I was walking on an ill-seen path when I heard the bell toll. The sound was a powerful, familiar one; it was a sound I had heard many times in my childhood. When I left the House I had taken it for granted that I would hear the bell again, and lo and behold, with heaven knows how much distance between myself and the Gates of the Rock, I was greeted with its deep, rich, overtones. The pitch, the number of strikes, meant one thing and one thing only; the Season of the Fast had begun.
As you know, Father, not many in the House still pay attention to the Season of the Fast. Many years after the House was built it was beset by a number of scuffles, and where there had once been simple, amorphous groups, united under the same roof, monolithic Families began to sprout. As with all things, I assume you sat on your Holy Throne in the great Upstairs, watching in whatever inscrutable emotions you possess as your children squabbled over who had the right to make Families and who had the right to break them, each of them claiming authority from your lips and inspiration from your spirit. I, by virtue of birth, am of the Universal Family, a name so given because we trace lineage to the foundation of the House itself, when the House’s purpose was to serve all men upon this earth. I need not tell you how vehemently said lineage has been disputed, even to this day. The Universals, dare I say, are by and large the most popular amongst the Families, mainly through conquest and age, but also because the other Families were for a long time defined by their non-Universalness, and the disunity that came with it.
Regardless of reason Father, many of your children within the House do not observe the Season of the Fast. However, they can by no means ignore it. The tell-tale remnants of ashes on the foreheads of all Universals alert them to the beginning of the season, and the requisite festival at its end is one that no child in your House can claim to ignore. And then there are people like me, who, while no longer squarely within the boundaries of the House walls or the enclosures of a Family wing, still hear the bells and still feel the strong pull of years of instruction and indoctrination. This is the season, Father, the season in which we get ready to celebrate our reason for existence. But in order to fully appreciate this celebration we are told that we must suffer; we must find ways to come in contact with our limitations and our weaknesses. We must give up the things we value most, so that through our simple penance we may come to appreciate the greatest sacrifice of all: your sacrifice.
Per the aforementioned tradition, members of the Family are required to give something up in this season; by and large the most common I have seen is food. As I a child I was spared this choice; I was much too young to willingly give up the pleasures of a full stomach. Nonetheless my good parents made sure to instil the spirit of sacrifice in me and my siblings; the season was, and still is, marked by a universal absence of meat in my home. As a young man however, I am free to choose my object of abstinence, and it, quite frankly, is a very difficult choice. As you know, while I am not austere, Father, I am also not extravagant. I can go hours without food; oftentimes I find that the more occupied I am the more likely it is that I would forget to eat altogether. Sacrificing food, while a tad inconvenient, is by no means difficult.
I had spent the past few days of my journey wondering what to give up, when I was greeted with a message from the winged creature. His question was simple, and is one that has bothered me since: Why must I give anything up?
Now, this question came as I quite nearly discovered an apt item to fast upon in this forty-day period. As you know, my time on this green earth has been dubbed the Age of Networks, perhaps because your children have never been more connected, and in some ways more distant. It has oft been suggested in these times that we ought to give up the tools that facilitate these connections, freeing ourselves from the glut of information and embracing silence and solitude. I have never considered myself to be one of those bound by such admonitions; in fact I have many times looked down upon those that considered such tools fast-worthy. That one could be so attached to the network that liberation from it could take on religious significance is a phenomenon I have always found deplorable. And yet it was but a few moments before I realised that I relied on similar tools for my fill of news and information, which, while not centred around my person, had become intrinsic to my way of life. I immediately rejected the thought, telling myself that my habit was not a guilty pleasure, but a necessary one; it pays in my field to be abreast of the happenings of the time, payments that have come in handy in the past. It would be senseless to give up something that I, in my opinion, do not overindulge in. And in that moment my irritating friend had the audacity to whisper his first horrible statement: The fact I considered my sources important, but by no means indispensable, was the very reason I should let them go. As I turned to the fellow in anger, a random thought entered my mind: Shouldn’t an item’s worth in sacrifice be evaluated by how much said item drives me from you, instead of how much I rely upon it?
This thought calmed me. It seemed I had found a good counter to the irksome whisperings of my pest. My thoughts turned then to whether or not I could give up other things that this network provided, such as entertainment. No sooner had this thought crossed my mind than did the dastardly creature return, in his tiny, high-pitched voice, asking whether or not this consideration was an attempt to find a more palatable alternative to the immense sacrifice of my news sources. I was back in my ugly bind, with a tiny pang of guilt eating at my core. Was I trying to shirk my Universal responsibility by finding an item easier to give up?
I would spare you the back-and-forth between me and this fellow I have been cursed with, Father. As I brought new items that I could give up, he questioned their relevance, their position, and the weight of their sacrifice, each in a harsh and biting tone. Would it be true sacrifice if one such as myself could be made to feel nothing in their absence? Would I have to force myself to constantly wish for these things, only to be reminded that I could not have them, in order for my sacrifice to be made complete? I found myself wishing that the initial thought had not occurred to me, only to have the question put forth on whether or not my wishes were sound and just, whether I had the right to even think such thoughts.
It was at this juncture that he asked me the question I mentioned initially: Why must I give anything up? I have left the House, and while some parts of my being still lie within its confines, my behaviour, and the very nature of these letters, betrays my true position. Should I put myself through the stress and strain of deciding on a worthy sacrifice when the true question of my soul must be answered first, before the sacrifice would mean anything? Last year, when I told a friend of mine from the huge and segmented Family of Rebels about my fast, he frowned in what I felt was pity, asking how the elders of the Universals had convinced me that my place Upstairs was dependent on the timing of a few scraps of food. His pity was misguided, for I did not do it for my salvation, but his question has remained with me, resurfacing from the lips of my unwanted acquaintance. Where does this compulsion come from, and why is it so strong that I devolved into a bottomless argument with my acquaintance about worthy sacrifices and guilty consciences? Is any sacrifice worth it when I know that I will still indulge in other vices this season, when I know that nothing I give up would cause me to turn around and return to the House I was raised in, before my journey ends?
We are five days into the season, and I am yet to make my decision. I am considering simply abstaining from food by default, but even I know that that is by far the easiest of all my options, and that I run the risk of complacency in defining the actual sacrifice. The tendency would be to keep with the food-fast, all the way until the day that marks season’s end, ignoring perhaps more admirable choices for abstinence. If I do decide to fast, it would be for the same reasons that I did last year: in the hopes that by giving something up specifically for this season I would be constantly reminded of your role in my life, and perhaps come to see that to which I have been blinded this entire time, the impetus behind my journey. It is unlikely, in my humble opinion, but at least I would be able to say that I tried.
I will end here dearest Father, but before I go let me leave you with the question that has plagued my irresolute heart since I heard those bells many days ago: What would be a worthy sacrifice from this your prodigal son?
Your Prodigal Son