How fast is fast enough?
By Scott Baker
Throughout Lent various folks give up this or that as part of their spiritual discipline(s). One thought that seems to bring with it a whole host of consternations is “should I fast on certain days or not?” The fast day traditionally being Fridays. The point of fasting that we all too often forget has very little to do with us in the first place. Additionally, fasting carries with it a plethora of ramifications both spiritual and physical. The understanding here is (using a phrase from Fredrick Buechner), “What happens to the soma (body) has an impact on the psyche (mind/soul).” Our minds and bodies are inextricably linked one to another. To use a mundane example, albeit a sacred one, when a person kneels to pray, our kneeling implies both a physical posture as well as a spiritual/mental/psychological one. Therefore, when we assume a humble posture, we tend to appropriate humility better into our lives. And as C.S. Lewis once quipped, “Humility isn’t to think less of yourself, but to think of yourself less.” Or in that same theme Meister Eckhart said, “The less there is of self, the more there is of Self.”
So, given that example, if we fast in order to connect more closely with God, we have achieved much of what fasting is all about. However, all too often we feel the compulsion to fit ourselves into the equation. For example, when we think that an added benefit of fasting might be that we lose some weight the focus is contaminated with our own desires/needs. The temptation is therefore to put our physical appearance as the end goal rather than a closer relationship with God. This is precisely part and parcel of what Jesus talks about in Matthew chapter 6. Jesus said, “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you (Matthew 6:16-18).”
Other implications and motivations for fasting are related to identification with those who live with hunger and poverty as constant companions in their lives. With this approach to fasting, many fast and calculate the money they otherwise would have spent on food for that day and give it to their local food bank, Episcopal Relief and Development or soup kitchen. Again, the focus isn’t on one’s self, but rather on God’s call to serve those who are without in Christ’s name.
Fasting is an ancient practice shared by many faiths. For more on fasting from a Christian perspective I highly recommend Marjorie Thompson’s book “Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life.”
FATHER SCOTT BAKER is the pastor of Emmanuel Episcopal Church. Contact him at 757-562-4542.