Thursday, March 31, 2011

Life's a Banquet

By: Laura Engle For the past three years my spiritual directors and pastors have asked me a version of the following question during Lent: From what are you fasting and on what are you feasting? Author, poet and pastor William Arthur Ward offers the following suggestions: Fast from discontent; feast on gratitude. Fast from pessimism; feast on optimism. Fast from discouragements; feast on hope. Paradox is a friend of the spiritual seeker. So often we find, to the surprise of our busy, linear minds that two opposite things can be true at the same time. In the paradox of the fast that is actually a feast we may find that, to quote the character Auntie Mame, “Life’s a banquet.”

As Christians, we are taught that we can find hugely vibrant, potent hope in the smallest things. This has sometimes been called “mustard seed faith” because of Jesus’ words, “if you have the faith the size of a mustard seed you can say to this mountain, move from here to there and it will move. Nothing will be impossible to you.” It is a kind of law of inverse proportions.

At a minimum, religious teachers in many traditions tell us that times of fasting make our experiences of our feasts all the better. For as our Proverbs teach: “He who is full loathes honey, but for the hungry every bitter thing is sweet” (Prov. 27A:7). It is a matter of perspective. The feast of Easter is the ultimate experience of this truth for Christians.

We must be careful, however, that our notions of fasting are not left to the realm of food only, as means of self-punishment, piousness, duty and deprivation, because to do so cuts us off from the “go- spell”, the good news! Returning to that canny theologian Mame, the entire quote is, “Life’s a banquet and most poor suckers are starving to death!” Whoa. Could it be that when we get caught up in our “to do’s” and, let’s face it, daily struggle to be humans, in certain ways we are starving to death? How do we get in on this banquet? Mame’s prescription was to receive it, celebrate it and enjoy it.

I saw a card in a gift shop recently that had a picture of a Buddhist monk, seated in meditation on a rocky cliff. Behind him the sun blazed in a brilliant blue sky. The inscription in the card read, “Nothing to do. Nowhere to go.” As I let myself drop down momentarily into the imagined experience of nothingness, it felt as if the blueness of the sky, the breezes in the canyon, the radiant stillness of the sun were all suddenly right there for me to enjoy.

Speaking personally, the invitation to simultaneously “fast from and feast on” life reframes the entire practice of fasting. It is the gift that Saint Francis holds before us in his well-loved Canticle of Brother Sun in which the Poverello or the poor one, as he was known, finds in his experience of self-emptying his place on earth in kinship with all created things, even the elements. “Praised be you, My Lord, through Brother Wind and through the air, cloudy and serene, and every kind of weather through which you give sustenance to Your creatures.”

In a simple and yet ultimate way, this way of being, a way that “fasts from (fill in the blank) and “feasts on” brings us home to the planet, ourselves, our community and our Creator.

“And God saw all that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” (Gen: 1:31)