recall the excerpt from the Didache I posted earlier in this series? The Didache was one of the earliest rules of fasting within our faith. It had seemed to me that the practice of a weekly, communal fast had vanished from the modern landscape, but it hadn’t. I found that a very encouraging sign of continuity within our faith.

But I’m not Orthodox and I did not fast. I was intrigued, but still reluctant to jump in. I also did not live at that time with even a rudimentary rule of prayer. And I knew that a rule of fasting without a rule of prayer would be very dangerous indeed. Fasting, whether an ascetical fast or a total fast, still seemed strange to me. I did what I typically do when I’m unsure how to proceed and there is no urgent reason for action. I read and listened and waited while changing little in my daily practice.


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.