What else can we possibly give up?! That’s how most of us are probably feeling about Lent this year. So, when we talk about fasting, it’s tempting to think about fasting as giving up things we like. But that’s not what fasting is all about. Rather, when we fast, the goal is to clear away the things that hinder our pursuit of God. Sometimes those are things we enjoy (and really shouldn’t). Sometimes those are things that are just part of our unthinking habits. Sometimes they are things we know we need to get rid of.
Prayer opens our hearts to God. But when we daily open our hearts to God in prayer, to God’s word in the Daily Office, and to God’s presence in the Eucharist, we find that there are obstructions. The light that pours in through the open door illuminates the clutter of our lives: our yearning for praise or position or power, the habits of hostility or neglect that keep us from loving one another with God’s own love, or simply the distractions with which we fill our days. Fasting is what the merchant does in the parable of the Pearl of Great Price: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant looking for lovely pearls; and finding one extraordinarily valuable pearl, he went away and sold all the things he owned, and purchased it.” Fasting is selling off anything we need to in order to get to God.
In case you missed it, fasting is cool again. If you Google fasting, you’ll find A LOT of people telling you about all the health benefits of fasting. As the various articles will tell you, fasting is about clearing out toxins. Processed sugars and too much alcohol and too much red meat and refined grains–all of these cause toxins to build up in our bodies, and fasting gives the body an opportunity to clear them out. Our bodies recognize the need for periodic fasting, occasionally abstaining from the rich and tasty foods most of us are accustomed to consuming multiple times a day. And a healthy body certainly encourages a healthy mind and a healthy soul.
But the same is true of our inner life, our souls, to put it in more conventional language. We accumulate toxins–resentment toward those who have slighted us, the inability to forgive, our insulation (not our isolation!) from one another, the ways that we keep others and their needs far from us, our hardness of heart, our determined efforts to be self-sufficient and overly proud. These are just some of the toxins that can break down our ability to love, that impede our growth toward God. Fasting is not just about clearing out the body’s toxins, but also clearing out the soul. When we abstain from food for a time, it is not so that we can prove we’re quite righteous, and it’s not just so that we have healthier bodies. It’s so that we can draw closer to the God who is desperate to be with us.
Most of us have bodies that are secretly longing to fast. It was the expectation of the early Christians that the faithful would fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, eating, perhaps, just a bit of bread and drinking water. Maybe that’s something you want to try. Fasting reminds us of the wisdom of the body, and that we are dependent at every moment for a life that exceeds our own. Not everyone has a body that is able to fast, of course. A number of us who have diabetes or other conditions need to seek the advice of their doctor before attempting to fast regularly. It is still possible to sink into the greater fast of the soul.
The body’s fast reminds the soul to fast, to clear away the debris that occludes the light that streams into our hearts in prayer. There is no great spiritual effect of abstaining from chocolates. There may be a great spiritual effect in abstaining from alcohol–as almost everyone I know in AA can attest!–though that, too, is not guaranteed. But there is certainly great gain in clearing our hearts of contention and malice and wrath and indolence and neglect. True fasting draws deep from the wells of prayer for nourishment, and it is an invitation for us to take up the words of John the Baptist for ourselves: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” As we make room for God in our hearts, God will fill them more and more, to overflowing. And there is our true bread, our true meat–in God we find the nourishment we really need and long for!
Fasting is an invitation: “Let us cast off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2). However you fast this Lenten season, may it be a source of life for you, and may you find in your fast the Pearl that surpasses all others: Jesus, who has never left you, and rejoices to be found.