Practicing Lent: Fasting

A conversation about faith practices with my good friend Mike Angell.

Jason: How many people have you heard say something like, “I’m giving up chocolate for Lent?” Most faith traditions practice a time of fasting. Yet, there is a lot more to fasting that simply abstaining from something for a period of time–it’s more than a 40 day diet plan! Maybe the simplest explanation is to say that the intent of fasting is to a create a space for you and God. For most of us here in the western world, that means considering what things we can take out of life in order to create a window of time for us to consider God and our deep need for nurturing that relationship.

Mike: I gave up meat one Lent, and stuck with being a vegetarian for three years. For me the practice came from living at a seminary and eating all of my meals in a dining hall. Virginia Seminary served a lot of meat, and I didn’t have any control of the quality or the source. I’d moved to Virginia from California where I had bought into “local, free range” ideals for meat. My decision to stop eating meat meant that I had to be more intentional about my diet. I had to think about how to get the nutrients I needed, and what I didn’t need, which was helpful with my health, especially since a dining hall is an easy place to just eat whatever is in front of you. But fasting was more than just the food. I found exactly what you are talking about, with fasting, but for me wasn’t about time, but about space. By deciding to go against the grain of most people’s eating, a space opened up to be intentional, to consciously think about the decisions I was making about food.

Jason: Fasting isn’t simply a spiritual practice, it has physical benefits for many of us as well. For some, though, taking foods out of their diet isn’t a healthy practice. We certainly wouldn’t encourage harming your body. There are other ways to create that space that are not dietary. For example, during this season of Lent, I decided to curb my digital practices. I turned off all the notifications I get on my smartphone and even deleted some apps off my phone in order to focus my attention and remove distractions. Like many other fasts, my hope is that during this season I pick up a practice that I keep throughout the year.

Mike: I would agree. I have a number of friends who have to be incredibly careful about decisions around food. Eating disorders are far more common than any of us realize. One thing I discovered about fasting from meat, was that the practice of saying “no” really fortified me in ways I didn’t expect. Saying no to meat meant having to navigate some social awkwardness. I would have to explain to people that I was a vegetarian, and I wouldn’t eat something they cooked, which was hard to do sometimes. What amazed me was that fasting this way helped me be ready to say “no” to all sorts of other things in social situations. I got better at saying “no” to a meeting that would take me away from time with my family and friends. I got better at saying, “no, I don’t check my email 5 times a day.” I was amazed how the practice of fasting in one area of my life helped me to be strong enough to say “no” in other areas of my life. Fasting helped me prioritize, and make sure I was keeping room for the things I wanted to say “yes” to, like prayer, reflection, and time with friends and family.

Jason: Not all fasts are about removing things from your life. Sometimes, the best “fast” is adding something. Exercise. Nature Walks. Journaling. Acts of justice or mercy. What I have found is that whatever action you can commit to that triggers the acknowledgment of the Holy and creates that space is what you need to find on a regular basis.

Last year, Mike and I did a series on liturgy. You can find those posts here.