The Spiritual Practice of Fasting – Part 2

“Fasting is just about giving up chocolate or alcohol for Lent, isn’t it?”

Actually, there are other ways of fasting, and, in the Christian tradition, other times of the Church year apart from Lent, when we are encouraged to fast.

We discussed in “Fasting – Part 1,” that fasting from meals can help us make room for God, help us focus on our spiritual needs rather than our physical needs, and help us prepare for Church seasons such as Easter or Christmas. The season of Advent, like Lent, has traditionally been a season of preparation, a time when Christians throughout history have fasted. In the Middle Ages, a 40-day fast would start on November 12 and people would refrain from eating animal products or, as in some monasteries, would eat bread for the duration of the fast. Today, Advent as a time of fasting is recognized by the Catholic and Orthodox Church.

But fasting can also serve another purpose. Throughout the Bible, God encourages his people to look after the least, the lost, and the last. Jews harvesting crops were told to leave anything that they dropped, as well as the crops lining the edges of the fields, so that the poor could come and gather grain for their families (Leviticus 23:22). Jesus encouraged the “rich, young ruler” to sell all his possessions and give to the poor (Mark 10:21). Jesus blessed the poor, “for yours is the Kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20-21). So how does fasting help us with regard to the poor? The answer is that fasting can help us identify with the poor, appreciate how they live, and in so doing, change our lives for the better and draw us closer to God.

In his book, A Place at the Table: 40 days of Solidarity with the Poor, Chris Seay challenges us to eat and drink like the poor for 40 days and give the money saved on groceries to non-profits that serve the poor in practical ways. An example of how to do this is to pick a country such as Haiti or Liberia, learn about a typical day’s food for people living there, and then commit to eating like them for the length of your fast. This method of fasting not only helps us to focus on Jesus and his teachings, but also leads to self-examination and social justice. Walking a mile (or 40 days) in another person’s shoes can truly change our comprehension of how much abundance we have, how much we waste, and how little awareness we have of how the majority of the world lives.

Here my friend shares her experience of fasting in this way:

“Our family has experimented with a few different methods of fasting during Lent. Our most “successful” fasts included vegetarianism and, when our church made the decision to study  “A Place at the Table: 40 Days of Solidarity with the Poor,” by Chris Seay, during Lent, the decision to eat rice and beans for dinner for the entire Lenten season.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Tanzania in the mid-1980’s, I existed on a simple and regular diet of either rice and beans or ugali (maize porridge) and beans, sometimes with greens and, on a special occasion, a small amount of meat. These foods actually became comfort foods for me following my Peace Corps years, and my husband and children enjoyed them, too, when I cooked Tanzanian food from time to time. The “A Place at the Table” study inspired us to consider fasting by eating foods that are commonly eaten by people who live in poverty, and to donate the amount of money we saved by not eating our typical diet to some charitable cause. So, our family decided to eat rice and beans, cooked Tanzanian-style, with onion, tomato, and coconut milk, for our nightly dinners during Lent. As middle-class Americans, one of the privileges we enjoy in terms of food is variety. We might feel “deprived” if we “have” to eat the same thing a couple nights in a row. So, thinking ahead about the challenge of this fast, my biggest fear was probably that my family would rebel over the monotony of eating the same thing every night! As it turned out, these meal times evoked a feeling not of sacrifice but rather of resting in the comfort of a simple yet satisfying meal that, in some similar form, is eaten by billions of people across the world every day. Fasting in this way meant that we did not experience hunger. But we did identify with those who do not have choices, and we intentionally lifted them up as we ate our dinners and shared the nightly readings in “A Place at the Table.” As our family’s primary cook, I can also say that simplifying the main family meal every night for 40 nights freed up a lot of the time and mental energy that typically goes into planning, shopping for, and preparing creative dinners that will please everyone! While we haven’t repeated this fast, it is a shared family spiritual experience that we look back on fondly.”

“No, this is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people.” Isaiah 58:6 (NLT)