As I mentioned in this previous post, I’m a novice when it comes to fasting. Other spiritual practices I’m much more adept at and find much more congenial. Since this Lenten fast has been one I’m practicing with the church communities I lead The Oratory of Jesus Christ, Reconciler and the Community of the Holy Trinity fasting has come up in conversation this Lent.
One common thought I’ve run across in these various conversations is that the point of fasting is endurance. Fasting is a contest of ones will, and certainly it is that in part. One could read certain passages of scripture and the desert fathers that do compare asceticism to a type of athleticism, I’d still argue that the point isn’t the endurance. More to the point endurance is only part of what ascetic practices are about.
Specifically fasting is about awareness that allows us to strengthen or reorient our relationships. This isn’t obvious. I’ve discovered that in fasting I become aware of all sorts of things, some of them trivial, some of them significant. Having good relationships, with our loved ones, with God, with our bodies and what we eat takes awareness. In our daily life, our ordinary day in and day out habits can deaden us to certain aspects of our lives and relationships.
Now to gain an awareness of the connections and our good and sinful relationships to things and other, one has to endure. But if one’s focus is upon enduring the hunger, or the abstinence from certain foods, one misses the opportunity to examine what other hungers and desires are also stirred up in one’s self. Fasting allows us as I said in that other post at the beginning of Lent, to examine our desires. This is why fasting should be accompanied with prayer and meditation.
But there is even a more. Since Lent is a penitential season we can see this asceticism as merely the rooting out of sin or evil. But again if this is our focus we will be frustrated, and only partly effective. What fasting allows is for us to be aware of what good we desire. The problem isn’t with desire or hunger but that we sometimes desire or hunger for what is ultimately undesirable.
Here, the current secular practice of a vegetable juice fast brings home this spiritual reality. Part of the point of the juice fast is not only to detoxify (root out sin by analogy) but also to reset what one desires in food, so that one’s hunger actually will satisfy what your body needs.(by analogy fasting can teach us to desire the Good, and find that we truly desire God.)
I’ve said the above is an analogy. Yet, I’d suggest that spiritual and bodily processes aren’t so separate. What happens in our body when we fast is also happening to us spiritually, in our souls. We fast and take up ascetic bodily disciplines not because our souls and bodies are who we are. At times we need recalibration. Our hungers and desires are a mismatch of good, mediocre, and evil. Lent becomes a time to realign ourselves and our relationships to food, to things and to each other. A basic and primordial way to do this is in our relationship to food, and so we fast. With prayer and meditation such fasting during Lent can truly lead us to a joyful seasons of Easter where we can find our true desires restored, and find that we simply don’t have the appetite for the mediocre and evil.