With Ash Wednesday we begin a season of self-denial featuring prayer and fasting. We also renounce other pleasures to help us curb our desires a bit more than we do the rest of the year.
The asceticism of self-denial, especially that of fasting gives us an important of the interaction between mimetic realism. There is a paradoxical effect of self-denial that we can fall victim to if we are not careful. It is possible for self-denial to focus us upon ourselves in an unhealthy way. It is I who am fasting. I am giving up pleasures I normally indulge in. If we become so fixated on ourselves, we are puffing ourselves up rather than denying ourselves. Isaiah shows how such self-centered fasting leads to quarreling and fighting and striking others with their fists. (Isaiah 58:4) If self-denial has made us so grouchy that we have to make up for what we are giving up by giving ourselves the alternate pleasure of striking out at other people and putting them down, then it is grouchiness and lashing out at others that we must fast from.
Likewise, Jesus warns us against putting on long faces so that others will admire our fasting or blowing trumpets to call attention to our almsgiving (Mt. 6: 1-2). Once again, our self-denial is being compensated for by self-indulgence in other ways. When the admiration of others is filling our egos, then we need to fast from seeking such admiration. We may well find that this renunciation is harder than renouncing food and other pleasures. As we deepen renunciation, we become aware of deeper levels of our desires that need to be turned into a more positive direction.
Given this pitfall, I suggest that we emphasize the needs of other people and renounce ourselves by thinking of them rather than about ourselves. Isaiah suggests that a better fast would be to let the oppressed go free and loosen every yoke. (Is. 58: 6). Jesus echoes Isaiah’s sentiments at the beginning of his teaching ministry by proclaiming a Year of Jubilee that would free all people of their imprisonment to debt so as to give all a new start in life. (Luke 4: 16-20 Instead of puffing ourselves up, we should build up other people. Perhaps we will find this to be a greater renunciation that cutting back on our eating habits. In any case, renunciations of food and other pleasures will help us grow spiritually only if they are the basis for reaching out to other people. When we really think of others, we have less room in our hearts to think about ourselves.