Wednesday, February 10, 2016

I'll Drink to That

   Ash Wednesday   
You have to admit:
the Catholic practice of fasting as it stands today is pretty lax.
It’s only expected of us two days a year—
today and on Good Friday—
and it’s a matter of eating less than usual,
rather than eating nothing at all. 
But in ages past, Lenten fasting was much more intense. 
In fact, in the lives of the saints,
we find many examples of men and women
subsisting on a little bread and some water
for the entire season—or even longer.

There’s a legend about a monastery outside of Munich, Germany,
where the monks once embraced a most unusual Lenten fast:
for 40 days, they would consume nothing other than beer. 
I know: it sounds more like an idea
coming out of a frat house than a monastery,
but many monasteries—as a matter of health—
made beer for their common beverage
at a time when the water was generally unsafe to drink. 
These monks had a special brew for this time of year:
a fortified beer that was rich in carbohydrates and vitamins. 
It was nicknamed “liquid bread.”

We know for sure that the monks made the beer—
we still have their recipe. 
But did they really live on nothing else for all of Lent? 
Five years ago, a man from Des Moines, Iowa,
decided there was only one way to find out:
he’d make the “beer fast” himself. 
For the entire season of Lent,
4 beers a day during the week
and 5 beers a day on the weekend 
(when he had “fewer obligations”).

He lost 25½ pounds that Lent…but he gained so much more. 
What did he discover?

For one thing he discovered
“that the human body is an amazing machine.
Aside from cramming it full of junk food,
we don’t ask much of it.
We take it for granted.
It is capable of much more than many of us give it credit for.
It can climb mountains, run marathons
and, yes, it can function without food for long periods of time.”

Once his initial pangs of hunger had passed, however,
he came to some far deeper realizations. 
“My fast…underscored for me
that there is a difference between wants and needs.
I wanted a cheeseburger, but I didn’t need one.
I also didn’t need a bag of chips or a midday doughnut.
I needed nourishment,
and my [beer]… was enough to keep me strong and alert….”

Now, I don’t generally think of drinking a few beers
as something that can uncloud my mind,
but that’s exactly what it did for this daring homebrewer.
“My body…switched gears, replaced hunger with focus,
and I found myself operating in a tunnel of clarity
unlike anything I’d ever experienced.…
The benefits of self-discipline can’t be overstated
in today’s world of instant gratification.
The fast provided a long-overdue tune-up and detox,
and I’ve never felt so rejuvenated, physically or mentally.”

J. Wilson’s fast did more than prove to him
that the legend of some monks 
living on beer alone was probably true. 
“It left me with the realization that the monks
must have been keenly aware 
of their own humanity and imperfections. 
In order to refocus on God,
they engaged this annual practice
not only to endure sacrifice,
but to stress and rediscover their own shortcomings
in an effort to continually refine themselves.
Though they lived out their faith
at a higher degree of daily devotion than the average person,
they could sense their loss of focus.
Taking nothing for granted,
they took steps to rectify that problem on an annual basis.
Shouldn’t we all…?”

Just to be perfectly clear:
I’m not going on a beer fast this Lent—
and I don’t exactly recommend that you do, either. 
But doesn’t Mr. Wilson make some important points
for our consideration on this Ash Wednesday?

Lent is a time for us to get back to basics. 
The traditional practices of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting—
which Jesus himself commends to us today—
are meant to strip away our attachments to the things of earth
that we might get greater clarity
and regain our focus on the things of heaven. 
Whatever your chosen Lenten discipline this year—
whether you plan to “give something up,”
do something extra, or some combination of the two—
make sure that it’s aim is to free you from distractions
and return your attention to what really matters in the end.

We are about to be marked with ashes. 
From ancient times,
ashes have been a vivid sign of the need for repentance.  
We were made from the dust of the earth,
and—on account of our sins—to that dust we shall one day return. 
It’s a fact we’d rather ignore or deny:
we are sinners destined for death. 
But we’re marked with those ashes in the form of a Cross. 
Although sinners, there is a God who loves us nonetheless—
loves us enough to send his Son to die for our salvation:
to die on the Cross that we might live forever. 
We’re sinners, yes…but we’ve been redeemed.

A most unusual fast helped J. Wilson
to distinguish between what he wants and what he needs. 
This Lent, whatever you do—on don’t do—
make sure its goal is to help you
want to know God and his loving mercy more than anything else. 
By God’s grace, maybe by Easter you’ll have then discovered
that God and his love are really all you ever need.

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