As those of you who have trawled far enough back in the archives are aware I severely alter what I eat during Lent. This practice often raises questions – “How can you do that?” and “Why do you do that?” In this somewhat meandering article I want to talk some about what food and fasting are all about for me.
The first thing I’ve learned is that fasting is nothing like dieting. People sometimes react to my Lenten fast by pointing out that I’m quite thin already (or by pointing out what would be major inconsistencies in the rules were this a diet). Yes, but fasting isn’t dieting. The goal of dieting is to adopt eating habits that make you healthier. The most extreme forms of fasting would kill you if adopted for long periods of time. In fact, I would say a good deal of the point of fasting is to make oneself uncomfortable. Dieting is about making oneself as comfortable as possible while still maintaining a long-term comfort brought about by changes in one’s body. Fasting is about discomfort. If you are comfortable with a fast it is entirely out of mind. Only when a fast makes you rethink what you were going to eat, either to not eat or to eat something that follows some set of tasteless guidelines, is it really present to you. Only then can it be a discipline, the conscious putting aside of something in order to train one’s ability to put things aside. Only if fasting reminds you that you are fasting can it remind you to pray, or to repent, or help you identify with the sufferings of our Lord.
For this reason I am actually somewhat against fasts that are designed to make people eat better. If you need to give up caffeine and it will be hard sure, do it over Lent. However, a lot of fasting that I see looks very diet-like, “I’m giving up meat because I need to lose weight.” I’m giving up meat because meat is delicious and I wish I wasn’t giving it up. At the end of Lent I’ll eat a steak. It will be delicious. It will be celebratory. The days of darkness and deprivation will be washed out in the light of Easter.
I actually picked food because food is hard for me to give up. I love food. I love cooking food. Almost none of the food I enjoy making or eating makes it on to my Lenten fast. Instead, I cook a lot of beans, pasta, and rice and add in uncooked vegetables, fruit, and nuts. One of the biggest things I’ve learned from this fast is how I relate to food. Before I did this fast I would have said I was pretty good about letting go of food. After all, for much of my doctoral research I didn’t have time to eat lunch and I rarely ate breakfast. A complete fast is only one less meal a day than that and it’s not honestly all that hard for me. It is hard, though, to give up delicious food. It’s hard to sit down to some rice mixed with random odds and ends spiced up with a bit of soy sauce and lemon and to know that before you get to the end of the bowl it will need a lot more than soy sauce and lemon but you’ll be eating something similarly tasteless for weeks.
When I read books about the contemplative life I often read about how the true saint can be holy in every action, in sitting, in walking, in eating, in merely breathing. Getting to know my own attitude about food gives me a window in on this. I understand better what food means to me and how blessed I am to be able to give up tasty food and still be adequately nourished. I rarely appreciate food as a gift from God properly but I come closest during Lent. I begin to understand how one might be able to always accept food as a good gift from the good Giver and how this might make every meal a holy event.
Food is always going to be part of my life. If food ever drops out of my life completely my life will end. The idea of being able to make something so this-worldly, so mundane in a sense, into something holy is compelling. It speaks of a whole new world of possibilities, of a window waiting to be shifted so that the perspective reveals a different side to everything. Everything could be framed in relation to God. Most Christians pray before meals but, oddly, few of us actually feel basically thankful for food. Sometimes we feel thankful for a very good meal or for someone else’s work in preparing food but we don’t live in a world in which having a meal to put on the table is itself grounds for thankfulness. We could, though, with a change in attitude.
For me food needs to be a good gift. Lent helps me move it from being too much a focus of my life to being something I can’t spend time thinking about because it will just make me sad. Lent clears some space in my mind by moving the food out and makes me thankful for the food I do have. Lent makes food, especially good food after Easter, properly something to be thankful for.