The Weekly Practice:
FAST FROM SOMETHING ONE DAY A WEEK
To fast is to suffer, and we spend our lives avoiding suffering. To fast is to look our frailty in the eye, and we spend our lives trying to hide our frailty. In the end it is far, far easier to stay comfortable, so we generally avoid fasting and we thus miss out on the awesome consolation of sharing in Christ’s suffering.
Besides the emotional & physical aversions, there are still more practical difficulties. To fast is to re-orient your whole day, to turn down appointments, to be faint, to be tired, to skip the happy hour, and to go to bed hungry and disappointed. Of all The Common Rule habits, fasting (perhaps along with Sabbathing) takes the most planning. This is partly the point, that we begin to tame our schedules and reorient them around formation, instead of letting our schedules do our formation for us.
For all of the above reasons, I am hesitant and nervous every single time I approach fasting, but there are reasons I keep coming back to fasting. It is as if I am hungry to go hungry. There are the intense times of spiritual clarity. There is that space for a different kind of prayer. There is the opportunity to act in solidarity with the hungry, the poor, and those who lives are filled with suffering. There is the opportunity to realize how affluent I actually am, and how much and how well I eat. There is the opportunity to see how my status quo is to deny myself no pleasure.
Because fasting involves stripping yourself of the common pleasure of food that sustains you from day to day, you suddenly happen upon the reality that much of your mood – even your peace – is predicated on the ability to fill yourself as you wish. In a matter of a few hours, we deteriorate. We become different people. We begin to see that we are not nearly as stable as we imagined without our usual indulgences. Apparently our emotional lives are fragile.
There are so many beautiful reasons to lean into that space of frailty and explore what it means to be frail. First, there is a peace to knowing your true self before God – you finally have something to talk about. Second, there is a meaningful engagement with justice when you get in touch with the “rumble of panic beneath all things,” which often comes when you begin to deny yourself food. You begin to realize the world is not primarily a place of comfort for most people. It is one where many people – yes even in our own neighborhoods – suffer, and often unjustly so. And here we find the last, and the most beautiful reason to lean into our frailty. We find that the presence of Christ meets the world not in the midst of resolution, but in the midst of suffering. It is precisely in our frailty, and not in our strength, that we find the presence and comfort of God. It is enough to light up the darkness.
That is why I come back to fasting over and over. But as a practice, it is not easy so it needs to actually be practiced. If you are doing it for the first time or first time in a long time, you may find it hard and an awkward fit. But hopefully by the later few weeks of Lent you will be experiencing the depth it has to offer. Be gentle with yourself, and start slowly if that is so.
I personally find no food fasts to be the most satisfying. But feel the freedom to start anywhere. Perhaps only eat raw fruits and vegetables as a first fast. Perhaps only do liquids and/or smoothies. If you are pregnant or nursing, perhaps try fasting from all snacks and refined sugars. If you are ready to go the next step then skip one meal and take a prayer walk with your baby in tow. Make it long enough to feel the pain of hunger – and then when you get home, eat what you need to eat to feed your baby well. There is an important balance to parenting and fasting, because vulnerable people rely on us. For example, my most typical fast is nothing but water and coffee/tea. But if I become faint or nauseous at the playground and the kids are depending on me, I may drink a bit of fruit juice to make sure I am fit to care for them (you will find it amazing how little your body actually needs once you get into it.) Whatever you do, make it something that extends across the 24 hours, and pick something that allows you to engage with the pain of hunger.
A fast without prayer is just an unhealthy diet (read: pointless), so think very hard about using the times you would otherwise be cooking and preparing food as times for prayer. This might be active prayer or it very well may be sitting in silence. Consider journaling your thoughts through one meal, reading something meditative during the next, and taking a prayer walk during the third. I often take a long walk on the evenings that I’m fasting (I try my best not to do work after hours if I am fasting, as I find that leaves me little mental space left for prayer) and pray for what I see during the walk. A walk in a poor or disenfranchised area of town while praying for those who need justice is a moving thing anytime, and especially powerful while fasting.
Finally, you will notice The Common Rule fast is from sundown Thursday to sundown Friday. This is for two reasons. First, the experience of going to bed hungry is unique and moving. Think about how many in the world experience this daily. Think about how reluctant you are to go to bed unresolved. Second, Friday nights work well for breaking the fasts with friends and family. There is something powerful to prayer while fasting, but there is something even more powerful to the communal joining in prayer and fasting – and the opportunity to break the fast with others is an opportunity to discuss what was prayer for, what was answered, and more. I find it especially powerful to prepare food for others while I’m fasting, it is a lived reminder that self-denial is an integral part in loving (and feeding) your neighbor.
I have great hope that you will meet God in your fast. If you ever get to a time where you are confused or frustrated, hungry or irritated – good. That means your making progress. In those moments, gently remind yourself that Christ suffered because He loved us well, and we may need to learn to suffer to love others well.