Simon of Cyrene: A figure of Curiosity

On Friday last week, as we prayed the Way of the Cross, the character of Simon in the fifth station caught my attention in a way it had never done before. After the meditation we had the following prayer “Merciful Lord, in Simon of Cyrene, you offer us an opportunity to cooperate in our redemption. Mold our hearts to be fully open to embrace all those in need. Bless every ‘Simon of Cyrene’ whom you place on our journey and grant us the willingness and the zeal to carry the crosses of those who have no strength. Amen”. For the following couple of minutes, as the rest of the church proceeded to the sixth station, I got stuck in the fifth station as a number of questions ran through my mind- Well, yet another occurrence of those moments of weakness when my mind strays from the main activity in church and you need not worry so much about it since am still ‘work-in-progress’.

cyrenianHaving been from Cyrene in Africa, in the present day Libya, was Simon an African or a Jewish immigrant? Did he know Jesus previously? What ran through his mind as he carried the cross and was there any communication between him and Jesus, verbal or otherwise? What became of him after carrying the cross? For what distance did he carry the cross and did he hand it over back to Jesus at some point or he carried it all the way to Calvary? Did he wait for Jesus’ crucifixion or did he make haste and left the venue as soon as his work was done? Having been described as a bystander who was coming from the country what was his initial reaction after being conscripted to carry the cross – shock, annoyance, reluctance or may be embarrassment? Was he still in town on Sunday when Jesus resurrected? If he was, did he meet Jesus after His resurrection? Did he leave Calvary a changed man and was his life given a new sense of purpose after the encounter? Surely Simon was a figure of curiosity and yet very little about him is said in the Bible; only three verses in the whole Bible – a verse each in the Gospels on Matthew, Mark and Luke i.e.  Mark 15:21,Matthew 27:32, Luke 23:26- narrate the complete story of Simon.

What struck me most about Simon’s involvement in Jesus’ life was how he was plucked from obscurity to prominence. According to the three verses above, Simon was a passerby who was on his journey from the country when the soldier grabbed and forced him to carry the cross. In an instant, by the actions of the soldiers and without being consulted, Simon was made to participate in the most important event in the history of the salvation of mankind; he got an opportunity to participate in our redemption. The Bible is full of stories of people such as David and Moses who by the workings of God were lifted from very lowly backgrounds to position of prominence but the Cyrenian one sounds more dramatic. Sometimes in life, we may find ourselves, though in a much smaller scale, in similar circumstances being picked from very humble backgrounds to positions of prominence. How do we deal with the fame and the glory and do we reflect on the role and plan of God in such circumstances?

From the prayer quoted above, we requested the Lord to mold our hearts so that we could be fully open to embrace all those in need; in other words, to be ‘Simons of Cyrene’ and participate in alleviating the sufferings of our brothers and sisters.  It is a matter of conjecture that, being a human being like everybody else, Simon had his own cross in the form of daily challenges of life, but he also had the opportunity to carry somebody else’s cross and this turned out to be the most important cross he ever carried. In the same manner, the most important crosses that we will bear in our lives belong to other people and just like Simon we rarely have the luxury of choosing the crosses we are conscripted to carry.  Often times, as we go about the business of our lives, we happen to be bystanders to the lives of friends, family and strangers when it suddenly occurs to us that their crosses are now ours to carry. In such circumstances we may suffer extreme injustice and unfairness but,  just like Simon, it may turn out that the most important thing we will ever do in our lives is carrying someone else’s cross.  We pray to God that He may grant us the grace to bear other people’s burdens as we serve Him who declared that “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

