In the House of St. Michael, we make devotional commitments each year. These are patterns of life, ways that we hear God inviting us to pursue him. Part of our commitment is to read The Philokalia together. And in the way of the writers of The Philokalia, we are encouraged to include a monthly fast and a mini-vigil as part of our commitments. Evagrios, who we read this month, said, “Man cannot drive away impassioned thoughts unless he watches over his desire and incensive power. He destroys desire through fasting, vigils and sleeping on the ground, and he tames his incensive power through long-suffering, forbearance, forgiveness and acts of compassion.” Like many of the other monks, Evagrios sees fasting and vigiling as some of our most powerful tools in fighting the passions and clarifying our vision of God.
Intellectually that makes sense to me, but I have always struggled with the spiritual practices of fasting and vigiling. I am a stay-at-home mom of two young boys. I rarely sit down to eat breakfast and lunch; instead I grab a bite of food here and there in between caring for my sons. Isn’t that fasting enough? On a good night, I am up with my infant son at least three times during the night. Isn’t that vigil enough? Why would I want to add something to my routine that makes daily life more difficult? I have read and received what the monks have to say about the clarity and beauty that they have in their relationship with God, and I hear their encouragement of fasting and vigiling as a way to attain that, but my honest heart response has been: that’s good for them, but I don’t think it’s for me.
A little book called Poverty of Spirit by Johannes Baptist Metz is beginning to shift that for me. Metz talks about poverty of spirit as embracing and accepting our humanity, our limitedness as humans, our total dependence on God. He writes, “becoming human involves proclaiming the poverty of the human spirit in the face of the total claims of a transcendent God.” Contemplating poverty of spirit as embracing my humanity has opened up my heart. Like Metz, I’ve come to see Jesus as the ultimate model of humanity. He never tried to escape who he was. He was present to his time. He rejected the devil’s invitations in the desert, accepting instead his human limitations. Unlike Jesus, we desire to reject our limits. We want to be gods: all-knowing, all-powerful, all-beautiful, immortal. Our culture encourages us to pursue these false and impossible dreams. I see it in myself, in so many ways, such as the way I hate criticism because I desire to be perfect. We seek that false divinity instead of unity with the one God, because unity with him who is fully God and fully human means living into our own humanity.
And this is where I am now hearing a whispered invitation to fasting and vigiling. It is not an invitation to take on a super-human feat of spiritual prowess. It is an invitation to enter my humanity more fully. To feel hungry, to feel tired, to be weak. To experience my utter lack – my poverty – when I stand alone. To be present in a clearer way to my dependence on God. Maybe then I will be, like the monks, more receptive to what God desires to give. Metz calls poverty of spirit the greatest gift we as humans have. I am asking God to help me receive that gift this year.