I’ve been thinking a lot about fasting this Lent. Specifically about the nature of what we fast on. So much lately I hear about fasting in the context of giving up something that is bad for us. I’m going to give up junk food, staying up late, watching too much TV, drinking etc. There are lots of reflections out there about fasting on something bad and feasting on its good counterpart (fast on junk food, feast on exercise, fast on gossip, feast on compliments). I’ll admit, it’s how I usually fast as well. When I lived in Ireland I gave up alcohol for the simple reason that I was drinking too much of it. This year I gave up night time snacking and not getting enough sleep. I’m not saying it’s a wrong way to think about it, but at the same time, it doesn’t sit totally comfortable with me either. When I reflect on Jesus’ 40 days in the desert, He didn’t wander into a nice campground and just avoid chocolate six days a week. He fully fasted for 40 days. When He faced His temptations he wasn’t tempted with a nice cup of coffee or a belt of whisky… He was tempted bodily simply with bread.
I think the way we tend to fast now has a serious potential to shift the focus of the fast to be a sort of spiritual New Year’s Resolution. When Christ rebuked the temptation to turn stones into bread, he did so with the scripture passage that man doesn’t live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God. There’s tremendous power during our fast to learn to really rely on God. When we let go of the worries and desires of this world we open ourselves to the Holy Spirit and whisper of God in our lives. On the other hand if I give up drinking for lent because I drink a bit too much, or I give up junk food because I’m overweight, then what I’m really trying to do from a spiritual point of view is make myself better so that I’m slightly more worthy for the Easter celebration, rather than emptying myself of the things of this world so that I can focus on God’s voice in my heart.
I’ve been blessed enough to have these true sort of fasts twice in my life. The first time was in Taize. If you don’t know it, it’s a community built on the idea of simplicity in our approach to God. The food is what you need to survive, the accommodations are sparse, there are no chairs (you sit on the floor if you are not infirm when you go to prayer), the music is simple chants, and silence is a big part of the rule of life there. In nine days there, with nothing to worry about listening, praying, and celebrating, I had prayer and spiritual experiences that have never been paralleled anywhere in my life.
Two years ago for lent I tried to impose this sort of total fast into my life by giving up food altogether. I had read about a Benedictine fast that involved nothing but drinking doppelbock (a strong, but very malty/nutritious beer) throughout lent (no it doesn’t involve getting drunk every day, portions and times are strictly limited). I found a guy who had done it from a spiritual perspective, J. Wilson (from the Diary of a Part Time Monk), who happened to be a professional brewer and was willing to share his recipe. I brewed 10 gallons of it, had my last meal on Mardi Gras, and did my best. Now, being a teacher I did have to alter it a bit and had nutrition/protein drinks for breakfast and lunch, as I can’t imagine my admin would have okayed bringing a growler of 9% abv beer into school every day, but I tried to stay true to the spirit of the fast. I’m not going to pretend I was perfect at it, but I will say it was an incredibly rewarding experience in terms of heightening my awareness of God’s presence, and unlike any fast I have tried before or since.
The difference with both of these fasts is that they were meant to help me seek beyond my worldly desires, even some of the good and necessary ones like food, and help me to build a stronger relationship with God. I don’t think the fast needs to be quite so extreme to do this, but from what I’ve experienced, there’s real value in the little bit of suffering that turns the heart to God.
I know lent is well underway now, but I’d encourage anyone who reads this to do a bit of reflection on what you are fasting from, and why this lent. If you’re trying to be a better you, so you are a little more worthy for the celebration of Easter, then my challenge to you is to do something to let go of the need to bet ‘better’ for God, and look at your fast in a way that helps you fully realize a dependence on God’s Word and mercy.