In addition, what about the call to be a ‘Simon’ to the Body of Christ, the Church? As Christians we have been called to help to provide for the needs of the church, each according to their means, by volunteering our resources, financial and human, in the various church ministries. By participating in these church ministries, for example those of the sick, the poor, the street families and other vulnerable groups, we allow the Lord to use us as vessels through which His gospel reaches the world.  When we show kindness to the suffering, the persecuted and the defenseless and share in their suffering, we hope to carry that same cross of Jesus and thus obtain salvation and help contribute to the salvation of the world. A very critical ministry to which we have all been called is the one of praying for and being a good role model to the young Christians, especially the youth, as they navigate this treacherous stage in life. This is particularly critical in today’s world, an era during which technological advances have presented new challenges in relationships and family life as well as provided easy access to harmful substances and online content. Another way to be a ‘Simon’ to the church is by creating a conducive environment in our homes and neighbourhood where the vocations of priesthood and other religious are nurtured so that the church may always have adequate servants to minister to the faithful. Further, by offering our expertise, finances and time in church projects we play a crucial role in carrying Jesus’ cross as He walks the long journey towards the salvation of souls.

And who are the ‘Simons of Cyrene’ in our lives and who have helped us carry our crosses? Travelling through the various stages of life, we have encountered people who have greatly impacted our lives; people who uplifted our downcast spirits, provided guidance in spiritual as well as temporal matters, people who ‘walked a mile’ with us in our journey, people who just provided a shoulder to lean on. Do we always acknowledge the many, sometimes seemingly insignificant, sources of assistance whose actions and/or words act to ‘smoothen’, as it were, our otherwise rough journey? Do we consider such ‘Simons’ to be a gift from God and do we remember to pray for them, to thank God for them? By allowing these ‘Simons’ to participate in the carrying of the crosses in our life, we not only earn our own salvation but, just like for Simon who by participating in carrying Christ’s cross got an opportunity to participate in his own salvation, we also provide them with an opportunity to earn their own salvation – it is a win-win scenario for both parties. Consequently, we should guard against rejecting help from such ‘Simons’ by for example failing to share our troubles, deep fears and challenges of life with our trusted friends, family members or professionals since by so doing we may lose a moment of salvation both for ourselves and for them.

Suppose Simon declined to participate in the carrying of the cross?

 

GROWTH NOT PERFECTION

Last night it dawned on me that we were already on day 14 of 40 of this year’s lent. Two weeks already! How fast! I couldn’t help but wonder what I have been doing with myself this past two weeks. What became of all the ‘resolutions’ for lent? All those habits I was to drop and the new ones I was to pick up, the devotions, the spiritual materials I was to read, the commitment to become a better person, better employee, better husband, better father? What really happened? Honestly for some resolutions, I forgot about them immediately the priest applied the ashes on my forehead-may be sooner, for others I followed through for a few days then slowly and quietly abandoned them, for some am yet to start and for a few others, am still faithful and living them although am not sure for how much longer I can manage. I had made a commitment to improve my relationship with God, that I would take full advantage on this period of grace to work towards becoming a better Christian, a better reflection on my Maker in His service and service to His creation. But now, there I was two weeks later, with nothing to write home about; the old trend had crept back in.

Unfortunately, this has been the cycle for as many Lents as I can remember; start on a high, ease out as the time progresses and by the time its Easter I can hardly remember what the resolutions were but still hope to be better behaved come next lent. This made me wonder; now that this walk with the Lord has been an on-and-off thing, a recurring pattern in life, is it possible that I have exhausted my apportioned “quota” of God’s patience? Naturally, this led to a very low moment, a moment full of feelings of hopelessness, failure and dejection. Could it be that I can never do this and God already knows that I can’t? Is it time that I gave up on these attempts?

But almost at the same instant and, as if to stop me from dropping any further into the abyss of self-pity and hopelessness, a positive thought crossed my mind – “There is something positive this time round. That some power has jolted me to remember about the resolutions at the end of week 2 of 6, and not at Easter time, cannot be by chance. This cannot be man’s doing!” And this latter thought was more powerful than the earlier one and appeared to provide me an opportunity to consider a fresh start, a new beginning, another opportunity for repentance, to go back to my Father and say ““I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’” (Luke 15:21) “But with you there is forgiveness, so that we can, with reverence, serve you.” (Psalm 130:4)”

