“They used to say of Abba Paul that he lived through Lent on a measure of lentils and a small pot of water.”  — from the “Apothegmata Patrum,” the sayings of the desert fathers and mothers

Michelle Francl-Donnay

By four in the afternoon on Ash Wednesday, I had a headache. I was crabby. I was distracted. I was fasting and I was hungry.

I was sitting though a 90-minute academic lecture on food insecurity in the United States, and if I were not aware enough of what it was like to be hungry when most of the people around me were not, the people sitting on either side of me were relishing the cookies and chips provided as refreshments.

My mind kept wandering from the numbers and maps on the screen to what I would have for dinner. Time and again I dragged my thoughts back from my own hunger to listen again to how so many of my brothers and sisters go without the food they need.

How did Abba Paul the Great manage to get through all of Lent on just lentils and water? Is it easier in a desert where the reminders of scarcity are all around you? Are the temptations quieter when no one is savoring a cookie two feet away? Probably not. It would seem from the advice they gave, that many of the desert fathers and mothers struggled with fasting, too.

As Catholics we are obliged to fast, metaphorically tied to the Lenten practice of hunger.  Yet Evagrius, a fourth century desert father known for his sharply practical advice on prayer and the spiritual life, suggests that fasting is not purely a burden, but can free us.

Hunger, Evagrius says, allows us to enjoy even the simplest of food. It also frees our resources to help those for whom hunger is not an occasional spiritual discipline, but a regular physical reality. These resources are not just monetary, but give us eyes open to the subtle signs of hunger around us.

I tend to think of hunger as a personal practice, as something that sharpens my appetite for God, something that strips away excess. But many people, including almost one quarter of all the children in America, do not have the luxury of electing hunger as a spiritual practice. They are simply hungry.

In the midst of one of the richest nations on earth, children go hungry. Here in Philadelphia, children go hungry. Here, in my neighborhood, people are hungry tonight. Not because they are electing to fast, but because as individuals and communities we are unable to free the physical and spiritual resources to feed them.

We heard in the readings on the first Friday in Lent Isaiah’s full-throated and unsparing call for repentance to the Israelites: do not go about wearing of sackcloth and ashes, but instead God desires we share our bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when we see them, and not turn our backs on our own (Is 58:1-9a).

This Lent, I am fasting not for mortification, but for education, to teach my eyes to recognize the hungry people I encounter, and to see clearly what I might do for my brothers and sisters who hunger and thirst. This is the sacred fast Isaiah calls me to, to lavish my food on the hungry. To not turn my back on God’s people.

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To read from Scripture:

Isaiah’s call to the Israelites to fast by sharing what they have in abundance with the poor, that they might repair the breach and restore what lies in ruins.  Isaiah 58:6-12 18:9-14

To pray:

The Magnificat, Mary’s prayer of humility, in which she recalls the promises made by Isaiah and the prophets that the hungry will be fed. The name of this prayer comes from the first word of the Latin version, “Magnificat anima mea Dominum,” sometimes translated in English as “My soul magnifies the Lord….”

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children for ever.

To listen:

Arvo Pärt’s Magnificat

Arvo Pärt, born in 1935, is an Estonian composer of sacred music. His style, which draws strongly from the Church’s tradition of Gregorian chant, is sometimes called mystical minimalism. It is very spare, but with an underlying richness that reminds me of the vast beauty of a desert night sky.

The visuals for this recording are of Philadelphia in the 1940s, and were a potent reminder to me that my Lenten observance is meant to keep me attentive to my neighbor. The text is the Latin version of the Magnificat.

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Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Lady of Good Counsel Parish, Bryn Mawr.