More than any other discipline, fasting reveals the things that control us. This is a wonderful benefit to the disciple who longs to be transformed into the image of Jesus Christ. We cover up what is inside us with food and other good things, but in fasting these things surface.
(Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, 1988, p. 55)
Part 1: Before I start, here’s Relevant Factoid No. 1: I have a thing about eating. For most of my life, I’ve struggled with my relationship to food, going through eating disorders as a teen and only fitfully moving towards a healthier, less charged relationship with food as an adult. When I read Richard Foster’s words on fasting, I felt that this discipline might offer me a way to transform my relationship with food.
I knew there was a danger in undertaking this discipline for the wrong reasons— to use the fasting as a more extreme form of dieting, for example. I did not want to dress up as a spiritual discipline what was nothing more than a new way to act out my complicated relationship with food. But I decided to try a once-a-week, 24-hour fast (skipping breakfast and lunch) for at least a few months.
First lesson: I was really afraid of being hungry! My initial strategy for combating this fear was distraction. I decided to do the fast on my busiest day of the week, when I was teaching homeschool classes continuously all afternoon. The first day dawned, and I got my second lesson: how often I put something into my mouth every day without really thinking about it! Maybe just a few raisins or a cup of tea, but when I couldn’t act on the impulse, the number of such impulses stood out in bold relief. I also realized how few of those impulses had to do with hunger.
During the first month or so, most of my lessons were about learning to tolerate hunger and not being distracted by it. I did get better at this. I eventually found that fasting on my busiest day was not so great—energy-wise, I fell off a cliff around mid-afternoon. So, I switched to one of my least busy days. Then, I learned another thing: how much I grazed to keep from feeling sleepy! My new challenge was to stay awake without regular small doses of sugar or caffeine. My body’s signals do not distinguish well at all between hunger and tiredness.
Over the next few months, I found that my recollection of Wednesdays’ survivable hunger made it easier for me to tolerate hunger on other days of the week. I needed the weekly reminder of this—by Saturday I was back to my old patterns. But it was gratifying to experience a real, if temporary, release from the compulsion to eat in the days immediately following each fast. Breaking my enslavement to food, even to this limited degree, truly was a small spiritual gift in my life. Rather than using my ever-in-short-supply self-discipline to control unhealthy impulses, I found that my impulses became healthier, tamer, and less powerful.
Then, one Wednesday morning, I hit a wall. I felt depleted and emotionally wrung out, and I could not stand the thought of going hungry all day. (Another little insight into my real engine of consumption!) Until that point, I had kept my discipline a secret—not even my family knew about it. But this morning, I felt that I needed to ask my husband for his support. I also went into prayer, asking for clarity.
As I prayed, I heard a clear message: "Call Laura." This was a non-obvious instruction; Laura was a 14-year-old homeschooler. But as soon as I heard it, I knew it was right. She answered the phone and I explained my request: I had made this commitment to a weekly fast, and I was feeling that I was going to have a hard time being faithful to it today, and would she be willing to pray for me.
She responded with such warmth, love, and enthusiasm, saying that she would love to do that for me. My spirits lifted, and I hung up feeling free as a bird! That day, I ended up feeling extraordinarily joyful and filled with a palpable sense of the proximity of the Spirit. It was, up until that point, the greatest gift of my fasting discipline. An additional gift was Laura’s letter a few days later saying what my call meant to her. It turned out that she was to go to her weekly meeting with her spiritual mentor that evening, the subject of which was how God had worked in her life that week. She had just finished her morning devotions when I called, and had in considerable discouragement concluded that she couldn’t see a single way God had worked in her life that week. She had promised herself that she would tell the truth about this to her mentor when the phone rang. She, too, had a Spirit-filled day after our call and joyfully shared the experience with her mentor.
After six months of the fasting discipline followed by a year off, I felt called to resume it last summer. I will confess that this time it felt less fresh and revelatory to me.
Relevant Factoid No. 2: My usual spiritual state on Wednesday morning was, "Rats. It’s Wednesday. Sigh."
Then one Wednesday a few weeks ago—in a "double rats" kind of mood— I almost gave it up. I came this close to tossing the whole thing as an old-fashioned, mortify-the-flesh, puritanical, pointless exercise. Fortunately, some little seed of faithfulness kept me on track. I promised myself that I would revisit the discipline from a full stomach and a more dispassionate state of mind. Then I started to pray about how to get through the day.
