Monday, March 05, 2007

Me, Food and Lent

I always fast during Lent. We have to do it for the doctors now and then, so why not for the Great Physician? I have to admit that it rankles a bit, however, that to the extent we most of us know about fasting at all, what it is--giving up food for a specified period of time in view of a "test" of some sort--we know it for medical and not spiritual reasons. Be that as it may, I fast during these forty days of preparation for Good Friday and Easter.

The fast itself varies—sometimes I give up a specific food or beverage, sometimes a specific meal or two. And maybe it is not good for me--my mother thinks as much, fussed at me only last week about it. She may be right. I remember that Martin Luther had perennial digestive difficulties because he fasted so rigorously and so often.

My fasts are in no wise comparable, but still it begs the question. Why? Year by year, I set myself the task, but to what end? Not to lose weight, though I do like being able to button my pants without holding my breath. Not so Jesus will love me more. Jesus already does that and there is no righteousness in "works." So why?

I think because I realized, some years ago, how much I think about food, how much time and energy I give to eating. "Man does not live by bread alone," Jesus says, quoting Deuteronomy, but you could not prove it by me. Not the Hours but mealtimes order and shape my life, give my days shape and definition—even as they remove definition from my body and makes me pretty shapeless. Clock strikes nine, or noon or six and, hungry or not, her I come to the table.

Recently I had lunch with a friend, at a Chinese restaurant in Charlotte, and he commented as I sat down with my third plate that he had never seen anyone eat as much as I do. I was embarrassed and proud at the same time! What is it about me and food?

Mom says that she tried to nurse me the first few weeks of my life but there was something wrong with her milk, something essential that was missing. In sum, I spent all those weeks hungry, crying for food, starving, really, she said. Maybe that’s it: deep down, somewhere below my consciousness I think I still am starving and so I eat.
Just knowing that piece of my psychological encoding does not curb my appetite, however--information is not transformation--and so I just keep eating. And there may be more to it, too, than just that.

Last year, near this time I was a part of a writing seminar in Washington. I have had occasion of late to reread the diary I kept while I was there. What surprised me was how much I wrote about food and eating. Just a sampling:

Monday, March 27:
Lunch was cream of broccoli soup, pasta salad, fruit. This morning I ate raisin bran, fruit and part of a muffin. I am trying to remember I do not have to eat everything every time.

Tuesday, March 28:
Did not sleep again last night. I think maybe I ate too much or something. There was a wonderful pinto bean soup, salad, roast beef, carrots, asparagus and yellow peppers, rice with a shitake mushroom sauce, raspberry something in a pastry (I did not eat that, but did have seconds on the beef and rice). I am trying to remember that it is Lent, that I do not have to eat everything, Fought the covers during the night, or maybe that was the mushrooms fighting.

Wednesday, March 29:
Tonight Michael Lindvall, Lauren Winner and and a couple of others of us sat together (among yet others) at dinner. I cannot hear what is being said and so I just smile and nod and eat. A lot. We had salmon tonight—it may have been red snapper—but it was quite good (and I do not really like fish), with sautéed vegetables (heavy on the peppers) and little, well, footballs of spaghetti. I have never seen that before, the servings pre-spooled and parsleyed and ready to pick up with tongs.

Thursday, March 30:
The food has been wonderful. I am eating Raisin Bran every morning (please, God!), and soup for every lunch (today with fruit and a part of a large sub sandwich). Tonight the Louisville Institute hosted us at a Mexican place a couple of blocks away.The restaurant was loud and the table long: I was unable to hear much of any conversation at all. Finally a fellow in the group, a pastoral counselor of all things, asked if I could hear. I told him no, but that I was used to it. I pick up words here and there. I realized something important—I think I eat as a coping mechanism in such circumstances: I cannot experience my sense of hearing, so I compensate by over-stimulating my sense of taste. Perhaps. I did eat A LOT. And am pretty miserable right now.


I fast, in part, because I know how much I eat. If in the deafness of my ears and the base of my psyche there are physiological reasons for my gluttony, in my heart there is a desire to dethrone food from its central place in my life. I try NOT to live by bread alone. My life revolves around eating (and I suspect I am not alone in that regard, whatever its sources in others’ lives) and I am trying to put it into a new orbit.

Nor is that the only thing Paul means in Philippians 3:18-19, when he says that there are many who live as "enemies of the cross of Christ." "Their god is the belly," he says —and if for some people like me the gluttony is obvious and culinary--going to the refrigerator for food to try to fill an old psychological or current spiritual emptiness (ala Buechner), for others their hunger is different. It may be for money or stuff, clothes or gadgets, lovers or victims. Sports, scandal, power, politics: our hungers are many and vast and in any case there can come with it enmity with the cross of Christ.

The cross means self-denial: and what a concept that is in our acquisitive culture, our go-ahead-and-get-it mind-set, our pay-ourselves- and feed-ourselves- and pamper-ourselves-first society. I speak not in judgment but in confession. Reading this text again this week I realized that many days, in many ways, I live as an enemy of the cross of Christ.

I don’t want to. Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart, and with my stomach and with my checkbook, my calendar and energies. I want to desire nothing but Christ but day by day I desire so many other things. Food, not least.


Join in imitating me, Paul says. Imitate others of us in whom you have an example. Imitation, in this case, is less a matter of flattery than faithfulness. We learn to live our lives by trying to live as they do, at least for a season.

In I Corinthians Pauil says, I punish my body and enslave it, and the idea seems to be so that nothing material controls us. I am not so rigorous, but I am fasting, trying to look to the provision of God to nourish me more than to the bounty of the earth. I look to Jesus, who fasted for forty days in the wilderness that he might serve us faithfully. I want to imitate him, not in the extreme, but in some way that honors his sacrifice with a bit of my own.
One way to look at it is that my hunger began with my mother's inability to feed me. Or maybe we are all of us prewired in such a way that no one of this earth--not mother or father, spouse or child, not portfolio or team can satisfy us entirely. As John Baillie prayed,
"I thank Thee, Lord, that Thou has so set eternity within my heart that no earthly thing can ever satisfy me wholly. I thank Thee that every present joy is so mixed with sadness and unrest as to lead my mind upwards to the comtemplation of a more perfect blessedness."
Or, as Augustine might have said, "O Lord, thou has made us for the Feast and our hearts, our souls, our stomachs are hungry till we shall feast there with Thee."

1 comment:

Rachelle said...

You tap into all the deep and difficult aspects of fasting here... the why's especially, and the difficulty. Great post and lots of "food" for thought (sorry). I edited an amazing book a couple of years ago and it explores the topic of fasting better than any book I've ever seen, it's called "Hunger Pains" by Cynthia Moe. I think you would love the book. It's sort of an expanded version of everything you said here.

I am typing this while eating (natch) and having to think very hard about all of this! I decided against a Lenten fast this year because my heart wasn't in it, it just felt like so much legalism. And plus I am in this rigorous new schedule for the duration of Lent and beyond, giving up much of my ability to relax or slow down for a period of time, and it sort of feels like a Lenten discipline in itself. Is that rationalization or what????