I really enjoy stand-up comedy and one of my favorite comedians was a guy who went by only his last name, Gallagher. Gallagher, whose first name was Leo, was a “prop comic”, perhaps best known for the grand finale of each of his concerts. Gallagher fashioned a comically large sledge hammer and used it as a parody of the Veg-O-Matic kitchen tool commercials. With the giant hammer, dubbed the Sledge-O-Matic, he would smash produce and other messy items, sending a spray of juices, pulp, and food particles through the air and covering audience members in the first few rows. A chemical engineering major with a minor in English literature, Gallagher was especially keen on wordplay. His jokes included musings such as, “How do you know if it’s a weed or a plant? If you water it and it dies, it’s a plant. If you pull it out and it grows back, it’s a weed.” “If the opposite of pro is con, does that mean that the opposite of progress is congress?” and “The reason God made babies cute is so you don’t kill ‘em.” Gallagher had some chronic health conditions and his heart health finally caught up with him. He died in November of last year at the age of 76. During this time of year, I frequently think of one of his one-liners that posed the question, “Why do they call it a fast if it goes so darn slow?”
I remember being a kid at Catholic school and I despised the Lenten season. It always seemed like such a bummer. For a kid abstaining from sweets and video games during the season, it felt like an eternity. And, as Gallagher pointed out, my fast felt anything but quick. In fact, I remember finally arriving at Easter and realizing that some of the things I had “given up” simply no longer gave me the joy they once did.
Years later, I have discovered by “giving up” sweets or video games for Lent I was kind of missing the point. This wasn’t my fault. The priests, nuns, and teachers in my life all taught us to practice acts of self-denial. But they seemed to emphasize the need to suffer. “Pain is good,” was the message that was communicated to me. Years later I now realize that this message indicates those people responsible for my spiritual development missed the point as well. Fasting and self-denial are not means of causing pain or harm. Ask anyone with chronic pain if pain is good. I’m sure the answer is no. Instead, fasts and acts of self-denial are effective only if they serve as reminders for us.
Yesterday, ashes were placed on our foreheads to remind us that we are from the dust and to dust we shall return. Essentially, we were reminded that we are going to die someday. When I served as a hospital chaplain, I placed ashes on the foreheads of some patients who actually did meet their own mortality in a matter of days or even hours after the imposition of ashes. But this is not done to frighten us. It’s done to remind us. Our time on this earth is short in the grand scheme of things and we’re reminded to make the most of it while we’re here. Taking time to practice self-denial can help turn our focus toward becoming better in tune with things about ourselves we want to work on. Fasting only works effectively if we are intentional about it.
This is why I don’t like the verbiage of “giving something up” for Lent. Instead, I prefer a concept of self-reflection and introspection. Fasting is often an effective tool to help Christians (and people who practice other world religions) achieve these goals. And as your spiritual advisor, I am here to encourage you to do these things if they help you to do so! But if they are ineffective and you’re only practicing fasting because you feel it’s expected of you, then the answer is simple. Don’t do it. Instead, focus on other activities and practices that will help you to achieve that goal. You know yourself better than anyone. Try a few things and see what works for you. There is no right or wrong way to fast. That is, of course, unless your fast does nothing other than make you grumpy for no reason. If that’s the case, by all means, try something different. Although it is a humorous musing, a fast isn’t effective if the only thing it accomplishes is feeling so darn slow.