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I remember the first time I fasted, and that memory has helped me learn how to fast again.
I was a college student on a retreat in a small woods located on a farm in Iowa. I was a part of a large group of 35-40 people who had been training together over the previous two weeks. The retreat leaders sent us out to be alone overnight, in silence, with two liters of water, a Bible and journal, and a tarp. No food. They encouraged us, gave us advice about how to handle hunger pangs and how to use our time. Then, they left us alone. This was long, long before cell phones. But even then some people were quite nervous and resistant.
I was not. I recently heard a story about a twentieth century spiritual writer and theologian. It was said that he thought that his fellow monks tended to be introverts instead of contemplatives. Ouch. Probably too judgmental a claim. Maybe this story about this writer isn’t quite accurate. In any case, this story is accurate about me. This retreat and its fast was an introvert’s dream. Yes, I did lots of thinking and praying. But it was easy for me. They could have left me out there longer. In fact, I wanted to stay out there longer. I felt well rested, even though I had slept through a storm.
The lectionary text for the Western church this first Sunday of Lent is Jesus’ wilderness temptations in Luke. I wondered this week: When Jesus “ate nothing at all” (Luke 4.2) in the wilderness, was he living out an introvert’s dream? No, not in any way. Luke and Matthew are careful to point out that Jesus was “famished.” A forty day fast is possible. But, for many, if not most people, this would be lethal. On top of that, Jesus was accosted by the tempter.
This whole enterprise is deadly. John Calvin wrote that this was a miracle enacted in order to “transport all men in admiration of him,” as opposed to intending to “arouse them with zeal to imitate him.” Jesus undertook this fast to call attention to the divine origin of his ministry, his preaching, teaching and healing. Even more, in the wilderness, Jesus takes the weight of the rest of humanity as it succumbs to temptation. He is the mediator of “a better covenant” who enters “heaven itself” with the power of “an indestructible life,” to use the words of Hebrews. Only the rigors of 40 days of fasting while confronting the power that led the creation to its demise would allow us to see that. Calvin is right. This event is not really about Jesus setting out an example. It is about Jesus doing what none of us can do, what Jesus does for us.
Yet, imitation is not replication. Fasting benefits us. And so Calvin recommends it. He defines fasting as a practice whereby we “withdraw something from the normal regimen of living.” We do this so that we can weaken our corrupted desires, prepare for prayer, and to testify to our confession of sin before God and possibly others.
Fasting, for us, according to Calvin, is mostly about clearing the ground. According to Calvin, it is easier to pray when our stomach is not full. Instead of preparing food, you have more time to pray. It is also what we want to do spontaneously in confession. In joy, we like to dance. In confession, we want to fast.
Then there’s the matter of justice and fasting. As Augustine wrote, fasting is a way of restraining our sinful desires, so that those sinful desires “will readily submit to you when there is the question of clinging to another’s good.” If you allow yourself to take more than you need, chances are that you’re taking from what others need.
This is all to the good. Most of us are being called to fast more, given that we are constantly being stimulated to consume. But, for health reasons, my diet is rigid enough these days that I feel like I’m on a constant fast. So, what do I do?
As I reflect on my first fasting retreat, it was more about my nineteen year old self getting some time alone, with God. In that order. In part, for me at that time, prayer was mostly about self-expression to God. I was sort of consumed with myself in ecstasy. I remember a seminary professor saying to me once that we can have a crush on God. That fits what happened to me. I was indulging in my desire for God as opposed to indulging in the God I desire.
Fasting is about letting our hunger signify our hunger for God. It is about staving off desires for a time in order to become aware of one’s own desires. It is about allowing those desires to be questioned. This, in turns, allows our desires to be dilated, to become even larger. When this happens we are more enabled to attend to the God who is always larger than what our desires can manage. We are also more enabled to see others as something other than a service to our desires.
As I mentioned, prior to that retreat as a college student, I had been intensely engaged with 30-40 people for about two weeks. Interacting intensely with that many people for that amount of time was, for me, a kind of withdrawal from a normal regimen of living. I remember how hard it was to negotiate all of those new relationships with grace and verve. But I can also tell you stories about how I learned about my own failings and found new ways to love people I would not have chosen to be around. If fasting is about changing one daily regimen in order that our desires can be more dilated to the presence of the triune God, those days of training would outweigh that retreat.
Introverts need time alone and more of us should fast from food. All of us need to learn how to give ourselves in prayer and in relationship to others. Fasting from food is one way. But, for those of us who just can’t – for whatever reason – there are other ways to fast as well.