John the Baptist’s disciples approach Jesus with the objection, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus responds that it is not appropriate for his disciples to fast while he is still among them.
Today’s gospel seems to focus on fasting, but it concerns itself more with two other issues. First, why do we engage in any particular behavior? Second, is the behavior appropriate? Let us take each issue in turn.
Why do we engage in any particular behavior?
“Why do we and the Pharisees fast often but your disciples do not fast?” This is not a question but a criticism that smolders with anger. Ask yourself this question. Why would you be angry with people who do not practice a form of asceticism that you do, since their choice has no negative consequences in your life? It neither imposes upon you nor deprives you of anything. So why be angry?
One possible answer is that when we feel forced to do something that we really don’t want to do, we envy others who are not burdened by the false sense of obligation that weighs us down. This is akin to workaholics who resent people who are not driven. In their hearts, they condemn the less-driven as lazy and irresponsible. But in truth, workaholics are envious. They cannot relax without feeling guilty or feeling afraid of having their image as indefatigable workers tarnished. Likewise, some people engage in spiritual devotions simply because someone else has recommended them highly. They do not want to lose the esteem of these people, so they bind themselves to devotions that do not fit the unique contours of their souls.
All of us are unique and must follow our own path. When Saint Thérèse was novice mistress, she described working with her novices in this fashion: “It is absolutely necessary to forget one’s likings, one’s personal conceptions, and to guide souls along the road which Jesus has traced out for them without trying to make them walk my own path…. There are really more differences among souls than there are among faces” (238-40).
In the same vein, Abbé de Tourville wrote, “Thomas Aquinas says that the angels differ as much from one another as if they belonged to different species. This is equally true of each one of us…. One of the hardest but one of the most absolutely necessary things is to follow our own particular line of development, side by side with souls who have a different one; often one opposed to our own… We must be ourselves and not try to get inside someone else’s skin. David could have done nothing in the armor of Saul; he refuse it and ran to fetch his sling…. We must follow our own light as though we were alone in the world … we must never be deflected from our own path” (26-28).
The Appropriateness of our Behavior
“The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they?” It is neither appropriate nor proper to fast at a wedding. To do so not only would indicate inordinate attachment to one’s ascetical practice, but would also be rude. Thomas Aquinas asks whether a lack of mirth can be sinful. His response is, “Yes.” Thomas writes that such a person becomes “burdensome to others, by offering no pleasure to others, and by hindering their enjoyment … they are boorish and rude” (II, II, Q. 168, art. 4).
The appropriateness of our behavior is a matter of charity, as this story from the desert illustrates. “Once two brethren came to a certain elder whose practice it was to eat every other day. But when he saw the brethren, he joyfully invited them to dine with him, saying: ‘Fasting has its reward, but he who eats out of charity fulfils two commandments, for he sets aside his own will and he refreshes his hungry brethren’ ” (Merton 77).
The appropriateness of when, where, and how we exercise any ascetical practice or virtue is important in the spiritual life. Francis de Sales wrote, “To insist on performing acts of a particular chosen virtue on every possible occasion is a great defect, as in the case of certain ancient philosophers who wished to be always weeping or always laughing; and still worse, to criticize and blame those who do not do the same. But Saint Paul says, ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with the mourners’ ” (85).