Since I was a child ice cream has been my favorite dessert. I was never one for candy, especially the more pure sugar varieties, but ice cream with its cream and sugar, its frozen texture, has always been the best end to any feast. As an adult who has often struggled with excess weight I was happy to discover Halo Top. As its name indicates, it is an apparently angelic product, delivering all of the wonderful flavors and textures of ice cream without the attending calories. But as any person who has read the scriptures or ancient monastics knows, what may at first seem to be an angel of light can turn out to be a devil.
I began to realize this when I read Mark Schatzker’s The End of Craving: Recovering the Lost Art of Eating Well. Schatzker’s basic premise is that the problem of increasing obesity in the Western world, especially America, comes not because we eat too many carbs, or love fried food, but because our food has been deceiving us. Through both high levels of processing and engineering, our food gives us what Schatzker calls “nutritive mismatch.” Our bodies’ signals that we’re getting what we need from food—calories, proteins, fats, vitamins—are driven haywire by tricks of chemistry that do not exist in natural foods. I eat Halo Top and my taste buds are telling me I’m getting a rich dessert, but it fails to deliver on the promise. The signals of sugar and fat are misleading my brain. The result, when my body discovers the ruse, is that I want more food to make up for the deception. And on down the path toward excess I go. The better way is simply to eat good, whole foods, that are minimally processed—foods that don’t lie about what they really are.
The problem Schatzker traces is both new and old. In Isaiah chapter 55 there’s a wonderful scene in which the prophet acts like a street vendor calling out to the passing crowd.
Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labour for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food. (55:1-2, NRSV)
The problem of idolatry is essentially the problem of Halo Top. All too often we seek out empty foods, even paying more for them than the freely available nourishment that will truly satisfy us. In the same way we seek empty spiritual experiences and forms of worship that may taste good going down, but leave us empty in the end.
What the prophet is calling us toward is the good, rich, real food of God’s feast. But to get there, most of us will require a retraining of our taste buds, a waiting for what will truly satisfy. Fasting is a practice the provides that opportunity. By letting our bodies and mouths rest from eating—physically and spiritually—we are learning to taste what is truly good. Fasting helps us, as Psalm 34 puts it, to “Taste and see that the Lord is Good.”
Fasting is also a way to train ourselves to wait for what is truly nourishing. When I’ve practiced fasting most regularly, I find that I am often able to wait through hunger at times that would have otherwise driven me to eat junk food. As persons with bodies and souls that are deeply intertwined, I think the same reality is at play on a spiritual level. We can easily go to so many junk substitutes for God, but by learning to wait until we can sit down to a feast and savor it, we are able to pass by the substitutes, be they idols or low-calorie ice cream.
These days, I don’t eat all that much ice cream. But when I do, I want it to be the full fat, straightforward kind made by our local ice cream shop. That stuff is made by women who went to ice cream school rather than MIT, and I know that when I eat it, I’ll do so slowly with a small spoon, savoring each bite and satisfied by the end. The invitation of fasting is to experience that same reality with God. There is a feast that God has laid out for us, rich food that is freely offered. But we have to learn how to savor it, we have to learn how to wait so that we won’t “ruin our dinner” with all the substitutes the world throws our way.
Next week I’ll continue this exploration of fasting by introducing another aspect of eating—the ferial meals of the every day.