By Michelle Francl-Donnay
Return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the Lord, your God. – Joel 2:12-13a
Squished into a window seat in the back row of a packed plane was penance enough for a Lenten Friday, I thought. Then the gentleman next to me pulled out his lunch, a Texas barbeque beef sandwich now sat scant inches from my tray table. My apple and cheese suddenly seemed far less inviting.
I mentally sighed. Fasting is easier when there are no temptations, and I briefly wondered if this Lenten discipline was worth my persistence.
An empty stomach and prayer are bound together for me. For the early Christians, fasting was so inseparable from prayer that copyists of the scriptures appeared to have automatically inserted it into texts where Scripture scholars believe it did not originally appear, notes Benedictine hermit Father Gabriel Bunge in his guide to prayer, “Earthen Vessels.”
On a merely practical level, fasting sharpens my attention to prayer. As Evagrius, a fourth century desert monk wryly observed, “A famished stomach enables one to wait in prayer, whereas a full stomach brings about plentiful sleep.” Well fed and warm, I confess I can drift off, not contemplate.
Fasting affords me spiritual clarity as well; stripping away not the pounds I’ve gained over the winter but the layers that cloud my ability to discern needs from wants. When so much of what I have to eat requires little effort to obtain or prepare there is no external incentive to find that proper balance between too little and too much that St. Ignatius encourages us to find in his Spiritual Exercises.
Pope Paul VI, reflecting in the Apostolic Constitution Paenitemini, reminds us that though there are many reasons Christians fast, above all fasting is a practice directed toward surrender and love. It reinvigorates our baptismal gift of metanoia. Though often translated as “repentance” the Greek roots of metanoia are to be of a new mind, to think in new ways. Fasting helps to bring us once again to the new mind we were given in baptism, to teach us again how to think with Christ.
My neighbor on the plane had no idea I was fasting or just how envious I was of his lunch, and I certainly wasn’t about to tell him. My hunger was invisible, no rent garments or ashes hinted at what I was about.
As I contemplated my apple and his sandwich, I had a moment of metanoia – of seeing with new eyes. I began to wonder how often I had left the grocery store with an overflowing cart, unaware of those around me who hungered for what I had? Or walked down the street with an ice cream cone, oblivious to those who lacked a regular meal. Fasting made the hungry visible.
Fasting turns me around. It places me with those who hunger and thirst, not just for the bread of this world but for God, who is Bread for the world.
Lord, please grant that, trained by our observance of Lent and nourished by Your word, we may be wholeheartedly dedicated to You in prayer. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen. – Opening prayer for Wednesday of the Third week of Lent
Michelle Francl-Donnay is a member of Our Mother of Good Counsel Parish in Bryn Mawr. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.