Spiritual Life

‘Eating down the house’: why we still need fasting

I have two close friends who have spent considerable time serving the impoverished in India and Africa. Both returned to the United States with radical new relationships to food.

After coming home from several months in the Sudan, my friend Sarah could barely go out to a restaurant. “Americans are obsessed with food,” she would say and then order the simplest item on the menu, usually soup.

One evening, not long after he had returned from India, my friend Ray and I were sitting in his kitchen when his son, then a college student, sauntered in, opened the refrigerator and standing in the bright light of its interior bulb began to scan its considerable contents. Then he turned to his dad and simply asked, “What do you want for dinner?”

Ray burst out laughing. And then organized a fundraiser for the local food shelf.

It’s true that this is a question only those living in abundance may ask. It would be absurd in most of the rest of the world. Most of the rest of the world lives, day after day, on a plate of rice or beans, and maybe an occasional slab of meat now and then. Most of the rest of the world routinely lives with some hunger and certainly a very narrow list of choices when it comes to food. There is no “food pyramid” on the streets of Calcutta.

There are of course the hungry on our streets too, though they might be fewer in number and a bit better hidden in this country than others. In a season of regular fasting, we are provided with the opportunity to remember them and to reframe our relationship to food.

If you cannot fast from food, certainly, you may fast from something else. But most of us can fast from food. And we probably should – because the Lord did, and rigorously so, to prepare for all the Father was about to ask of him.

There’s still some flexibility in how we accomplish that, particularly as a family. A Quaker friend of mine told me that once a year, his family would try to clear out the shelves of their kitchen and pantry, eating whatever was there until the shelves were nearly bare. Of course he and his wife did not jeopardize the health of their children – no one was seriously denied nutrition – but it became a creative and instructive family project to see how many different ways you could prepare a dented can of tomato soup and a forgotten bag of rice. He reports that his children began to look forward to “eating down the house.” Routine trips to the grocery store at the end of their little family project were met with positive glee and a renewed sense of thanksgiving. The prayers of their children on behalf of the hungry at mealtime took on a whole new level of earnest intercession.

We fast – in multiple ways – as a penance for our sins, to grow in detachment to material comforts, and to create more interior space for prayer. We fast from meat on Fridays because we will not render flesh in honor of the Lord’s Passion. We fast to purify and prepare ourselves for the work that the Father is asking of us.

Fasting is good for us. Let’s not be too quick to find reasons to bypass it. May your stomach growl – and your heart expand.

Liz Kelly is the author of six books, including “Jesus Approaches: What Contemporary Women Can Learn about Healing, Freedom and Joy from the Women of the New Testament” (Loyola Press, 2017).

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