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March 01, 2012
Ivy-League monks
By Bishop James D. Conley *

By Bishop James D. Conley *

The University of Pennsylvania, an Ivy League school, offers a course quite different from typical college offerings.

In this course, there are no tests and no papers. But there is plenty of homework.

Students have a dress code. They must wake up at 5:30 a.m. And they can’t eat late-night dorm-room pizza.

The course is intended as an immersion into the monastic experience—a chance for students to gain insight into the life of a monk. The Associated Press reported on the class a couple of weeks ago. The professor claims to have experience in the Buddhist and Catholic monastic traditions. At its heart, according to the report, the course exposes students to a disciplined life—including fasting—in order to teach them to be aware of the world around them. One student in the class reported that disciplines like fasting helped her “to really listen to myself and focus on my needs and feelings.”

The class seems to miss the point. A monk’s life is not about merely observing difficult rules or getting in touch with one’s needs and feelings. Instead, monastic life is intended to bring people into deep union with Jesus Christ. The same is true of our own spiritual disciplines—especially the fasting and penances we undertake during Lent.

Fasting does not exist to test our willpower or strength. Fasting is not intended to help us become more self-focused. Instead, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says that fasting is intended to help us experience “a conversion of the heart; an interior conversion.” When we deny ourselves, we do so to share in the self-denial of Jesus Christ—to practice loving the world as he loves it.

We’re changed through fasting if we offer our suffering to Jesus Christ and ask him to transform us in his image—and our changed hearts change the hearts of others.

In 2009, Pope Benedict reflected that: “fasting represents an important ascetical practice, a spiritual arm to do battle against every possible disordered attachment to ourselves.”

Fasting also teaches us to rely upon the grace of Jesus Christ. Most of us can skip a meal here or there with no real problem. But when we voluntarily deny ourselves something good, like food, or something we enjoy, like dessert, it’s easier to be less charitable, less kind, grumpy and less open to the people around us.

When we’re fasting, we’re more aware of how little we’re in control of our own lives. If we want to fast and also be kind to our friends and family, we need to ask Jesus Christ for that grace. And the more we ask Jesus Christ for grace, the more we become aware that we always need his grace if we are to love as God loves.

Too often we approach Lent like the “monastic” students at the University of Pennsylvania. We undertake the disciplines of Lent as a test—to see how strong we are. Or we look forward to the fasting of Lent because we’d like to lose some weight. We look for immediate and tangible benefits to fasting for ourselves and therefore miss the deep spiritual meaning of our self-sacrifice.

The students at the University of Pennsylvania are learning discipline, perhaps, and that’s not a bad thing. Certainly, they’re learning to have order in their lives. But until they see Jesus Christ at the center of their discipline, they won’t understand the self-sacrificing spirit of a monk. Let us, therefore, be encouraged by the words of a man who did understand the soul of monastic life, the fifth-century bishop St. Peter Chrysologus: “Fasting” he wrote, “is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to others, you open God’s ear to yourself.”

May God bless your discipline of Lent.


Reprinted with permission from the Denver Catholic Register.

The Most Rev. James D. Conley served as the auxiliary Bishop for the Denver Archdiocese from April of 2008 until November of 2012, and during this time also served as Apostolic Administrator for Denver from September 2011 until July 2012. Bishop Conley is currently the Bishop of the Lincoln diocese.
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