The answer came to me over the next couple of hours: I was to use my fast day as an opportunity to tune into other, non-physical hungers. If the discipline felt dry and lifeless for me, I needed to take it to a new level, not abandon it. Up until that point, I had been thinking of the fast as an end in itself, and as something largely about food and my relationship to it. It was time to go deeper into the reasons and potential of a fast, beyond simply getting through a day without eating. I wanted it to be a day of deeper listening and obedience to the Spirit. One of the nudges I received that day was to get on the phone.
Now, this was very delightful for me. If I gave myself permission to gab on the phone with far-flung friends and relatives, I would never again wake up thinking "Rats! It’s Wednesday!"
Relevant Factoid No. 3: I am an extreme extrovert. One of my friends has dubbed conversations with me "the Kat Griffith mandibular workout."
The first Wednesday that I did this was a howling success. I had a wonderful time connecting with people who are often present in my mind and heart, but whom I somehow don’t get to on an average day.
The next week, alas, I fell off the wagon immediately. I spent the whole day with a furrowed brow, churning through an immense "gotta do" list— not much suffering from hunger, but certainly not entering into deep communion with the Divine or my buddies, either. That night, my back went out on me.
Relevant Factoid No. 4: This happens to me. I have a chronic susceptibility to my sacroiliac joint going out of whack. Sometimes the cause is physical— as in "Duh! I can’t carry five loads of laundry up the stairs at once or sit at the computer for eight hours straight." Other times it’s strictly spiritual—as in, "The only way God’s going to get my attention is to get me on my back, helpless as a turtle."
I’m not sure whether the laundry, the computer, or God smote me down, but the result was that that Thursday, I couldn’t do much of anything, so I had my day of rest and spiritual nourishment then. It was delightful, and I recommitted myself to Wednesday as Food Fast and Spiritual Feast day.
The next Wednesday I had a distressing realization: If you commit to a Sabbath in 21st-century United States, you may find yourself celebrating it alone. Nobody was home, nobody had time to talk, everyone was rushing around with immense to-do lists—so, rather than it being a day of fulfillment, it was a day of endless small rejections and misses. Not quite the celebration of the emergent Kingdom I was hoping for!
I forlornly sat down to journal and pray. Out of this several things emerged. One was the realization that I was feeling what a lot of people feel often: loneliness. This made me think of the people I know who are lonely—and who aren’t necessarily first on my call list. I realized that this might be a nudge— and that they were much less likely to be busy than the people I had been calling! Another realization was that I, and most of my friends, lived extraordinarily busy lives, and that little of this activity was truly Spirit-centered. Suddenly, I became anxious to review my commitments and test which ones felt like true spiritual leadings and which ones did not.
Part 2: I am writing this after an interruption of about three years, during which time I revised my commitments rather extensively! In summary, I enrolled my children in public school after homeschooling them for nine years, and then spent a couple of years exploring prison work, racial justice work, local school politics, immigration advocacy, teaching environmental studies, and trying to figure out what I was supposed to do with my life. Eventually, I embarked on an utterly unexpected career as a teacher of Spanish and advocate for English Language Learner students at our local high school.
So where is my fasting discipline now? In truth, it went out the door for much of the last couple of years. Reading over what I wrote, I can celebrate where fasting took me. I believe it was one of several key prods to greater faithfulness to my leadings, and that it is one of the reasons I am now a public school teacher—a call I first heard when I was about 13 and which I resolutely refused for 35 years. (If you knew me, you would know what a stretch it is for this congenitally rebellious, "I’ll do it my way" improviser to unite with a hierarchical, rule-bound, turfy, conventional, union-strangled, clock-ruled institution like a public school. And yet, I love it and am as sure as I have ever been that this is where I am meant to be and what I’m meant to do.)
I am in the process of praying once more about whether I am called to resume fasting. All my old weaknesses are still with me: I want to eat when I don’t need to, and eat things that are not good for me. I get overly busy and overrate the importance of my busyness. I use food and busyness to cover up a host of deeper needs, both healthy and unhealthy. I fixate on my disciplines themselves rather than on the God I mean to serve through them. I get distracted by the quotidian delights and discomforts the disciplines bring rather than glorifying the Spirit whose gift they are. What is new in this familiar old tangle is this: my knowledge that these—my weaknesses and foibles and flaws—can be a path to God.