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February 25, 2013

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.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 25, 2013 8:38 pm

    I would say that the main purpose of fasting is to sharpen one’s awareness of God’s daily sustenance/support for mind and spirit in addition to physical needs. Personally, I don’t think the point is discomfort; in fact, I think it’s meant to demonstrate, through cheerful practice using food, how well we can actually do without some of the attitudes, habits, and customary things we thought we couldn’t. I think the main purpose is the sense of gain rather than loss or deprivation.

    Man does not eat by bread alone; when you fast, don’t look somber as the hypocrites do; I have food to eat that you know nothing about…these are verses off the top of my head that I think Jesus meant in the sense of discovering a wonderful secret, not a horrible chore.

    Obviously, God designed us to eat food for physical health, which is why fasting is a temporary exercise. I like your statement about learning to put things aside by consciously training one’s self to put things aside. I guess if discomfort helps that along, great. I only mention this because some of the most miserable, joyless people I know are Christians who believe that Christianity is ENTIRELY about self-deprivation, loss, and suffering their whole lives. So, forgive me…I tend to cringe when I see the word “discomfort.” I suspect that you understand it sensibly, but many don’t.

    Happy fasting to you! :)

    • Eric permalink
      February 25, 2013 10:51 pm

      I used to have a friend who would lift weights with me at the gym in college. He was in a good position to gain a lot of muscle but he never seemed to get any stronger. One day when I was spotting him I realized that he lifted until he felt the faintest bit of discomfort and then stopped whereas I and my other friends who were adding muscle didn’t think you’d really started the workout until your muscles started complaining.

      This is why I say discomfort is necessary. Just as your muscles don’t grow when you only use them in ways they are already fine with your spiritual ability to discipline yourself will not grow if you only ever require easy things of yourself.

      The flip side of this is that Lent has more than one purpose. During Lent we identify with Jesus’ suffering. If we also experience discomfort this is good and fitting at this time. However, when Easter comes we should not be suffering with a beaten and dying Lord but rejoicing with a risen one. Within Orthodoxy, the place I borrow my fasting practice from, one is not actually allowed to fast for a time after Easter. Refusing to celebrate Easter is itself a problem. I suspect many joyless Christians are stuck on one side of the coin, stuck in Lent forever repenting but never balancing it with rejoicing.

      I would return to the comparison with physical exercise. I knew another person in college who always took the idea that one must experience discomfort to make gains way too far. He never made any gains. Instead, he would run so hard he injured himself, spend two weeks healing, and as soon as he healed run so hard he injured himself again. That’s not the discomfort of training, the discomfort of knowing your limits and pushing them, that’s just a stupid love of suffering. It never produced growth, much as many people who believe that Christianity is about self-deprivation and loss never grow because all they do is suffer until they are spiritually injured.

      Balance is the key. Pushing one’s limits will not be comfortable and because of that one must be careful not to push so far that the discomfort cripples you.

      • February 25, 2013 11:26 pm

        A most excellent point about balance. Maybe that’s what I was trying to say. I like the muscle-building analogy, too.

        Funny, as I was reading this, my mind went back 30-some years ago when my kids were born (I have three). I remind myself that childbirth is a pretty intense pain/gain experience! (Often used in Scripture, of course.)

        Mindless suffering, or as you put it, a stupid love of suffering (LOL) is pointless. Not that I think you promote it…clearly, you wouldn’t have written a well-thought out article if you did. I just wish that more people would see it as a means to an end, not the end itself.

  2. Eric permalink
    February 26, 2013 6:11 pm

    I think your last comment reveals another very critical issue: that some people can see suffering as an end in and of itself. I hope I’ve been clear that suffering is only useful insofar as it gets you to another place and that with fasting that is actually a more joyous place, a place of more thankfulness for food and of less need.

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