repent-its-not-too-lateI resolved to grab this opportunity to reset my Lenten resolutions, first by contemplating about the God we serve and who Nehemiah 9:17-18 describes as ”a forgiving God, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love. Therefore you did not desert them, even when they cast for themselves an image of a calf.” In fact, reading the narration in Nehemiah Chapter 9 sounded very familiar; the Israelites had a vicious circle of states of sinfulness-repentance-forgiveness-sinfulness that lasted many generations. Their lives were a clear manifestation of how frail and imperfect human beings are and how merciful and compassionate our God is. It is very easy to dismiss the Israelites as an ungrateful people but in reality we are not any better than them. In fact, we are worse off seeing that we are unable to learn from their many run-ins with God.

I could be wrong but most likely am not the only one who has slowed down on their Lenten resolutions this year and are currently trying to find their footing as we deal with the guilt of failing God once again. Have you ever experienced similar moments of highs and lows? During such low moments we stand a real risk of judging ourselves too harshly which, instead of leading us to be remorseful for our failures and to seek God’s mercy, may lead to a further deterioration of our relationship with God as we may forget that “He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him” Psalm103:10-11. With as a sincere and contrite heart, we should always be ready to go back to Him for as many times as we wrong Him just as Christ advised us in Luke 17:4.

In his book “Happiness is an Inside Job” John Powell advises that human beings should seek growth not perfection. He states that “Perfectionism is indeed a slave master. To put one’s happiness in the hands of such a master is indeed foolish. The human condition is that of weakness. We are all trial-and-error types, real mistake makers” (Page 110) He explains that growth sees life as a process during which skills are learnt and everyone of us is called upon to experience joy of getting better and better as the process will be ongoing for a lifetime. He further advises that if we set out to enjoy, we are likely to do a much better job than if we were determined to be perfect. Powell’s lessons are vital in our Christian journey as we “work out our salvation.” We should never give up but should always seek growth in our spiritual lives.

With this lessons in mind, am off to a rejuvenated lent; I resolve to maintain the momentum of the Ash Wednesday. And so should you! And should I falter again, I will pick up my lesson, go back to Him for a restoration and continue with my journey. After all its not about perfection; its GROWTH.

 

Benefits of fasting and famous quotes on fasting

Today marks the beginning of lent; that time in the liturgical year when a believer is called to prepare for Easter through prayer, repentance, almsgiving, atonement and self-denial. As I was reflecting on this year’s lent, I went searching for famous quotes on lent and fasting.   I came across many quotes but this one by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI stood out for me:  “Lent stimulates us to let the Word of God penetrate our life and in this way to know the fundamental truth: who we are, where we come from, where we must go, what path we must take in life…”

I found this quote presenting a fresh way of looking at lent; all our activities and observances during lent should be aimed or geared towards renewing our hearts and minds to prepare them as a fertile ground, to receive the life-giving Word of God which in turn penetrates our life giving us a new  identity and direction. I understood this to mean that lent is not so much a time for making all those many religious observances, though necessary, but it is more of a time to study the word of God, reflect on it and apply it in my life so that going forward, it can guide all my  thoughts, actions and words. It is a time to stop, observe the wind and adjust my sails so that the boat of my life can take the correct route towards our destiny.

As has been taught by the Church, the three pillars of lent are prayers, fasting and almsgiving. As part of the lent preparation I sought out to learn more about these three pillars and below I present some of the lessons learnt so far on fasting.

For Catholics, fasting is the reduction of one’s intake of food, while abstinence refers to refraining from meat (or another type of food).  Seems there are varied descriptions of what really constitutes a fast during lent (and I believe any other times) but the most common one seem to be that on days of fasting, we are to eat only one meal, that can be breakfast, lunch or dinner. If needed, two smaller meals (not adding up to more than one regular meal) may be eaten at regular mealtime. No food is to be eaten between meals. Both Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of designated as days of fasting and abstinence.

