Occasionally, or is it inevitable, we reach a level where we want to grow. Be it physically, or mentally, or emotionally, or spiritually. One way or another we all need to grow, and as you grow in one area the other areas need to grow as well to keep balance. As you grow intellectually, you should take time to work on your physical and emotional health. Otherwise you become unbalanced, and unhealthy behaviors begin to solidify around you. You become tangled and knotted.
But how do you start? As with most realms of human endeavor you are faced with multiple, and conflicting, schools of thought when it comes to training. Myself, I subscribe to whatever school brings the most result with the simplest method. That is just who I am. Some people are like Scholastics of Workout – highly complex regimens with multiple cycles and complexities. They thrive in obscurities and complications. Others, like me, tend to be more “Petrine” – wanting a simple fisherman’s faith.
For example, just recently I started lifting weights. This is a new activity for me, since I have always been a runner. From all the multiple schools out there, the multiple programs, the multiple techniques, I had to choose something to get me going. And since I tend to prefer simplicity I went with the most minimalist approach I could find. In this more minimalist school, weightlifting consists of only three things: picking something heavy off the floor, lifting something heavy over your head, and carrying something heavy over a certain distance. That’s pretty much it. Within those three simple tasks there is potentially a lifetime of learning.
As with the body, so with the spirit
But what has this to do with Religious life? Well I find that the rules which work for the body apply equally well to the spirit. So this is what I consider the three spiritual exercises that every Christian, and most especially religious, should practice: fasting, vigils, and almsgiving.
I will take each in turn briefly, starting with the last:
The root for “alms” is the Greek “eleos” which means compassion, mercy, kindness, pity for those afflicted, etc.
So the giving of alms is the same thing as being compassionate. You see someone on the road and you have compassion for them, like the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:32-37).
So, while in one sense almsgiving means “giving money,” I think this might end up being a cop out. It would be interesting to If all you do is drop some coins in the little bucket of the homeless man, but at the same time you avoid making eye contact, you avoid asking him or her their name, you avoid giving them money next time because you have given once already, and so on, then I would say that you are not really practicing almsgiving.
Almsgiving is not tithing, by the way, as the giving of your first fruit is quite different than the need for constant compassion.
This is quite simple: stay up praying. Anyone who is a parent knows very well what it is like. Either we are up praying for a sick child, or we are up praying for the safe arrival of a teen who went to a party driving and is not home yet.
I would like to point out a critical difference: to worry is not to pray. Worry might get you praying, but if you continue to worry you are not exactly praying. A good vigil should scour the inside of your cups, so that you are left pure inside and out. Exhausted as well, but purified. Which parent, after a night of high fever, or worse, sitting in the emergency room does not feel “cleansed” when the fever breaks in the morning, or the doctor tells us that everything is fine?
Traditionally there were a couple of different ways of counting the “watches of the night” – by older Jewish reckoning they had three periods: from sunset to ten o’clock; the second or “middle watch” was from ten until two o’clock (Judges 7:19 ); the third, “the morning watch,” from two to sunrise. The Romans, being perhaps a little more organized about this cut the night watches into four periods: from sunset to 9 p.m., from 9 p.m. to midnight, from midnight to 3 a.m., and from 3 a.m. until sunrise (around 6 a.m.).
So, by all means let your worry take you to your knees. But once there I would suggest that you leave your worries with God. This is no different from when you walk up to the altar and kneel to receive Communion, you should bring your worries and your joys, your successes and your failures. But if you bring gifts to Jesus, and then pick them up and take them back with you that is not true discipleship. If you give, and then you take it back you are hardly a friend….As the BCP says: “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal. Let the grace of this Holy Communion make us one body, one spirit in Christ, that we may worthily serve the world in his name.”
More importantly, vigils are, at their heart, an exercise in awakening, or in staying awake. The funny thing we find in spiritual life is that we have these moments of wakefulness and then we promptly fall back to sleep.
