I have never been very good at fasting. When I look at feats of fasting strength such as Jesus forty days in the wilderness, the only part I really get is: he was hungry.
Each time I attempt a fast, I set out starry-eyed and eager, dreaming of deep spiritual insights and uncommon communion with God, or perhaps, if I really knock it out of the park, a special vision of the sort my more Spirit-filled friends seem to experience. But by 10 am, my experience is simply, I am starving. And for the rest of the day—sneaking spoonfuls of almond butter in front of no one but myself-- I feel like a fasting failure who is clinging to little else than my solidarity with Jesus: she is hungry.
This year for Lent, rather than fast from something like social media or Starbucks—I’m hoping to simply (and successfully?) practice the traditional fast from actual food. I imagine that I am not alone in the human experience of being both bad at it and strangely drawn to its apparent power. But so far, only a few days in, I am mostly coming away with, I am hungry.
I’m pretty sure that at least one takeaway from fasting should be similar to Jesus response when the devil told him to make bread out of stones: “Man does not live by bread alone—but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” It seems telling how following his departure from the wilderness Jesus is described as both physically depleted and spiritually brimming. Satiated with the words of the Father and filled to the fullest with the Spirit’s presence.
This is what I want. To come away from my hunger so full of the Spirit that maybe I will shock the daylights out of my family with my patience and compassion and words of other-worldly wisdom. Is it possible that extreme hunger can somehow usher in such a rushing of the Spirit? I know there is no magic in fasting. But I’m so hungry, it seems like miracles might be the only way.
They say (all the people that fast successfully) that you should not just fast from something, but fill that space with things like prayer, meditation, or reading Scripture. I settle in with lots of tea and Isaiah 58… which blows my hopes for magic right out of the water. Fasting, it says, holds no merit (or magic) on its own. In fact, it’s the actions accompanying your fast that matter most: don’t gossip, free the oppressed, stand up for justice, and don’t be a hypocrite by preaching love in one breath and then talking badly about people in the next. I suppose I was hoping that fasting would somehow bring about this Spirit-filled state. But it seems that I am called to these actions alongside of my spirit feeling irritable and well, still very hungry.
So I rack my brain for ways I can free the oppressed and stand up for justice while folding laundry in my living room. I smooth out wrinkles set in by too many hours crumpled in the basket, and try to overcome the long-set feelings of bitterness I have towards that hurtful family member. One child’s underwear is decidedly cleaner than the next, and I squirm under the admission of how judgmental I’ve become towards the people in my community. Also, good lord, I’m starving. And I’m not sure where exactly… somewhere between flesh and spirit, the hunger really resides.
Christian practice is nothing if not steeped in mystery. How it works, and what is actually happening— in prayer, faith, baptism, fasting—is all cloaked in some degree of unknowing. Kierkegaard says we come to a point where our knowledge takes a leap into no-man’s land. And that seems true of not only spiritual disciplines, but of all humans trying to know stuff everywhere.
Still, the Scriptures seem clear that in following Christ, 1) we should practice spiritual disciplines, and 2) we should expect to remain human, albeit Spirit-filled (mysteriously) as we do. There is no way around it. When we pray, we will be tired. When we take communion, we will be unforgiving. When we fast, we will be hungry. The practices don’t make us holy or get rid of our humanity. The practices get us somewhere on the road to realizing how in need we are, waiting for and even expecting God to meet us there.
I feel expectant, and also tired. By 3pm on fast day, the asceticism starts to get to me. If I don’t get a vision or some kind of mystical communion with God out of this, I’m not sure it’s worth it.
But I’m worried my upbringing has stuffed visions too far from my realm of possibility, that maybe God will have to meet me in some other way. I circle back to Isaiah … and this is the crux of my depleted state: what, if any outward form of justice-fighting and neighbor-loving is replacing this empty space in my gut? Does training my son to honor women as Image-of-God-bearers and not objects-- count for social justice? Is bringing a meal to the girl who broke her arm loving my neighbor? The monthly amount I’ve purposely kept from putting on automated withdrawal, forcing me to think of the children it supports every time I send it…still seems too far removed as I press the Paypal button.
It’s nearly dinnertime and I sacrificially begin to chop vegetables for the rest of the family to eat. There are some hours to go before I can fling myself on the bed and beg for sleep to save me from my temptations. I stare somewhat listlessly out the window, hoping for a vision, and I see the woman in the apartment across the way hanging over the balcony railing with her cigarette. The smoke spirals upward and my thoughts ascend like silent, swirling prayers as we both inhale like paupers, desperate for a fix.