Lent begins tomorrow, on Ash Wednesday. In the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, we are invited to observe a holy Lent through, among other things, 'prayer, fasting and self-denial'. For the past few years, I have become very devoted to fasting during Lent. I fast on our two dedicated fast days, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and on one day during each of the weeks in between. In a culture where so many of us have so much more food than we need, and where the word 'sin' is so often heard in conjunction with eating ('it's sinfully delicious'), fasting is, for me, both an important spiritual discipline and a completely countercultural activity. Here's what I learn, year after year: 1. I am enormously blessed with abundance, even over-abundance. It is an amazing gift to wake up every day and be able to eat almost anything my heart desires. In a world where so many go hungry, I can eat whenever and whatever I choose. Denying myself food for a mere 20 or so hours a week reminds me of the privilege I live with, my gratitude for that privilege, and my responsibility to care for others.
2. I am dependent upon others. Despite the fact that I can and do purchase and prepare food several times a day, for myself and others, fasting reminds me that all my sustenance, and indeed my very life, is dependent upon the toil of others. I literally cannot live without those who grow and sell and prepare and clean up after my eating. Not eating for one day a week keeps me ever mindful, and grateful for this fact.
3. I am dependent upon God. It is hard to fast. I get hungry and cranky and light-headed. And yet, doing so reminds me of how well my healthy body does function, how strong I am, and how everything I am, and my whole life, are in the hands of God. God created me, sustains me, and leads me through. Fasting gives me visceral respect and awareness of this as I struggle with it.
4. I am distracted and cluttered a lot of the time. I tend to eat on the run. I am forever packing some nuts or a bagel for when I know I won't have time for a meal because I will be on the road or in a meeting. Fasting slows me down. Being hungry focuses me on one task at a time, it helps me clarify what I have energy for and what I don't, and it helps me prioritize what needs to be done today and what can wait. It gives me a lot of breathing room.
5. I am hungry for more. I don't know about you, but I tend to eat not just when I am hungry, but also when I am bored, frustrated, sad, angry and happy. Going without food for a day sharpens my hunger for good food, and it also sharpens my awareness of the other longings I sometimes mask by eating. There is deep hunger in my soul for beauty, quiet, adventure and love. I really get to know this when I fast.
Fasting clears a path in our souls that helps us hear God's voice. People fast in the Bible in times of repentance, in times of mourning, in times of preparation. Jesus, of course, fasted for 40 days at the beginning of his ministry, which we remember at the beginning of Lent. What about you? What are you hungry for? What are you willing to find out in these next 40 days?