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At the start of the war in Ukraine, Pope Francis called for Ash Wednesday to be a day of fasting and prayer for peace.

Churches and civic groups all over the world have been gathering to pray for peace in the region and an end to the attacks by Russia on the Ukrainian people.

Ash Wednesday, which fell on March 2 this year, marked the beginning of Lent. Lent is a season of fasting and prayer in preparation for Easter.

Most years this liturgical season observed in many Christian churches and denominations escapes the world’s view and goes largely unnoticed in civic society.

But as Russian bombs are bursting over the Ukraine and images of refugee families racing to shelters are spread across social and news media, the world’s conscience has been pierced as if by a sword.

On the heels of the tragic plight of Afghanistan and omicron and delta variants of COVID claiming more innocent lives, one has to wonder — regardless of religious belief — if we aren’t living in apocalyptic times.

And for those who do believe, we are waiting for the Lord to come and wondering if it’s none too soon.

Pope Francis’ call to fast and pray rang like a clarion in the midst of the clamoring sounds of war. While Ash Wednesday was the perfect day to focus on fasting and prayer, I think we are all looking to do more.

Locally, groups and gathering are coming together like the ones reported here on RiverheadLOCAL.

The Ukrainian Catholic community at St John the Baptist Ukrainian Church in Riverhead updated the list of items they are collecting to send to the Ukraine.

All these works are important both to help those in need and to be part of the solution in search of peace in the world.

But even while we rally and donate, we are often still left with a sense of wondering if we have done enough. There exists within us an innate desire to do something more, even from our homes.

There is always more we can do to promote peace.

We can heed the call of spiritual leaders across the globe to fast and pray.

The health benefits of fasting have been well documented, especially over the last 10 years with the research on the impact of intermittent fasting on autoimmune disease and weight loss.

Prayer and its impact on chronic disease has also been studied and shown to improve health outcomes from a body, mind and spiritual perspective.

Fasting often involves waiting or abstaining from food for a certain period of time. In the case of intermittent fasting for health reasons, it’s often described as giving one’s digestive system an opportunity to rest.

So too, when we give up eating a particular food or satisfying a craving for mindless activity like social media or television, we create a space for God to work within us.

We are giving up something that frees our mind and time to turn instead to God in prayer- in this case praying for the end of war and the pursuit of peace.

Prayer and fasting has always been a part of the lives of individuals and religious groups as documented in the Old and New Testament and in the writings in both eastern and western religions.

Sometimes a call to prayer and fasting can be misunderstood as a way to satisfy a vengeful God whose cravings for retribution can only be fulfilled through a litany of prayers and sacrifices in exchange for deliverance from known and unknown risk.

But that’s a very incomplete and inaccurate understanding of God.

I find this scripture, a word from God to His people which reads like a poem from God’s own heart, is a perfect example of how and why we fast:

Is not this is 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.

“If you do away with the yoke of oppression,
with the pointing finger and malicious talk,
and if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the oppressed,
then your light will rise in the darkness,
and your night will become like the noonday.

The Lord will guide you always;
he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
and will strengthen your frame.

You will be like a well-watered garden,
like a spring whose waters never fail.
Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.

(Isaiah 58:6-12)

More than a list of do’s and don’ts, fasting is about changing the disposition of our hearts so that we are open to loving God and neighbor.

It’s a time to pause in our daily routines, to create time and space to think of others and offer up prayers of thanksgiving and petitions for them in our hearts.

For me, I’ve been taking time to be more intentional in my daily routine and offering it as a prayer for peace in the Ukraine and an end to the Russian invasion.

The work of caregiving is hard, but it is lighter and sweeter when I offer caring for my daughter as a prayer to God for peace in addition to caring for the dignity of another human person.

Fasting and prayer may or may not change a situation before us or bring lasting peace around the world. But it certainly can change our perspective on others, help us to grow in compassion and take actions towards them to promote peace. We fast to promote a change within our own hearts.

Peace — like the proverbial stone thrown across the water — has a rippling effect in the world. It reminds me of that simple little phrase from an old 60s folk song-

“Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”

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Eileen is a writer, speaker and wellness coach with a bachelor’s degree in theology from Franciscan University. She and her husband Steve live in Jamesport and have four young adult children. Email Eileen