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October 9, 1987     The Message
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October 9, 1987

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I I jm i t 'Is this the fasting ! wish?' By Father John Castelot NC News Service he baby born as the result of David's dalliance with Bathsheba was critically ill and the king was ex- tremely upset. "David besought God for the child. He kept a fast, retiring for the night to lie on the ground clothed in sackcloth" (2 Samuel 12:10). For a whole week his attendants begged him to get up and eat, but he refused, On the seventh day the baby died and David resumed normal activities. His servants were astonished: "What is this you are doing? While the child was living, you fasted and wept and kept vigil; now that the child is dead, you rise and take food" (2 Samuel 12:21). The origins of fasting as a religious rite are lost in antiquity. But this tragic incident illustrates its Old Testament significance. Fasting was a sort of intensified prayer in times of great emotional distress, an apparent attempt to elicit God's mercy and healing. This aspect of fasting motivated In the Old Testament, fasting was a sort of in- .tensifled prayer in times of great emotional dis- tress, an apparent at- tempt to elicit God's mer- cy and healing. David's behavior. He suffered from guilt because of his double crime of adultery and murder. He also had genuine concern for the baby. His emotion sought some kind of expression and David found it in "afflicting himself," the most common synonym for fasting in the Old Testament. The surprise shown by David's attendants reflects another mean- ing the word "fasting" had. It was a conventional sign of mourn- ing. David explained: "While the child was living, I fasted and wept, thinking, 'Perhaps the Lord will grant me the child's life.' But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again?" (2 Samuel 12:22-23). The private use of fasting by in- dividuals remained in vogue, but in the course of time the pr2tice also became institutionalized in Jewish religious practice. Specific days and seasons of fasting were legislated. For example, Yom Kip- pur, the Day of Atonement, was a solemn day of fasting. When religious practices get in- stitutionalized, there is some danger people will begin to regard them as mere formalities or as substitutes for more fundamental expressions of true religlor After the Israelites returned from*-'xile, at the time of a precarious situa- tion, a national fast was proclaim- ed. But the people refused to con- sider the real cause of their trouble, their sinfulness. So their fasting was a sort of pious blackmail, a misguided attempt to twist God's arm. But God was not fooled and when the situation did not im- prove the people complained that he took no note of their fasting. God's response cut right through all that: " "Is this the manner of fasting I wish, of keeping a day of penance? That a man bow his head like a reed and lie in sackcloth and ashes?...This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly... sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless, clothing the naked when you see them an6" not turning your back on your own" (Isaiah 58:5-7). (Father Castelot is a professor of Scripture at St. John's Seminary, Plymouth, Mich.) #. reg qu or th km ma dra no1 in, J att, fas she hic (m; l m pr va', of so: w trt it sc'. in an m By Jane Wolford Hughes NC News Service emember six months ago when you visited us, you gently suggested that Itryto get in touch with myself?." Alice said. "I wasn't quite sure what you meant but we have known each other so |ong that I knew you saw beyond the person others were applauding -- the dutiful wife caring for her ill hus- band." What I saw in my friend six months ago was a person out of control. She was like an engine, programmed to do what had to be done, but she was running out of fuel. Alice had met the diagnosis of big, affable Bill's Alzheimer's disease with courage and love. As Emptying the body to free the soul a nurse, she understood the im- plications, but decided she would care for her husband as long as she could. Her children and friends were quick to help but she was relentless on herself that Bill need- ed her. Within a year she had walked into the desert of the soul where relationships, even with God,-are strained or non-existent. Her alienation from life only grew through alcohol, tranquilizers and overeating. My comment troubled Alice and she spoke to her pastor. He sug- gested a retreat. At the retreat house, she grappled with her situation in solitude and silence. "I had hidden my anger and fear for so long I was in danger of losing my capacity to love and my capacity for life," she said. "Where had my laughter gone? What happened to the disciplined, aware person who frequently fasted for world peace?... Where was the friend of Jesus who once had a continuing daily conversa- tion with him?" Alice "came face to face with the fact I really didn't know who I was anymore." She missed din- ner the first day at the retreat house and lunch the next day. "Without intending it, I was emptying my body as well as my soul," site said. "I began to feel better...all freer. Peace came back quietly and slowly." Alice returned home determined "to change the rhythm of my life." This included letting others help her with Bill. "I see that both he and they have that right," she explained. Alcohol and pills are no longer part of her routine, as she seeks nourishment in prayer. And, with the doctor's approval, she fasts frequently, a meal at a time. She tries to concentrate on the beauty of life "and the beauty which still exists, even in the pain" of her present situation. As her husband's disease worsens, she says "the q most wonderful plart is that the at- mosphere is not morbid. It is st " prising how much we laugh and hug each other." ill X te at nl at tc t( tl d tl We hear much today of those heroic people who undertake long fasts for the cause of justice. They are signs of the nobility of n humankind. , Most of us, however, are more like Alice, imprisoned, often un- thinkingly, by our appetites, our e, desires, our attitudes. Alice's story I II I I I I g at .