The Fast You Need

by | Feb 8, 2024

I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent…
Ash Wednesday Liturgy, Book of Common Prayer

I once heard a man say that for Lent he was giving up chocolate and catastrophic thinking. A creative combination, I thought to myself, not knowing if he was serious. In those years, it was common to make light of Lenten disciplines and critique those thought to be superficial or self-absorbed. What he said obviously stuck with me, as I continue to ponder what kind of thinking I might let go of.

In those same years, a married couple I admired consciously chose each Lent what their fast would be. They would abstain from alcohol, or meat, or sugar, gently advising all who came into their home during Lent what would not be served. Their practice was intentional, focused on physical health, and yet also deeply spiritual. They did it together. As Lent approaches, I think of them.

Fasting––typically understood as abstaining from food—is one of the suggested spiritual practices for Lent, the forty-day season that begins next week, patterned after the time Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness. I confess that I’ve never been much good at fasting, because it’s hard, and life feels hard enough.

There’s been a resurgence of interest in fasting in both secular and religious circles. Doctors tell us of the health benefits of periodic fasting. Churches, notably those that do not follow the liturgical calendar, have discovered the power of communal fasting. For a season, they encourage their members to collectively abstain from food for at least part of each day. During that time, they gather online early in the morning to pray. I admire the intentionality of their practice and its communal nature—much like our Muslim neighbors collectively fast during Ramadan and our Jewish neighbors on Yom Kippur. For some people, I should note, such practices are not advised, for health or other reasons. Those exemptions are universally acknowledged across religious traditions.

There are other forms of fasting, of course. This year Washington National Cathedral is offering an online gathering to discuss the book A Different Kind of Lent: Feeding Our True Hungers. The course description spoke to my heart:

As we fast from rushing, planning, being strong, holding it all together, seeking certainty, and control, we can softly reorient ourselves toward that which nourishes and fulfills us, during the Lenten season and beyond. Join us in letting go and making more internal space to listen to the sacred whispers of our lives.

All our congregations extend a similar invitation to “take something on” during Lent in a communal setting, either in person or online. It’s worth making time for, if you can, so as to give the Holy Spirit space to move in ways you might otherwise miss. There is power in taking on Lent together.

I’m intrigued by the interplay between “taking something on” and “giving something up” in Lent. Both have the potential to open our hearts and draw us closer to Christ.

In his book From Strength to Strength, Arthur C. Brooks tells of a conversation he had with an expert on Asian art while visiting the National Palace Museum in Taiwan. As they stood before a large jade carving of the Buddha, his guide commented that it was a good illustration of the differences between the Eastern and Western views of art. The Western world view typically begins with an empty canvas needing to be filled. “In the East,” he said, “we believe that the art already exists and our job is simply to reveal it. It’s not visible because we add something, but because we take away the parts that are not the art.”

Brooks uses the image of “chipping away” as encouragement for us to release our inner hold on those things we have accumulated that we imagine define or represent who we are—our possessions and accomplishments, even certain experiences and relationships. “We need to chip away the jade boulder of our lives until we find ourselves.”

It’s another way to think about fasting: What am I doing that I don’t need to do anymore? What can I let go of that’s weighing me down? What clutter—external or internal—might I clear away in order to make room for what might align me more closely with God?

Conversely, sometimes we need to add something to our lives, as simple as a walk each day, a good book discussion or learning experience, or a weekly gathering at church. Given how busy our lives can be, making room for such meaningful endeavors involves letting go of something else.

I’ve decided to face my struggle with fasting by joining an online class entitled The Open Palm: Exploring the Spiritual Tool of Fasting. And in my prayers, I’m asking God to show me the fast that I need, so that I might chip away at those things that keep me from my true self and life in Christ.

Lent is, at heart, a season of repentance—acknowledging where we have gotten lost and attempting to reorient our lives back to what matters most. I wonder what you might consider taking on or letting go of this Lent. What is the fast you need?