SEVEN SPIRITUAL PRACTICES: Sabbatical Reflections
# 4: Fasting (letting go)
“Is this not this the fast that I have chosen?”
– God (Isaiah 58:6)
[During my sabbatical I want to reflect on seven practices for spiritual growth, common to all three Abrahamic traditions. Jews, Christians and Muslims share these ancient practices, which are the basis for Brian McLaren’s book “Finding Our Way Again.”
I am asking everyone at the church I serve (and anyone else!) to read it this summer.
My first blog entries were about Sabbath, Prayer and Feasting. This, the fourth, is about what all faith traditions traditionally call “Fasting.” I am also calling it “letting go.” ]
I love what Brian McLaren says about the ancient spiritual practice of fasting. “When I fast, I don’t in any way feel closer to God. In fact, when I fast, I feel mostly closer to pizza. And glazed doughnuts. And tortilla chips. When I simply miss a couple of meals, they call to me, they haunt me, they stimulate culinary fantasies that in turn stimulate my salivary glands, and if that sounds a little sicko, I suppose it is. And maybe that’s the point of fasting, I’m realizing” (Finding Our Way Again, p. 84).
In a chapter called “Practice Makes Possible,” McLaren goes on to say that he has learned how fasting works for him, when he works at it:
• I feel and acknowledge my weakness in the face of impulses and cravings from my body.
• I practice impulse control.
• I assert to myself the importance of something other than impulse gratification.
• I trade something I can see for something worthwhile that I can’t see.
During my sabbatical I have noticed that I have often been eating less food and in a more healthy way than I did before my time away began. I have been abstaining from some foods at times but confess I have not yet fasted. I have also noticed that, while the impulse to, say, have dessert after a meal is almost always there for me, I find that when others with whom I eat “just say no,” it’s easier for me to abstain. Members of our family, friends or other loved ones can encourage us in the practice of a healthy lifestyle. But sooner or later, I will surely find myself alone, in the “Candy and Chips” aisle. (I wonder: Was it a good thing I was out of town when a new, mega-supermarket had its grand opening?)
Part of practicing impulse control is, as McLaren observes, feeling those impulses and acknowledging them when – not if, when they happen. He also admits that practice does not make perfect. Practice, above all, must be practical. Our spiritual practices of Sabbath or prayer, fasting or feasting all need to be offered to God in sweet surrender, with a lightness of being, allowing we might not do it right every time. McLaren is able to laugh at himself and let go of his mistake when he realizes he is having a doughnut relapse. “I smiled, threw the doughnut away and got back on the wagon with my fast for the rest of the day.”
Spiritual masters from countless wisdom traditions say that all great spirituality is somehow about letting go. Poet Mary Oliver says that “To live in this world / you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones / knowing your own life depends on it; and, when the time comes to let it go, to let it go” (“In Blackwater Woods”) Real, authentic, spiritual life is about letting go. Weakness, not just strength. Powerlessness, not just power. Fasting, not just feasting. If that is true, then fasting – letting go of our need for food, drink or anything that might keep us from getting closer to God – is one of the great spiritual practices. Twelve-step recovery, grounded in practicing the principles of Alcoholics Anonymous, comes to mind here. The First Step is, we might say, about fasting: We admit we are powerless over (alcohol or anything else), that our lives have become unmanageable. When we fast, we feel and acknowledge our own weakness in the face of impulse. And we learn that practicing impulse control will be hard sometimes, and yet, it will almost always be easier when we do it with others.
McLaren finishes his reflections on fasting with this story: “Last week…someone sent me a link to a website where a critic of my work indulged in some high-flying religious character assassination. My reaction to being misrepresented, insulted and mocked (this website did all three) was quite literally visceral! I felt something tighten in my gut, strangely similar in some ways to the craving for a chocolate-covered glazed doughnut. I started thinking about ways I could get back at this fellow, things I could write that would prove to him and to all virtual reality just who the better man is. It was a kind of hunger…for revenge, I’m ashamed to say, and for self-justification, and to win and to hurt rather than lose and be hurt. And sitting here now, I wonder if my ability to let that feeling go last week didn’t have something to do with letting five hundred calories of delight drop behind the ‘Thank You’ sign on a trash can door one day” (ibid., pp. 86-87).”
Frankly, Brian, I don’t wonder about that at all.