[Week 3 of the “Imagination in Action” series. Theme this week: Fasting]
GK Chesterton is one of my favorite authors, although at times he can be a difficult author to read! He loves clever turns of phrase, paradoxes, and indirect references. However, contained within this complex writing style is tremendous insight. One of his stories that I think represents all of these aspects is “Manalive.” It tells the strange tale of Innocent Smith, who arrives at an English boarding house with a great gust of wind and brings chaos in his wake. He seems to be a madman, and in the second part of the book is placed on trial. In the end, they conclude that his seemingly insane antics were actually designed to bring sanity to life. The title of the story describes what he wanted to be: a man alive, not merely one going through the motions.
A key example of this would be the charge raised against him that he had abandoned his home. It is later revealed that he left precisely to get back to it with a proper appreciation. In one of his conversations Innocent says, “My pilgrimage is not yet accomplished… I have become a pilgrim to cure myself of being an exile.” An exile is one who is separated from one’s homeland. He had realized that he had begun to take everything for granted, and felt that this separated him from seeing what was really there. Going on a pilgrimage, in contrast to being exiled, is a deliberate choice to leave home in search of some goal. It is an ascetical practice, embracing simplicity and sacrifice, rather than a vacation. By taking up this pilgrimage Innocent Smith was able to return home with new eyes, and a new awareness of gratitude and wonder at what he found.
In the spiritual life we can become enslaved to things (sinful or not) that separate us from what is essential. We get drawn to distraction, which leads to apathy about important things. The classic temptations of pleasure, power, possessions, or popularity can become false gods in our life. They provide unstable foundations that can trap us in vicious cycles of seeking more and more, while they often depend on circumstances that can change without our control. Fasting is a powerful tool to break these bonds. It involves developing the ability to say “no” to what is less important so that we can say “yes” to what is more important. The power behind fasting in the Christian sense is the grace of God, rather than trying to rely on willpower alone. In this way it opens us to prayer when we encounter our weakness, and to establish a clearer way of seeing the world. It helps to set us free from selfishness by giving us companionship with Christ and all those who suffer, and so gives an invitation to deepened charity. Fasting likewise opens up avenues of wonder and thanksgiving at the blessings we do have.
While Manalive’s example of leaving on a trip around the world is probably not the correct choice for us (setting aside our responsibilities like a student giving up homework for Lent!), I think it does paint a powerful picture of what place “fasting” can have in the spiritual life. The paradoxes of GK Chesterton are rooted in Christ’s words about the Cross – what seems to be a path to death is in fact a path to life. By embracing the path of the spiritual life, we are led by the grace of God to being men and women fully alive.