In his homily at yesterday’s Ash Wednesday mass, the priest said that fasting does not always have to mean abstaining from meat or other food and drinks. He said we could also consider abstaining from anger, when we are prone to getting angry; restraining ourselves from talking, when we tend to be noisy or dominate conversations; cutting down on this or that habit, when we have been long hooked on them; and so on.
It seems to me, however, that even those suggestions, laudable as they may be, do not quite point us to the heart of the matter, and even further prevent us from receiving the most important grace that we need to beg for during Lent. The grace, that is, of self-emptying.
It is not so much meat, not so much this food or that drink, not so much this or that habit or attachment that we need to abstain ourselves from. Rather, it is our attachment to our self that we need God’s grace for us to be freed from. For often we take pride in being able to abstain from this or that, undergo fasting for so and so number of days, go on a five- or ten-day retreat, restrain ourselves from engaging in this or that activity. In each case, the self takes pride in its accomplishments. And when it does, the further it moves away from the spirit behind Lent, and the less open it becomes to receive the grace that God is only eager to bestow upon us.
Indeed, each of those suggestions—to abstain from food or drinks, spend days of silence in prayer, cut down on this or that activity—is not an end in itself. They are meant merely to help us receive the grace of self-emptying.
For aren’t we all so full of ourselves? Does not the self always stand there, lurking behind everything we do—yes, even in supposedly holy activities—and ready to make claims for itself and to further magnify itself?
God is not interested in what we can accomplish. God does not delight in our sacrifices, as we read from the Psalms, but only in our pure hearts. We only have to learn from the story of the good thief and of the woman who anointed Jesus with expensive oil from an alabaster jar. What accomplishments did the good thief have to show Jesus as they were both hanging on the cross? He had nothing to show, but only one thing—a self emptied of itself, an open heart. That was enough for Jesus to promise him that on that same day he would be with Him in paradise.
The same thing with the woman in Bethany. All the others were scandalized by her presence in a gathering of otherwise honorable men. They were looking at her accomplishments, or the lack of it, and so they were scandalized, presuming she was a woman of ill repute. But Jesus would have none of their hypocrisy. He saw what was most important—the love that the woman had for Him, and her desire to express her love for Him. So Jesus said, “Let her, leave her alone. She has done a beautiful thing to me.” Jesus wasn’t even done yet with His recognition of that act of love, and added, “Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
Isn’t the story of the Incarnation itself the story of God emptying Himself, completely, as Paul tells us? “He emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, and being made in the likeness of human beings.” God stripped Himself of his God-self, completely emptied Himself of all His power and privileges, and became one like us. If He did not do it, He would not have known our human condition. The work of our salvation had to begin with God completely emptying Himself of his own God-self.
And so, too, during Lent, it is the self, our own individual selves, that we must abstain from, indeed completely empty ourselves of. That includes what we think of our self, what we feel about our self. I might think highly or lowly about myself. I might feel contented or dejected or ashamed about myself. But we now know that that is not what is important. For who among us really knows about our self? Don’t we all realize, after ten, twenty, thirty years, indeed after a whole lifetime, that we didn’t really know our self? Why cling to this idea of the self then, to this feeling about the self?
We cannot underestimate the self’s cunning ways in claiming for itself what does not belong to itself. How many of us even take pride in possessing the correct knowledge about God! And yet God will always be greater—far greater—than whatever we could possibly think or understand about Him. He will always surprise us with His newness, but only if we have emptied ourselves of our self to receive what is new. For how can the self indeed receive anything if it is full of itself?
So radical is this demand for self-emptying that the medieval mystic Meister Eckhart was known to have uttered the prayer, “God, rid me of God,” by which he meant that God rid him of his contentment about what he knew about Him, precisely so that God, who is always beyond our thoughts, can each time reveal Himself, ever so new, and ever so marvelously surprising. The breakthrough that Meister Eckhart pointed to cannot happen unless we have emptied ourselves of the self.
And so during this season of Lent, let us then fall on our knees, and pray, above all, for the grace of self-emptying. Let us beg God to grant us the grace that will allow us to completely empty ourselves of the self, just as He did when He became one like us.
For, as in the good thief or the woman with the alabaster jar, only if we radically, completely empty ourselves of the self can God finally meet us, and dwell in us, and carry out every wondrous and beautiful thing that He meant to bestow upon us.
*image from the Internet