The year is 1997. I’m in Horta, on the island of Faial, the largest of the Azores, smack in the middle of the North Atlantic. It is a Tuesday in Lent and I’m fasting. I’m a cradle Catholic but there has been a short in the wires and I’m not living the Catholic life — nor professing to be. But I’m on a journey, which in part is an assignment for a magazine I work for.
I’m not a world traveler but the unfamiliarity of the island serves as a spiritual testing ground. The air is warm off the ocean, the sun is high and I find quiet stones upon which to sit among grazing cattle. But my favorite pastime is getting lost on trails leading through dense, clattering stands of bamboo.
In Alaska, thousands of miles to west, a friend is up in his years and living out his last week on earth. He is sick and dying, and I’m using the pangs of hunger throughout the day as a reminder to send “positive intentions” his way — more commonly known as prayers. But I am reluctant to call them that, just then. I have been reading some “out there stuff.” I have also studied the faith of the Mormons and of Jehovah Witnesses, and been comparing the two with my philosophical anchoring in a Lutheran church. I am contemplating an exhaustive study of Buddhism next.
At the same time, I have just finished up the previous year reading the Bible from cover to cover, and among all the parables, the healing stories — and the Resurrection — I am intrigued by its myriad references to fasting. Some of my secular readings advocate that the emptiness of fasting brings creative approaches to our existential lives on earth, but so many of these texts fall short in their prescriptions for our souls in the hereafter.
Back on the island, one evening in the rhythmic tones of bamboo it strikes me that fasting for fasting’s sake is nothing without attachment. Some talk about behavioral change in terms of doing pushups for every urge to grab a cigarette, or to replace an undesirable vice of one ilk with a positive act of another at the time of temptation or “triggering,” but I’m lost for the hour in the life of my friend. He dies three days after I leave the Azores and land in Anchorage.
Flash forward to 2007, a decade later. My beloved spouse Cheryl has brought me back home to St. Michael Church, in Palmer. She has entered RCIA. We attend Masses, and after a long sojourn in an intellectual approach to life after life I am shaken to my Catholic roots. Thanks to her I have been to reconciliation and reunited with the liturgy, the Passion and Lent.
Since then we “give things up” for Lent as a Catholic couple but for so many of the right reasons, contrary to years ago when I sailed rudderless in exploration of my faith. For us, it has been chocolates and wine. Have we made it throughout those 40 days and stayed true? There have been loopholes, extraneous situations that have spoiled us. Our anniversary falls on March 9th, and I won’t even begin the litany of other excuses that has broken our pact, but only temporarily, as we return to denying ourselves daily pleasures in the certainty that their absence will trigger our focus toward the life of Christ, the Last Supper, the Agony in the Garden, and other precious parts of the Paschal Mystery. Add to that the days of fasting and abstinence, and we look to the Catholic calendar each year in anticipation of building an ever-deepening connection to Christ.