Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. Let no one separate them; they cannot be separated. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. (Peter Chrysologus)
In Hinduism and Buddhism, there is this marvelous tradition of the third eye. It’s located between the eyebrows (at the ajna chakra), and is considered to be the tenth opening of the body. But where as the other openings in the body lead out, this one leads in. It is the inner eye of wisdom, the eye that opens when one has achieved enlightenment, moksha or nirvana. It’s sometimes called the gyananakashu–the eye of knowledge, the seat of the antar-guru-the inner teacher. You often see statues of gods or the Buddha, or famous yogis and sages and bodhisattvas with some kind of a mark there. People who follow Indian traditions wear a tilaka there between the eyebrows to represent the third eye, as at our ashram Shantivanam in south India we would mark ourselves three times a day, with golden sandal paste in the morning, the red kumkum of devotion in the afternoon, and the vibhuti ashes in the evening.
Some years ago, a friend of mine who is pretty cynical about Christianity wrote me at the beginning of Lent saying, “Oh yeah, Ash Wednesday. The day you Christians cover up your third eye with ashes.” Cute. I thought about it for a minute and then remembered that story in the Gospel of John chapter 9 when Jesus heals a blind man. Jesus spit on the ground and made some mud and smeared it on the man’s eyes and told him to go wash his eyes out and when he did he was healed. So I wrote back to my sarcastic friend, “Yes, we cover up our third eye with ashes for a short time, but only to have them washed 40 days later in the waters of Baptism so that we can really cleanse and open that third eye with the wisdom of resurrection at Easter.” I’m not sure it convinced him, but the image stays with me.
Lent is all about Easter, and Easter is all about Baptism. From ancient times Baptisms were performed on Easter and there was a preparation period beforehand for those about to be baptized, the catechumens, a period of cleansing and formation in which the candidates prepare to die to their old selves and rise to a whole new way of seeing, a new way of living, a new way of being in the world. Interesting enough, one ancient Greek word that was usually associated with both conversion and Baptism is photismos, which means, enlightenment or illumination; Baptism was meant to be an enlightenment experience! For most of us Christians we were baptized when we were, as one of my theology professors used to say, “little red-faced humanoids” and have no recollection of the event let alone any kind of enlightenment associated with it. I often feel like our spirituality is all about trying to catch up with something that happened to us long ago, to realize a reality that is already somehow operative in the depths of our being. And so the period of Lent is a time for the rest of us too to cleanse and purify, die to our old selves and realize this enlightened self––cleanse that third eye of wisdom by renewing, remembering, realizing our Baptism at Easter.
Traditionally there are three practices that are offered as ways of cleansing this eye of wisdom, three ways of dying to the old self so that the new self can emerge from the ashes. Most of us Catholic kids only associate Lent with “giving up something for Lent,” usually candy. But, as you see in that passage from Peter Chrysologus I quoted above, there are actually three practices that go together, and you almost get the impression that none of them work unless they are done together: prayer, fasting (or sacrifice), and mercy (almsgiving, charity). Peter Chrysologus says, “prayer knocks, fasting obtains, mercy receives.”
How do these practices help us die to ourselves? Well, as for prayer, most of us don’t discover prayer until we experience some kind of need or want, and usually that’s when we turn to prayer almost like magic, and much more often for a want than for a need. But if you really want to understand the power of prayer, go to an AA meeting or another 12 Step meeting some time. There there are people who really need some kind of power greater than themselves for survival and prayer is conscious contact with that Power. There’s a saying from AA I heard once: “All you got to know is that there is a God and it’s not you.” That’s the dying to self––a recognition that there is a Power Greater than me that is not me. But the marvelous thing is that when I am in touch with that Power Greater than me, I find out, discover, that that power is actually my ground and my source, and that power can be the very energy of my life, if I die to my small self and rise to this greater one.
As for fasting or any kind of abstention––again I think it’s a matter of need. We are for the most part spoiled rich kids who have no experience of real need. We most of us have the basics of life. But I wonder: are we really free because of that? I want a soda, I am free to drink a soda: but am I free to not drink a soda? I am free to surf the Internet and send text messages to my friends all night long; but am I free not to? I am free to get drunk, smoke a cigarette, get high, load up on caffeine and sugar all I want; but am I free not to? What fasting does is put a little space between me and what I want; that self of my cravings dies for a moment. And when and if I can do this two marvelous things happen: first I discover a freedom, knowing that I am not a slave to my desires, not a slave to my bodily cravings; and then I get this sweet pure sensation of actually feeling need––feeling hunger, feeling loneliness, feeling poverty.
That leads to the third practice: mercy, charity or almsgiving. As I said, most of us are spoiled rich kids, and poverty is kind of an abstract thing to us. We don’t actually feel what it feels like to be hungry, cold, homeless, sick. Well, hopefully when I actually have a sense of what that feels like, I can actually development a sense of solidarity or compassion or sympathy for those who actually are hungry, homeless, lonely, sick on a regular basis, perhaps through no fault of their own. The marvelous magical formula about reaching out then is this: we discover that, as the Prayer of St Francis says, in giving we receive, in pardoning we are pardoned. An open heart is an open heart––the heart open to give is also open to receive. If we die to our little insular world of comfort, we discover a whole world of connection, a web of relationships.
So, let’s see what these three practices put together can offer during this season. Maybe they could lead us to cleanse that third eye of wisdom in the waters of Baptism, that when our old self dies––the self-sufficient small self––a new self will arise, our real self that is hidden with Christ in God.