"Doing" Lent: A Reflection on Fasting

When it comes to doing Lent, fasting is the most well known practice.

Even folks who otherwise have no business with Jesus have taken to “giving up” certain things during Lent. For many Christians and non-Christians, fasting (and other forms of self-denial) is nothing more than a glorified self-improvement project, a way to ease the conscience or do penance for a God who is more-or-less disappointed with us.

But for those dead folk (see the previous post) who seek resurrection life in Christ, fasting is not a tool for improving, fixing or managing our junk. Fasting is not an end in itself. On its own, fasting can perpetuate the illusion that we just need resuscitating.

Fasting is simply a way to make space for the Spirit to uncover where we have become dependent on some thing (or someone) to give us the fullness of life only God can give.

Thus, fasting (i.e. intentionally refraining from consuming something or engaging in some activity) is about making room for feasting on God’s life.

Sometimes we already have an awareness of "bad" things on which we have become dependent. But there are also seemingly benign things on which we have become dependent without realizing it. These are good things created by God (like food) that we ask to give us more than they can actually give. Usually without realizing it has happened, we learn to trust those things (or people) in place of God. We use those things as surrogate Fathers.

Fasting exposes those places of disordered dependence and then becomes a means of reordering our dependence and trust on God. We must first refrain from gorging ourselves on things that pretend to offer fullness of life in order to feast on the True Life of God. 

This is like starting a diet. In order to experience a healthier life that comes from eating clean, nutritious food, we first must learn to put down the Twinkies. In fact, we might not even realize how much we’ve grown to need Twinkies until we have to put them down.

So, how do we actually practice fasting?

In my (Fr. Seth) experience, the best way to start is by picking one thing to refrain from doing or consuming. The goal is that refraining will make space and leave an ache.

Making space means there is opportunity to listen to and commune with God where there is not typically space. I don’t want to refrain from something simply to fill it back in with something else. We’re also making space to listen to ourselves (we often find that we don’t know ourselves as well as we think we do).

Leaving an ache means the thing I refrain from doing or consuming is meaningful: I notice when it’s gone and feel its absence. This is crucial because that absence is an opportunity to turn the ache that creeps-up away from the thing and toward God. When I refrain, I want to pay attention to the ache, so that I can discern where it comes from and what it reveals about my dependence on false sources of life. 

Remember that your fast (depending on what it is) need not be permanent. And the fast most often has indirect effects (e.g. fasting from a nightly bowl of ice cream might expose a deep sense of loneliness that pops up in other areas of my life). Fasting is simply a way of making space to expose what the Spirit wants to expose.

Here’s a concrete example from my life:

I love listening to NPR. All of it – the news, the music, Car Talk, Science Friday, all of it. Whenever I’m in my car, NPR is almost always on the radio. During the past few seasons of Lent, I decided to fast from all forms of radio in the car.

Listening to NPR is not inherently bad and it’s also not apparently destructive to my life. But as I refrained from listening, the silence was palpable. I noticed how much of my day was filled with noise, and how all that noise allowed me to ignore inconvenient and hard realities the Spirit was whispering to me throughout the day.

Fasting from NPR also revealed something indirectly: I really like to be informed about the world; in fact, I need to be informed. It makes me feel secure and in control. The silence exposed this dependence on information in me and helped me identify other places in my life where I seek security and control through information.

Make sense?

So, Where is a good place to start? 

A great way to jump-start this process is by prayerfully asking questions like these:

What do I turn to most frequently when I feel anxious, afraid, or sad?”

Or, “What do I trust to make the pain go away?”

Or, “What can I not imagine living without right now?”