“Ash Wednesday marks the season in which we especially ponder our relationship to suffering. Praying, fasting, and giving alms are not arcane holdovers from a time when people more inured to suffering than we are found such practices easy. Fasting has always been hard. Fasting is a reflection of the fact the more desperate we are, the more open we are to change. Fasting reminds that the more keenly aware that we are of our empty hands and our empty stomach, the more likely we are to realize we need help. Fasting helps us to remember that we are all poor, and how very much we do not want to be poor.
“I’ll do anything to keep from feeling ‘poor’ myself, and as Lent approached last year, I thought: Those people who say fasting is just an ego-based endurance test are right. This year, I’m going to fast in a way that effects some real good. I am going to fast from criticizing people…
“Ash Wednesday dawned, I waited to be transformed, and within an hour I was mentally nitpicking, criticizing, and judging any number of people. A few days later I badmounthed someone out loud, the day after that I nakedly passed on a bit of juicy gossip, and from there the whole enterprise rapidly went downhill. Nice try, but unh-unh, I realized. Prayer without fasting is a gesture. Mercy without fasting is a gesture. Fasting is not a gesture. Fasting is a consent to be consumed.
” To be consumed by the fire of our own sin leaves cold, dead ashes. To be consumed by the fire of Christ’s love is to have our delusions about ourselves consumed and to have our true selves left intact….
“All through Lent a slow, underground fire burns, to burst into flame with the glory of the Resurrection on Easter morning. ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’ And oh, what hangs in the balance during that interval between the day of our births and the day of our deaths, when for a cosmic instant we, too–beggars all–are called to burst into flame.”