Lent is a time of fasting. The patterns of fasting for most Christians in the united States today aren’t about complete abstinence from food, at least not in Lent. Thus, “giving something up for Lent.”
I confess that I’m not good at fasting. The spiritual disciplines I gravitate towards are meditation, solitude, Lectio Divina (alone and in groups), and retreats. Some of these practices are suited and come easy for an introvert, for instance solitude, and spiritual retreats. Fasting is just difficult, especially a complete fast from any food. I don’t feel I fast well. I often just am aware of what I’m not eating. It’s difficult to get to the spiritual benefit of fasting.
Fasting might be that for most people. This is probably why we seek to fast by refraining from only certain foods or even apply this to refraining from certain activities in Lent. One can quibble with me about whether giving things up for Lent should be properly understood as fasting, but I would still argue the practice is rooted in seeing Lent as a time for fasting.
But why fast at all? What are we doing when we abstain from some or all foods or certain activities for a period of time?
Part of the reason we fast is that orthodox and catholic Christian spirituality is an embodied spirituality. We fast because we are embodied and our bodies matter for our spirituality.
But one may wonder at this: How is it that refraining from food something we need as bodies, an affirmation of our being bodies? This touches upon this sermon on desire and temptation. We can have un-reflective or possibly unhelpful relationship towards what we need to live. Jesus responds to the temptation to turn rocks into bread with “People don’t live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matt. 4:4b TNIV) This isn’t a denial of the need for food, but an affirmation of where our sustenance and life truly comes from, God. Fasting through limiting or abstaining from food altogether is a way to affirm a trust in God, who is the source of all life.
The spiritual discipline of fasting has analogous end to what someone is seeking to do in a vegetable juice fast. In a vegetable juice fast you are seeking to reboot your body and it’s desire for certain foods and to clean out one’s system. The idea is that, especially in our context of highly processed foods and high dependence on animal products, dairy, and meat for our sustenance, our desire for certain foods is out of whack and that especially due to processed foods we need to detox ourselves. For some this is the first step towards a vegan diet for others a means to re-calibrate and detox. In both cases it is to reorient ones desires towards a more healthy pattern of eating and retrain your body to desire truly health giving foods. This happens both physically and spiritually when we orient a fast towards our relationship with God.
This can also be the spiritual result of fasting. Through fasting we become aware of our desires, possibly how they may be misguided, and we can through this bodily discipline let God reorient our desires, taking our hunger or our cravings for certain foods as an opportunity to examine what we desire and why before God.
Personally, I also find that my compassion for those who may have little to eat around the world and in our midst can increase in fasting. When fasting I find myself being keenly aware of all the restaurants and convenience stores, and snack shops that are all around. Things, I often pass by without notice. Fasting then can lead to a compassionate engagement with food, abundance, and hunger. Through fasting we can allow our chosen hunger to orient our awareness of hunger in the world.
I know of some who fast who will take the money they did not spend on a particular meal, or on food they would have otherwise purchased and donate the money to a food pantry in their area or to an organization working on addressing hunger and starvation around the world.
These are just some beginning thoughts on why we fast. Thoughts from one who is a novice at fasting.
What are your experiences with fasting? Why do you fast? How have you met God in fasting? is fasting a spiritual discipline you are drawn towards?