Thursday, March 24, 2011

Fasting as Tool, Not Penitence

As Marjorie Thompson illustrates, we often do not talk about the spiritual discipline of fasting in Protestant churches. I grew up with the notion of forced abstinence from meat and fasting on Ash Wednesday. I rejected this practice at a young age because I was not given choice in the matter. However, as I reoriented my spiritual practices among my own choices, I have reclaimed this practice occasionally, now better understanding both its value and purpose. I think fasting is kind of like the sacrament of reconciliation.

For me fasting is something I try to do in Lent although it is something that can be done all year round. I think it creates a space for God that I might not otherwise have. I’m trying to fast one day a week, although I sometimes deviate from this practice. I don’t know that fasting helps us enter into the presence of God but it makes me conscious of what I am doing. I am more reflective of what I am doing throughout the day and I plan my eating: bagel for breakfast, soup for lunch and apple and cheese for dinner. The fast is not eating at all but a reduction in what I would normally eat. By focusing on less consumption, my body is freed up to belong more to me and more to the Spirit.

I would say that offerings in the refectory make fasting easier, but last night they offered turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes. I felt like it was a feast during the middle of Lent! But today I am more conscious that I need to scale back, being more careful with my intention.

“A life that recognizes no limits cannot recognize the sovereignty of God” writes Thompson. What exactly does that mean? And what does that mean in relation to the spiritual practice of fasting. To say our (and sometime mine specifically) lives seem out of control, and perhaps spiraling if I chose to deal with feelings through comfort food. I do not like the language about sovereignty, as it suggests imperialistic imagery. I would prefer language that God is at center, something theocentric. So fasting is a discipline that reminds me God is at the center of my spiritual life, not me. Thompson goes on to say that when create things become things unto themselves they can become life-denying as opposed to life-giving, where grace can shine through. So fasting is really just a way to kick my butt into gear and remind me that I’m also not alone, my feelings, however, bad do not have to consume me. There is something else out there.

So really fasting is just a tool like any other spiritual discipline, it’s been tested time and again in many different traditions. I have an acquaintance who is exploring Native American spiritual practices and went on a vision quest in California. As part of her experience, she fasted in order to gain the clarity of needed to receive the message from the universe. Fasting for me in my own context then is a tool for clarity (discernment) and receptivity.

Those seem to be desired outcomes—if more of us thought of fasting as tool rather than penitence to enhance our clarity and receptivity to God’s message, maybe more of us Protestants would try it.

1 comment:

  1. I like the idea that fasting is not penitence, but a spiritual discipline to heighten our awareness about ourselves and our relationship with God. Thompson is a Presbyterian and the soverignty language is Calvinistic. Some of us may not share that view about God.