Fasting is a common enough practice that very few are oblivious of its meaning. The more popular version of fasting is that which makes of God kind of a soda machine where one puts in money and then “bam, bam” rolls down the soda of one’s choice. For those of us assailed by difficulties of different sorts on an almost permanent basis, we have become used to those “prayer warriors” who are ready on the fly to go on a “dry fast” to waken God to our plight or better still arm twist him. Clearly, the impression one is left with is that fasting is some kind of a magic wand. If you have tried prayers and failed then try fasting.
There is much that one can say about fasting – the why, the what, how, when and where; I do not intend to run the entire gamut but just rather faith-sharing even if prescriptively.
If you are like me, you surely are confused about how different this spiritual exercise of fasting is from the political weapon of a hunger strike. Or in this obese society of ours, the lines between fasting and the now famous practice of dieting become blurred. Is it just about weight-watching meant to help those who have grown “amorphous” to take shape? Or otherwise expressed, is fasting just a spiritual equivalence of dieting to be spiritually fit?
I had pizza last Friday with a bunch of colleagues except one who explained he was on diet. He described how part of this strenuous keeping fit regimen included an hour of yoga. I just wondered, whether this does not raise it to the level of fasting?
My Merriam-Webster’s dictionary which I am not sure is the best source of clarifying this conundrum defines the verb “to fast” as “to abstain from food; to eat sparingly or abstain from some foods. Is this fasting from food just an unhealthy obsession with, call it a farcical paranoid on food?
It behooves me to state here that fasting as I understand it is fasting from and fasting for.
It would seem that fasting is meant to target the three basic needs of man namely: food, drink and shelter.
Food is the most famous common area and even my limited dictionary limits its understanding of fasting to food.
Even though water is what slakes man’s thirst, beer has become a “nutrient” and a necessity for many. In fact, avid consumers of alcoholic beverages even resort to the bible to justify why beer drinking is a necessity: Christ’s first miracle was to turn water into wine.
And as for shelter, very often monks are known to leave even their cubicles to punish their bodies further in the desert, in hermitages especially during Lent. Let me say here that this is one of the areas we take for granted.
Christians seem to be stuck on food and right reason suggests that this is rightly so given its popularity and the fact that it hits us in the core of our physical being. I must in the same breath admit that fasting does not necessarily have to be from food. In fact, the principle is, to give up something I like and I cherish so much that I find difficult offering up. Lent is an invitation to offer up something; to give up something we treasure even if just temporarily. This is the cardinal principle in fasting.
Fasting then is not just about food and drink. Yet, it plays a very key role in our spiritual growth. Permit use the example of food relative to sex in order to bring home the point of fasting from food. In my understanding, if one can sustain fast from such a basic need as food, if we can control this appetite, then we would build the requisite regimen for practices like sexual abstinence.
There is no denying it that for some of us we have habituated ourselves with a certain inability to say no. We definitely were not born that way but rather cultivated that habit. Lent, I believe provides an opportunity to cultivate the ability to say no. When one fasts from food, one is saying no to this absolute necessity of daily life. Random abstinence in such physical appetites as eating prepares us for an even greater battle against other appetites like sex. If you can be trusted with little things, so too will you be with greater things. I do not intend to draw any dichotomy between eating and sex, as though to say sexual abstinence is better than abstaining from food.
The point I am bringing home here is the fact that fasting from food is not an end in itself but a means to some other noble end. Even for the glutton and gourmand for whom fasting from food and drink may be to rein these and bring them within check, yet at the same time, it prepares us for that ability to say no. Food is central in fasting for it facilitates the “habitus” for other areas. Proficiency in one area helps in other areas. Fasting then is about habituation. It is not what goes into a man that makes him bad but what comes out from him.
It is not too late then to ask ourselves: what have I given up for Lent? This was a question we addressed as a seminary community every Lent. We normally would decide to give up half a loaf of bread and some meat. And talking about this, as seminarians we had three square meals at set times. The secret to healthy living is not only to have healthy meals but also to have these at particular times. Every last Sunday of the month, the seminary allowed seminarians to bring their visitors to share in lunch. It was always fascinating to see the sheer number of folks – students from the neighboring colleges around, who shared in the meals. I must confess I always looked forward to meal time. The one area the community always considered fasting from was food.
Life after my seminary days when I was flung out into the wild to take care of myself changed the ball game. Away from home, with no experience in cooking, reality was different. Lent will take on a different meaning. A cardinal principle of fasting is we fast so that others may feast (I shall return to this theme later). I soon realized that if I succeeded to have one meal a day, I was counted with that. During Lent, I had myself saying to myself: those of us who already fast throughout the year have a God-given opportunity during Lent to feast. We provide the opportunity for those fasting to throw us a party.
Clearly then my greatest temptation during lent was to succumb to mind games or what one can term mindless rationalizations. There are many good reasons why one should not fast. The perniciousness is in its obviousness that we take it for granted. Permit share with you two of my own rationalizations.
Have you not been fasting for years? Has there been any noticeable change as a result of this fasting? It is quite easy to give up on this because of apparent lack of visible results from years of engaging in fasting.
The day after Wednesday, I went to eat in one of these many Cameroonian-like eateries and one of my mothers generously offered me a bottle of Heineken. Thinking it is imprudent and disrespectful the donor and turn down a gift, I graciously offered my gratitude. I was carefully reminded by the lady serving that it is Lent. I reminded her that one day of beer will not kill me. I still have 39 other days. When we are faced with this temptation, we often justify our actions by saying: God understands. After all, His ways are not our ways. Just this one occasion will not harm our efforts.
One noticeable trend is that every time one decides to give up something, the opportunities to have this multiply. It has been my experience that every time I have chosen not to drink beer, the opportunities to drink skyrocket. You suddenly have many people offering you beer. Or you suddenly have too many occasions where beer is overflowing. How can one sit with friends drinking beer and then you drinking something sweet? For fear of parading your fast in public, the temptation is to go with the flow. Does the invitation to fast not also warn about making a public display?
May be this Lent provides us an opportunity to fast from these rationalizations. What are your own rationalizations from which you need to fast?
One danger we must eschew this lent is to fall into the trap of “postponed consumption.” I am reminded of a seminarian who during Lent never showed up for Breakfast and lunch but instructed that these be preserved. He would then have these during dinner. Let us not fast throughout Lent only to become drunks during Easter.
Hence, it is the wisdom of the Church’s teachings that it is not enough just to fast from. We must also fast for. When we fast, others must feast. Fasting has an intrinsic connection with almsgiving.