My sister is starting to practice meditation, hoping to conquer what’s known as “monkey mind”: that anxious, restless, grasping nature simmering below most people’s civilized manners. But she told me, “I call mine ‘munchie mind,’ because when I’m distracted during meditation I’m usually thinking of food.”
Sister, I know the feeling.
I won’t say I’m always thinking about food, but I think about it with great regularity. I often get hungry and listless if I haven’t noshed in two hours. So when I first started fasting, back when I was reconnecting with my childhood Catholicism five or six years ago, I thought I’d be the worst at it.
And I kind of am. And that’s what’s so great about it.
Here are some of the reasons why, crazily enough, I’ve learned to love the practice of not putting food in my mouth every two hours.
1. It reminds me what I’m really hungry for.
O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
Let’s face it – food feeds me temporarily. Then, as Jesus said, it passes through my body and is gone. But Jesus is the bread of life, food for my soul. In my day to day life, I need never feel hunger – but a little hunger is a good feeling sometimes, a reminder to long for a deeper fullness.
2. It helps me practice joy in difficult circumstances.
… when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
I try to follow Jesus’s directions here, to be on my best behavior while fasting. It’s an added incentive to focus on being kind, joyful, cheerful: they way I should always be and I often am not. The thing is, though I often start out faking it, the act of fasting often gives me real joy: the joy of sharing a secret with my Heavenly Father, the only other one who knows.
3. It helps me guard against hypocrisy.
Is it a fast like this which I choose, a day for a man to humble himself? Is it for bowing one’s head like a reed and for spreading out sackcloth and ashes as a bed? Will you call this a fast, even an acceptable day to the LORD?
Fasting with the wrong attitude is so, so easy. Like everything else about faith, actually. This passage often runs through my head while I’m fasting, reminding me that my religious actions shouldn’t be just empty symbols. They should move me to love, think, feel, and most of all act differently.
4. It helps me remember, and inspires me to serve, those who are suffering.
Is this not the fast which I choose: to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, and to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into the house; when you see the naked, to cover him; and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
In this world of such huge suffering, the discomfort of my fasting is less than a drop in the bucket. And yet it makes me slow down and soberly consider those who go through so much more, something I honestly often forget to do on a full stomach. My very faint echo of their pain is not only a reminder to pray for them; it can be a powerful motivator to act with the justice and mercy God desires and do whatever I can to free others from oppression.
5. It trains me not to make my appetites a god.
For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, walk as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things.
Like all members of our highly commercialized culture, I have a running commentary in my head of the things I want and the reasons why I’m justified in wanting them. That was a traumatic phone conversation. I need chocolate. Okay, just one more piece; it’ll help me work better. And a donut – sure, I deserve it!
Fasting makes me deny myself just a little, reminds me that I don’t get everything I want and that’s actually a good thing. When I’m obsessed with satisfying my own appetites, I’m not focused loving others or God, and that means I’m not focused on the two most important things ever. I need more giving things up and giving things away so my heart can be truly full.
5. It reminds me I am weak – but God isn’t.
He has said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.
2 Corinthians 12:9-10
When things get hard in my life, I’m tempted to forget about God, lose the ability to see the light in the pervasive darkness. And things will get hard in my life, probably harder than I can even imagine. Right now, I am young and healthy and nothing has gone too terribly wrong yet, but really living involves a lot of loss. I need to prepare for those times now, training myself to lean on God like I’m doing an earthquake drill. Although, again, the pain of fasting is relatively little, it’s one small way to do that,
6. It’s a reminder to me all day of God’s presence.
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
I can’t forget that I’m hungry. It’s like an alarm clock ceaselessly going off in my tummy. But if only, if only I had an internal alarm clock that kept on waking me up to the amazing reality that, hey, I’m living in God’s kingdom right now! This is the beginning of an eternity of beauty! Time to celebrate God’s gifts to me and share them with whomever I can! Fasting does that for me, helps me pray constantly through an otherwise ordinary day.
So, surprising no one more than myself, I must highly recommend fasting as a spiritual discipline. It will leave you hungry for more, in the best way.
Do you fast as part of your spiritual practice? What does it mean to you?