There are many benefits for fasting and from the bible I was able to pick out three of those;

  1. Fasting helps in preparing the soul for prayer and contemplation of divine things as can be demonstrated from three examples in the Bible; In Exodus 34:28 Moses fasted for forty days and forty nights before he wrote the second set of the tablets containing the Ten Commandments;  Daniel 10:1-2 explains how Daniel had a 3 weeks fast before a great vision and in 1 Kings 19: 8 we are told how Elijah traveled for forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. To this you can add Jesus’ forty days fast before He started His ministry.
  2. Fasting serves as a satisfaction for sin. As St Jerome puts it “Fasting and sackcloth are the arms of penance, the help of sinners”. In Jonah Chapter 3, we read how after Jonah had prophesied about the destruction of Nineveh, the king declared a fast for the Ninevites and following this fast, and the genuine conversion from their sinful life, God relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had promised.
  3. Fasting is meritorious and is very powerful in obtaining divine favours. Matthew 6:17-18 advises us about fasting “But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face,  so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Also, in 1 Samuel 1:6-7, we read about Hannah’s fast as represented by her husband Elkanah’s questions, and how this led to her womb being opened and giving  birth to Samuel.

Fasting tames the flesh by crucifying it with its vices and when fasting the idea is to use the hunger to help us to focus more clearly on Christ. We should convert our fasting to be a prayerful exercise during which we draw closer to Christ by meditating on His forty days in the desert and how hungry and thirsty He was while hanging on the cross. During this fasting moment, as my stomach rumbles or as I yawn, it is a good moment to say a quick prayer asking for forgiveness for the many sins I have committed as well as to ask for strength to be able to face whatever temptations the evil one may throw my way. The pangs of hunger also reminds me of my hunger for God.

christian-fasting-testimoniesFurther, with fasting, it is not just about giving up our favourite food but it’s also about going further and giving up things like hatred, ‘unforgiveness’, impatience, anger and so on. It should thus be looked at as an opportunity to clean our hearts and to prepare ourselves for purity; a moment to pick up new habits and new virtues.

In Isaiah 58, we learn about true fasting and why fasting may fail to produce the right fruits

““Why have we fasted,” they say, “and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?” ‘Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarrelling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? “‘Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: here am I.”” Isaiah 58:3-9

Below are some other quotes on fasting which I came about;

 Pope Francis:

“”Fasting makes sense if it really chips away at our security and, as a consequence, benefits someone else, if it helps us cultivate the style of the good Samaritan, who bent down to his brother in need and took care of him.””

St John Chrysostom:

“No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage for others. So, no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor and eat ashes and sigh continually, if you do no good to others, you do nothing great.”

“Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works. If you see a poor man, take pity on him. If you see a friend being honored, do not envy him. Do not let only your mouth fast, but also the eye, and the ear, and the feet, and the hands, and all the members of our bodies.”

Pope Benedict XVI

“Lent is like a long ‘retreat’ during which we can turn back into ourselves and listen to the voice of God, in order to defeat the temptations of the Evil One. It is a period of spiritual ‘combat’ which we must experience alongside Jesus, not with pride and presumption, but using the arms of faith: prayer, listening to the word of God and penance. In this way we will be able to celebrate Easter in truth, ready to renew the promises of our Baptism.”

“The ultimate goal of fasting is to help each one of us to make a complete gift of self to God.”

St. Peter Chrysologus:

“Fasting 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.”

St Augustine

“Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one’s flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, quenches the fire of lust, and kindles the true light of chastity. Enter again into yourself.”

Fr. Thomas Merton

“The goal of fasting is inner unity. This means hearing, but not with the ear; hearing, but not with the understanding; it is hearing with the spirit, with your whole being. The hearing that is only in the ears is one thing. The hearing of the understanding is another, but the hearing of the spirit is not limited to any one faculty, to the ear, or to the mind. Hence, it demands the emptiness of the faculties, and when the faculties are empty, then your whole being listens… Fasting of the heart empties the faculties, frees you from limitations and from preoccupations.”

Dallas Willard

“Fasting confirms our utter dependence upon God by finding in Him a source of sustenance beyond food.”