It wasn’t the abundance of Christmas, with its wealth of cookies, family meals and wine uncorked. It doesn’t have anything to do with New Year’s resolutions, a practice I gave up years ago.
No, my interest in fasting as a spiritual practice has been growing for a while, and I view the Christmas holidays, gloriously rich with kids home and treats aplenty, as a brief but tasty interlude before I continue to explore what fasting can do for my spirit.
Fasting has ancient roots and is a practice encouraged by the church. In Scripture, John the Baptist appears as the lean and mean ascetic, dining on locusts and wild honey.
Jesus, on the other hand (having earlier spent his own time in the desert), changes water into wine so a party can continue, and repeatedly eats and drinks with tax collectors, sinners and Pharisees. His emphasis is on the communal aspects of the shared meal.
What does this contrast tell us? I think it says that there’s a season for everything under heaven. There’s a time for celebration and feasting in our lives, and a time to abstain. And both should be done intentionally.
I feasted this Christmas, trying to savor the season’s specialties while not overdoing it.
Now, I feel the urge to experiment again with attempts at fasting. Going for long stretches without food makes me irritable and ravenous. But carefully deciding on a given morning how I can do without and pare down — and laying out a simple and frugal plan for eating — is helpful.
As the day progresses, I’m conscious of what I consume and offer prayers of gratitude for everything I eat. As I turn down a chance to buy a gourmet cup of coffee or avoid a cookie, I offer this tiny sacrifice for an intention I’ve chosen.
I try to be present to periods of real hunger and identify with the millions who involuntarily experience this sensation daily. I attempt to be aware and never eat mindlessly. At least, that’s the goal, and it begins again with each new day.
I will admit that my dance with food is tied into a desire to lose weight. I’ve had a lifelong struggle with food, and often I’d thought of fasting as something apart from (holier somehow) a desire to be an optimum weight.
But by realizing that God wants me to be the healthiest I can be, I know that eating consciously is a way of integrating my body and spirit.
The evangelical pastor Rick Warren just wrote a book called “The Daniel Plan.” Its aim is weight loss but incorporates prayer, exercise and community. I haven’t read the book, so I can’t recommend it, but I like how he explained why a pastor would write a weight loss book.
During a large baptism in which he submerged hundreds of people, he realized he was having a tough time because so many in his congregation were fat. He admitted he was fat as well.
“You can’t love if you don’t have the energy to love,” he told Parade magazine in an interview. In other words, to be the best person you can be, your body, which is God’s gift to you, must be the best it can be.
A great Catholic book on integrating eating with spiritual growth is “Cravings: A Catholic Wrestles With Food, Self-Image and God” by Mary DeTurris Poust. I’d recommend it to everyone who wants to incorporate a healthy attitude toward food — and maybe some old-fashioned fasting — into their spiritual life.