We often run to food as a temporary fix for the problems in our lives, even though it still leaves us empty.
For most of my life, I never practiced fasting. In my mid-20s I decided to give it a try. It didn’t go well. If the word “hangry” hadn’t already been coined (meaning anger brought on by hunger), I’m sure my own emotions after not eating for a whole morning would have quickly brought it into our lexicon. Cry me a river, right? I’m like a hobbit who gets cranky because I’ve only had one breakfast and, as a dedicated carnivore with a primeval protein addiction, when I fast from a meal or two and, on top of that, also abstain from meat, God help the poor soul who gets between me and my precious bacon the Saturday morning after a Lenten Friday. As someone who didn’t grow up abstaining from meat on Fridays, I continue to forget about the habit an embarrassingly frequent number of times. It isn’t uncommon for me to be halfway through cooking bacon for my daily dose of bacon and eggs and hear the loving voice of my wife behind me, “Dear, it is still Friday. You still cannot eat meat on Fridays.” My shoulders slump, my eyes mist up, and as I finish cooking bacon that I won’t actually be able to eat I feel that I am coming to understand the true meaning of penance.
I’m not alone. Our parish office gets a deluge of phone calls whenever there’s a Lenten-Friday collision with St. Patrick’s Day. The callers anxiously inquire about the Corned Beef Conundrum—to eat or not to eat? In a general sense, that’s the question for all of us. Why do we fast? Is there any benefit or are we pointlessly torturing ourselves? And, if we decide to give it a try, why is it so difficult?
When we talk about fasting, typically what we mean is giving up an entire meal or a series of meals for a spiritual or personal purpose. Not eating meat on Fridays remains a common practice for many Christians and, in other variations, for other faith traditions too. Not eating meat is more properly referred to as abstinence, but for this article I’m going to treat fasting and abstinence as related concepts. They are both ways in which we deprive ourselves, and for me, both can be very difficult.
In a way, it’s good that the practice remain difficult. When we deprive ourselves, what we forego is valuable, a good thing that we truly miss. We humans are particularly vulnerable to chasing too much of a good thing and as a result are capable of disordering our affections. For instance, when life throws a romantic heartbreak our way, we retreat to a gallon of ice cream. When we’re feeling down or not getting a healthy amount of sleep, a sugary coffee drink is an all too easy pick me up. We begin to rely on, in this case, food as emotional therapy or as an easy substitute for other good things that ought to be in our lives.
Unwittingly, until I began thinking more deeply about fasting, my whole life had been one, long indulgent feast. Strawberries are available out-of-season whenever I want them, snacks are easily obtainable whenever the craving strikes, a pepperoni pizza is a simple phone call away and will be delivered directly to my door with no cooking or effort required. We take it for granted and over-rely on it as an easy indulgence, something that can quickly turn into substitute for spiritual or personal growth. When it comes to Eat, Pray, Love by far the easiest of those three is to eat, and food can be elevated to a place where it ought not be. The constant feast threatens to numb us to other types of hunger.
We fast because the resulting physical hunger is a reminder that the most important parts of our lives are not visible to the eye. Love, truth, friendship, the human soul, happiness, mercy, grace, and the reality of God cannot be seen or consumed the way we would a meal. They are all the more valuable for it, because they speak not only to the body but also to the soul, and this invisible soul is what animates us and makes us so special. Fasting is a physical form of prayer, a long look to heaven to remember that our souls can be hungry, too, and if we don’t find spiritual food we will starve to death even if we are surrounded by all the contents of all the grocery stores in the world.
Fasting offers us a great gift—the opportunity to grow in self-possession. There is nothing we can’t do without in this world if it begins to take over our lives, no thing that is more important than the freedom of our own souls. So, when it is a struggle to fast or practice self-denial, remember that the struggle is supremely valuable because it helps us to unlearn the process of settling for easy pleasures and to instead reach for those which are more worthy. Fasting isn’t forever, but by practicing it we find that the true feast is elsewhere than we might initially have supposed. The struggle is real, but it is absolutely worth it.