I have been fasting on Wednesdays during Lent – my own mongrel, modified fast designed entirely to suit my own purposes. Admittedly, many of those purposes are spiritual, but it still feels more like self-care than self-denial. I just wasn’t feeling the denial this year. My flesh frankly hasn’t done much that would respond to punishment lately. I needed an especially affirming fast this year – to grow in gratitude for and proper relation to the good things in my life.
“Asceticism has a basic role in any spirituality, but ascetic practices, in my opinion, can be healthy or unhealthy. Suppose for example, I am considering fasting from food or from television. I use two criteria for deciding on the wholesomeness of my fast. First, does the discipline of saying no still affirm the goodness of creation? Is my motivation to gain more freedom for better service, to give up something good for something better? Second, am I expressing God’s love for me or seeking to achieve it? Is my human effort replacing the grace of God? Is this an effort made in order to earn the love of God? Or is this discipline a response to God’s forgiving grace in Christ? Does the practice lead to the freedom of the athlete who runs in the knowledge of God’s love or to the bondage of a desperate attempt to earn what cannot be earned?”
– Bradley P. Holt, Thirsty for God p. 55-56
As with many Protestant Christians of a certain age, my first forays into fasting were guided by Richard Foster’s A Celebration of Discipline which lauds fasting as, among other things, a tool of self-knowledge
“Fasting reveals the things that control us. We tend to cover up what is inside us with food and other good things, but in fasting these things surface…. At first we will rationalize that our anger, for example, is due to our hunger. We will then discover that we are angry not because of hunger, but because the spirit of anger is within us. We can rejoice in this knowledge because we know that healing is available through the power of Christ…. Fasting helps us keep our balance in life. How easily we begin to allow nonessentials to take precedence in our lives. How quickly we crave things we do not need until we are enslaved by them….”
This year I already felt keenly aware of the things controlling me. I was looking for a way to work my way free of them – not just for a season, but sustainably. My first fasts seem to have primed me toward greater gentleness with my self and others when I fast. I lower my expectations, or rather: I expect the weakness that is within all of us, and the temptation to lash out at it diminishes. Nowadays fasting seems to mellow me, so I’m experimenting with forms I can work reasonably into ordinary time. I’m a short-burst person seeking moderation and consistency – in my appetites and compulsions, in my attitudes and energy and focus. That artistic-Irish temperament serves my productivity, but not my long-haul relationships, of which I now have several and desire more. I’ve intentionally crafted this year’s fast to center on experiencing generosity, provision, and celebration rather than deprivation.
“When you fast, see the fasting of others. If you want God to know that you are hungry, know that another is hungry…. If you ask for yourself what you deny to others, your asking is a mockery…. Let us use fasting to make up for what we have lost by despising others. Let us offer our souls in sacrifice by means of fasting…. When you fast, if your mercy is thin your harvest will be thin; when you fast, what you pour out in mercy overflows into your barn. Therefore, do not lose by saving, but gather in by scattering. Give to the poor, and you give to yourself. You will not be allowed to keep what you have refused to give to others.”
– St. Peter Chrysologus, Sermon 43: PL 52, 320, 322
On this year’s fast I am hungry, but I’m not going hungry. I am not eating one day a week, but I’m not giving up protein or caffeine or vitamins or anything that leads to true debilitation or day-long headaches. It’s a series of small steps away from being an overfed, overstuffed, overinsulated Christian toward being a well-fed, nourished and grateful Christian, willing to give what I’ve been given and to feel the relatively small indignities and hurts of my first-world problems. If I can’t occasionally suffer through my own loneliness and stress without numbing the pain with an obscene number of mint fudge creme Oreos, what empathy can I offer another? Do I want to watch the news a la Marie Antoinette, thinking, “These people obviously need to eat more chocolate?” Or can I sympathize with others who are not making the best decisions because they are hungry or run down or off-balance as I myself get to be so, so easily?
It’s been a small, practical fast, and I’m learning small, practical lessons. My fast is not total enough to really be detoxifying, but it’s gotten me thinking about the connections between thinking and digesting, taking things in, and working things out, chewing and ruminating. I’m recognizing that I have resources and reserves that are meant to be called on, drawn on, and expended regularly. It is good to occasionally test their limits. It’s enough of a fast that I rely more on God, acknowledging what I’ve been given and practicing trust and patience where I lack. Fasting is a natural companion to other disciplines: fasting and silence, fasting and service, fasting and study. The fasts will take on distinct flavors, and they’re strangely filling. And even though I have been thinking of this as the year of the fast I have chosen, to the degree it has corresponded to the fast God has chosen, I have felt God’s promises of help and guidance made good….
“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 righteousnesswill 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,10 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
Is there anything else to desire, really? It’s about finding satisfaction with what is truly satisfying, and not selling out my birthright or justice for my brothers and sisters by settling for a package of Oreos.