I’ve recently been thinking about the practices that have been most helpful to me in my journey on the Christian way. Fasting is among them and I’ve been working to renew my own regular practice of it. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be offering a short essay on fasting, its practice, and why its a helpful discipline for the Christian life. Today is part 1, but each essay should be fairly independent of the others, so read in whatever order you come upon them.
Several years ago, I sat at a table of strangers, waiting for the sun to go down. On a table to the side of the room there were aluminum trays whose covers were not sufficiently keeping in the smells of curried meats and saffron scented rice. Our stomach’s rumbled, our mouths filled with saliva, our bodies readied themselves to eat, but the time had not yet come.
To distract us until the moment the sun finally made its descent, a young man, whose day job is at a local college, moved to the front of the room. He welcomed everyone and then introduced the occasion for our gathering. This was a Turkish cultural center and it was Ramadan, the period of fasting in which Muslims go from sunup to sundown without eating or drinking. It is a holy season and during it, this cultural center had invited groups from various local Christian communities to break the fast with them and have a dialogue about our different faiths. As a Christian priest, I’d been asked to say a few words about the Christian tradition of fasting. It was not an easy task.
The difficulty came because I could not help but speak, mostly, in the past tense. There is simply no universal Christian tradition of fasting comparable to Ramadan. Even Lent, our best possibility for such a practice, has become a minor season of abstinence from luxuries like chocolate and alcohol. For Western Catholics, McDonalds is glad to provide a fish sandwich on Friday when no other meat is permitted. But for most protestants, even days like Ash Wednesday or Good Friday, are no longer observed as days without food. Only the Orthodox seem to have kept fasting alive, but even there it is often more properly an abstinence from animal products than a true fast from all food. Standing before the room full of hungry people waiting for dark, I could only stammer that Christians have traditionally fasted during certain periods, especially on Fridays and often on Wednesdays as well, but that few continue the practice.
Barbara Brown Taylor has talked of “holy envy” in her dialogues with people of other faiths. I had some of that in this room full of Muslims because I long for a more unified Christian practice. There’s something good in knowning that we’re all in this together, and this is something I think observant Muslims share in seasons like Ramadan. What I’d like to do, then, is to make the case for a Friday fast as a return of Christian ascetic practice, acknowledging that my proposal is as much a reminder of the value of the practice in the midst of my own lapses as anything else.
Let me first say what a fast is. There are a variety of traditions around the definition of a fast, but I think the most simple is a fast is a set period in which no calories are consumed. There are traditions in which fluids including water are also included (as in Muslim and some Jewish fasts), but food is more widespread. It also corresponds more closely to the biological basis of a fast which we will get into in future posts.
My own practice of fasting came about mostly from two sources. First, I once heard the philosopher and spiritual writer Dallas Willard say that the practice of fasting, solitude, and the memorization of scripture have been the most valuable disciplines of his Christian practice. I have a great deal of respect for Willard and his thinking, so it made sense to try out such a list for myself. Though I have yet to make scripture memorization a regular part of my life, the other two disciplines have certainly deepened my life in the reality of God at important periods.
The second source is my involvement for nearly two decades with the Ekklesia Project. In the initial pamphlet of the group, written by Stanley Hauerwas and Michael Budde, it was stated that “members of the Ekklesia pledge that they will…observe a daytime fast every Friday as a form of prayerful resistance to the idolatrous practices of our culture.” In this call the Ekklesia project is drawing on the longtime Christian tradition of fasting on Fridays and turning it toward both an act of solidarity as a group and as a mode of resistance.
I find this idea of fasting as resistance compelling and at the times in my life when I have been most regular in the practice, it has been toward the front of my mind. But what does it mean to resist “the idolatrous practices of our culture” and how might fasting accomplish such an aim?
Idolatry is the replacement of God in our life and worship of something not God. In the context of ancient Israel idolatry was embodied by the varied deities of other nations, each promising a solution to some problem of human life be it prosperity, a good harvest, or a healthy family, in exchange for worship. At times this worship was violent such as the child sacrifices offered to Molech or it could be more mild, even attractive, like some of the cults of the Baals. Whatever it was, it required looking to a source other than God for the basic provisions of life.
The idols of our own time are more subtle, but with some reflection they can become clear enough. William Stringfellow in his wonderful little book Imposters of God, unmasks how idolatry shows up in work, money, patriotism, race, and even the church. All of these are realities that we can use as substitutes for God and thus they can easily become idols. Often, the highest goods of human life, are the most easily prone to becoming idols. Our common provision and wellbeing could be called our economy, but when that provision becomes an end in itself for which we sacrifice justice then it becomes an idol—the “Economy.”
The general remedy for idolatry in scripture is waiting. In the Psalms we hear the refrain “wait on the Lord” repeatedly. It is in waiting for God that God’s people let the anxiety of the moment pass and return to their deeper sources. To resist the idolatrous practices of our culture requires us to be still and wait, not allowing the momentary crises of our lives turn us to solutions that fall outside of the ways of God. When we run to money, sex, or power to solve some deeply held human need or when we believe that injustice must continue inorder to not upset the standing economic order, then we have become captive to an idolatrous culture. The answer is to practice waiting, and this can be especially cultivated by waiting for the fulfillment of a fundamental need in our lives.
This is where fasting comes in as an important discipline of waiting. When we say that for a day or even a few days we will refrain from eating food, and thus taking in calories, we are acknowledging that we do not “live by bread alone.” We are then opened to discover that our souls and bodies have other resources to live from, especially our life within the God who provides our ultimate nourishment.
This is not to say that food is idolatrous per se or that money, sex, and power are bad. Each have their place in human life. But when we wait for their fulfillment, when we deliberately practice waiting before God for the proper place and time of their satisfaction, then we will have brought them into their appropriate status in human life.
How fasting brings us into a different relationship with the energies necessary for life will be our subject next Friday.