“Aren’t we there yet?” I think we all know somebody for whom Lent seems to just drag on and on, and I imagine the people particularly likely to feel this way could be those struggling through their Lenten fast.
Fasting can become a public act, even when we don’t intend it to. Whether a Muslim friend sits at the lunch table with nothing but empty space before her, or a normally carnivorous Irish Catholic abstains from pepperoni on Ash Wednesday in favor of a cheese pizza, breaking from our normal routines will cause some people to notice. Jesus probably recognized this when he spoke about fasting. After all, even though he famously advised us to pray in a private room away from public attention, with regards to fasting he just told us to keep our misery to ourselves. Nobody needs to hear us moan and grumble about something like this—broadcasting the alleged rigors of our fast for all to hear could even become a form of humblebragging if we’re not careful: an indirect challenge to anybody who appears to have sacrificed less. And we know that Jesus prefers a sincere heart to performance piety.
Beyond the spiritual practice of developing authentic humility, choosing to hide the difficulties of a fast can have great psychological benefit as well. Research indicates that even forced, fake smiling can make a person happier. If fasting from chocolate is truly difficult for you then, smiling through this challenge helps you learn how to be happy without chocolate. Freeing yourself from the power that chocolate (or whatever else) has over you does not come about by giving it up while keeping the obsession alive through unceasing lamentation, but rather through learning how to focus your energy on other things. Even if chocolate is for you a relatively harmless vice you intend to enjoy again, the end of your fast may then mean that you are newly able to enjoy it with greater moderation. Fasting in this way becomes a willingness to be liberated from your secular idols and once again let nothing and nobody be God but God. You don’t really want to spend your life effectively worshipping chocolate, do you?
When children first learn to fast by giving up something like *actual* chocolate for Lent, they are being appropriately introduced to a practice that can take on greater significance later in their lives. If as an adult though, my fast is merely an exercise in discipline, reminds me primarily of my desire for whatever I forsake, and doesn’t lead me to the possibility of making a change in my life, it is a wasted opportunity.
Fast to build empathy with those who lack the necessities of life. Fast to recognize your dependence on God. Fast to reset your priorities. Even fast to take a political stance if you feel so moved. If you fast for the sole purpose of “fasting correctly” or even fasting better than everybody else however, I am afraid you may instead be gorging yourself on pride.
If you are presently engaged in some kind of fast whether for Lent or another purpose, what does that fast make you thirst for?
If this reflection moves you to reconsider your Lenten fast, feel free to make the second half a new beginning. Fasting from gossip would be a worthwhile option for many of us, including myself.
The great Tori Kelly once again provides this week’s “ear candy” and as the title suggests, it is based on Psalm 42: “As a deer longs for running water…” If you haven’t listened to any other song I’ve linked to on this blog, listen to this one. Perfect for Lent. The “brain food” is an article from U.S. Catholic about the power of anger and the freedom that comes with forgiveness. As the title suggests, this could be another possibility for part two of your Lenten fast.
Ear Candy: “Psalm 42” by Tori Kelly
Brain Food: “For Lent, Give Up Anger and Seek Forgiveness” by Annemarie Scobey
Come back next Saturday for a new post!