So we can and should be practicing vigils 24 hours a day, seven days a week! Peter says in his first Epistle: “Be sober, be watchful your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour. resist him, firm in your faith.”
This is the true spiritual dimension of vigils, which staying up at night are merely its outward form. Resist sleep, resist unconsciousness, resist walking around like a zombie. Be awake and stay awake, vigilant.
This one is harder. It is always great to hear people talking about fasting during Lent. But please do not be like someone who once told me that they loved fasting at Lent. I was impressed and asked them how did they manage to love fasting, since that is a particularly advanced spiritual discipline. “Oh,” they replied, “It is easy – I just keep reminding myself how great I will look in my Easter dress!” Sigh. That is not fasting, that is dieting. Far be it for me to suggest that you should or should not diet. That is between you, God and your physician. But let’s not confused one thing with the other.
The other approach, much more common among the enlightened elites at monasteries, is to regulate fasting. Take this from the Didache, also called “The Teachings of the Twelve Apostles” and is dated by most scholars to the late first or early 2nd century. It was considered by some of the Early Church Fathers as part of the New Testament, but eventually it did not make it. Here’s what it says about fasting: “Your fasts should not be with the hypocrites, for they fast on Mondays and Thursdays. You should fast on Wednesdays and Fridays.”
Because, certainly, Mondays are the Devil’s day no? Who fasts on a Monday? Freaks! Whatever. This happens more often than not, and in monastic life we call this developing scruples. It is a really annoying stage, sort of a spiritual adolescence, where you see things so clearly as black and white, and you have no qualms in pointing out everyone’s hypocrisy. Takes some time to temper that enthusiasm, and develop a more grounded and rounded faith.
Again, there are deeper meanings of “fasting.” At once being hungry should help develop compassion for those who are hungry; being hungry also is a way to physically remind ourselves of our starving spirits who crave for God’s Love. And we can take it further, how about starving our egos by refusing to talk about ourselves, not even once?
You will know if you are fasting if it is hard and painful. If it is easy and enjoyable, and if you could keep it up for a long time, it is at best a diet. Fasting from things will purge you from the inside out, and cannot (and should not) go on for very long.
The point of the work
All other spiritual disciplines will end up in these three. You either will be compassionate or you will not. You either will be able to overcome sleep (both real and metaphorical) or you will not. And you will either be willing to suffer deprivation and hunger (again both real and metaphorical) or you will not.
These three exercises are the quickest way to get the bottom of who you really are. When you are hungry you will tend to be more mean-spirited, more selfish, more greedy. Actually not “more” – those traits will be more in evidence, I should say! They will come up more quickly. The same happens with vigils – it is amazing how the sleep-deprived then to be direct, blunt, even rude. Just not enough energy there to lie! Again, almsgiving forces us to care about others – and there is nothing more annoying in the world than being told that I should care about someone else!
Twice a week you should physically fast. The early church did it. If twice a week is too hard can you at least hold back from eating on Sunday until after church? There are numerous health benefits from fasting btw, and you will fit better in your Easter dress!
Once a month you should vigil. Pick a night where you can sleep the next day during the day, maybe a Friday and until Saturday. If all night is not possible, go until sometime past midnight. But do not do it watching TV or any other form of entertaining. Just you, the Bible, maybe a devotional book. Perhaps a notebook etc. But really it should be you and God, alone.
Every day you should give alms, which is a churchy way of saying “you should give a rat’s ass!” Care about others, every day! Look them in the eye and give. Make it personal! Everyday you should pray the Prayer attributed to St. Francis. Every morning. Pray it and mean it.
Also everyday you should pray for the Holy Spirit to help you to stay awake and vigilant. Pick a prayer word and try to remember to say it as many times a day as possible, for example.
And finally, it goes without saying that everyday you should fast from egoistic behaviors. You should also fast from negative emotions.
If you include these basic exercises into your spiritual routine, you will reap countless benefits.