I have a difficult relationship with fasting.
While I’m sure no one really enjoys foregoing food for a time, the close communion with God that fasting can provide draws many Christians to crave the practice, especially when done in community. Growing up Evangelical, I never practiced Lent. I was introduced to the Liturgical calendar in college and received ashes for the first time at 21-years-old. In the years since, I’ve grown to love the rhythms of the Church year. I too crave the time to shift the rhythms of my life along with Christians around the world in order to focus on the depth of my need for God.
But every year I question what fasting should look like for someone with a history of restrictive eating habits.
I study, cook, photograph, eat, and write about food for a living. I bake bread and cakes as methods of prayer; I seek to understand God through metaphors in food. But the journey to this place where I see God in the synergy between good food, healthy bodies, and vibrant community has been a long one.
I had to learn to be careful with my words. In talking about my body, I strive for strength and energy, which abound despite my ample belly or arms. In talking about food, I speak of savoring and delighting, not of indulging or of guilty pleasures.
I had to learn to listen when my body tells of the nourishment it desires—protein, water, leafy greens? Juicy fruits, the Eucharist, the laughter of a meal with friends?
I had to learn to thank God before every meal for allowing my most basic needs to be met in a manner that brings so much joy.
But these patterns I’ve developed to maintain a positive relationship with food and body are challenged every time I’m faced with fasting.
A friend of mine recently wrote an article called “Fasting is not a Whole30.” In a culture that loves self-improvement, she says, it’s easy to map those same habits onto Lent. At a time when so many people find an identity in their eating habits—paleo, gluten-free, clean, foodie—it is far too tempting to approach fasting as a challenge, the pride of completion its holy reward.
But God is not interested in our self-inflicted suffering or our denial of things He’s called good. God is interested in seeing us find full delight in Him and all that He’s made. Lent opens with reflections on soil: you are but dust and to dust you will return. A return to the soil out of which we are made means that death is far from final. Soil composts that which has died in order to foster new life. Which means that reflections on death are always just the first step into a conversation on resurrection. For that reason, Christian seasons of fasting are always followed by even longer times of feasting. Through fasting, we focus our attention on God so that we might enjoy our celebrations all the more.
Every year, I must question how to practice a physically and mentally healthy fast. I question what rhythms I should step into to focus on my need for God and my gratitude for all that God’s made. Most years I choose to give up one thing—often coffee or alcohol. I try, every now and then, to join the Church in the daylong fasts of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. But for those of us with dark histories of excessive dieting or restrictive eating, the process of fasting can too easily turn away from delight in God instead of towards it.
So when fasting fails to draw me closer to God and the ability to delight, I’ve learned that I must do all I can to keep my eyes on the celebration that is to come. I savor and delight in the things that God has made, and I turn to share them with others. I think of all the hands that have touched my food—the farmers, cooks, grocery store clerks—and I pray for their safety and fair compensation.
But most of all, I do not fret when I cannot continue fasting until the end, because so long as I drew to delight in God more, I am prepared for the joy of resurrection.