Monday, February 23, 2009

Fasting?


One of the classics of Anglican spirituality is a wonderful little book called Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book. To our modern, skeptical eyes, the book may seem quaint, overly pious and dizzyingly High Church in a spiky kind of way. Still, it is a book I find myself returning to again and again. Despite its seemingly fussy manner, it is also a surprisingly practical book. It gives solid and thought-provoking advice on such issues as fasting, which it describes as our “Christian duty.”

In the prayer book, fasting and abstinence are defined in this way: Abstinence is seen as a way in which “the quality of food is lowered, usually by not eating meat.” Fasting means that, in addition to abstaining, one also reduces the quality of food as well.

Throughout the history of the Church, fasting and abstinence have been a vital and important part of Christian spirituality. Like our regular lives, our Christian lives are marked by periods of feasting and fasting.

To begin, we need to recognize that, according to Scripture, all foods are essentially clean. As Christians, we do not have to concern ourselves with religiously unclean foods as our Jewish predecessors did. However following the example of Jesus and early Christians, we find fasting has always been spiritual discipline that has been commended to us. In the words of another spiky but popular prayer book in the Anglican tradition, The Practice of Religion, fasting is defined succinctly and bluntly in this way:

“The Bible teaches it. The Church commands it. Our Lord practiced it…This is a great help in disciplining the will and strengthening the character and developing self-discipline.”

As we prepare ourselves for Lent, we should also seriously consider fasting and why it is important to our own spiritual understanding. Although all foods are clean, excessive eating is, as we all have all no doubt discovered, extremely unhealthy. Most of us eat without much thoughtfulness of what we are eating or why. Oftentimes, we simply eat out of habit. We eat because our schedule tells us it is time to eat, but often not when we are really hungry.

Fasting during Lent is a way for us to be mindful of what we eat and why we eat it. Giving up meat on certain days (such as Friday) or during the whole season of Lent, often helps us take into consideration the fact that food is not just a major factor in our daily living, but also in our spiritual lives as well.

As we begin Lent, let us thoughtfully and prayerfully think about the food we eat and why we eat it. Let us choose our fasts carefully, so that we can find ourselves improved by the discipline of our Lenten journey.

Let us be mindful of the foods we do eat—mindful of the production of that food, mindful of the environmental expenses of growing that food, mindful of the fact that as fortunate as we are to live in our society of plenty, others are not as fortunate to partake of the quantity and quality of food we take for granted.

Let us avoid gluttony, which St. Augustine’s Prayer Book defines as “the overindulgence of natural appetites for food and drink, and by extension the inordinate quest for pleasure or comfort.” Let us avoid eating to excess—eating more than we physically need. Let us avoid eating for emotional comfort rather than physical sustenance.

Let us also consider the traditional Eucharistic fast, which usually consists of fasting at least an hour before receiving Holy Communion, except in those occasions when our health prevents us from fasting. This particular fast is not seen as an act of penance, but rather a way of once again being mindful that in addition to the food we eat for sustenance, we also partake of the Holy Communion to sustain us spiritually as well.

Finally, let us return to that age-old practice of grace before meals. Before we eat, whether alone, in a restaurant, with our families or with a group of people, let us pause and quietly thank God for the food we receive. Let our “grace time” be a period in which we also pray for those who have little or no food. Let us also be grateful for those responsible for providing that food for us.

As a congregation, we at St. Stephen’s are strive by example to be more mindful of the food we eat. We will be providing meatless soups and other foods during the Wednesday night Lenten suppers we are assigned.

Our Lenten journey can be a time of true renewal and reflection. Truly, “the joy of God’s forgiveness sustains us on this journey.” (Taizé Prayer for Each Day). I pray that your Lent will be a holy and meaningful season and that during it you will find yourself prepared in new and glorious ways to be a living witness and reflection of the Resurrection of Christ.

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