Fasting Part 3

In December of 2009, I was hospitalized for four days in two different hospitals with a blood platelet crisis. Platelets cause your blood to clot when necessary and I didn’t have enough of them (ITP). I had been fighting 3 separate occurrences of cancer since 2003, and while the cancer was no longer present, the treatments – including 2 stem cell transplants – had been so brutal that I was constantly in the hospital for something.

This particular hospitalization occurred the week before Christmas and came on the heels of a deep inner darkness, a time of great difficulty both spiritually and emotionally. However strange it might sound from the outside, I found this stint in the hospital to be a great blessing. Having spent many long periods of time in hospitals, I am at home in them. This four-day period became a sort of retreat for me where the darkness lifted, and I felt renewed in body, mind and spirit.

Just a couple days before Christmas, I was released from the University of Chicago Medical Center. My wife drove me back to South Bend in the afternoon. That evening I needed to go to the drug store to get the five prescriptions that awaited me. I was feeling well enough to drive and, frankly, I wanted to experience some autonomy and independence so I brought my my son with me.

This is the book that got my attention.

While we were waiting in line, I noticed a short little Christian book on fasting which seemed like it was jumping out from the stand in the waiting area. (Yes, in Indiana you can still find Christian books in drug stores.) If books could talk, this book was shouting at me! As I browsed through it, I saw that it laid out biblical reasons for fasting and included testimonies about how fruitful the practice of fasting has been in the life of the author, a pastor, and his congregation. Longing desperately for more fruit in my own life, I purchased it and spent most of the night reading it. The next day, I drove to a local convent’s Eucharistic Adoration chapel and finished devouring it, using the scripture citations in the book to look up and read all the passages directly myself. As I studied them, I could feel my heart burning.

Now it’s not like I’ve never fasted. Fasting was a part of my “re-conversion” twenty years previous as a young college graduate. But I was a different person then, much more youthful, naïve, and prone to excessive enthusiasm. As my Christian conversion deepened and moved from a lot of emotion toward a more long-lasting and quiet commitment, I encountered a Catholic Church which seemed rather unenthusiastic about fasting. Except when I was around people who had gone on pilgrimages to Medjugorje, whenever the topic came up, the topic of fasting was usually met with so many warnings and calls for prudence, moderation, and caution that it seemed like fasting was something the Church actually wanted to discourage. My impression was that in the eyes of most Catholics, fasting was really something only for zealots and extremists. To even bring up the topic made people look at you funny. Well, I didn’t want to be a zealot or an extremist, so I pretty much quit fasting altogether – except during Lent when it was “safe” or perhaps secretly for special occasions. I pursued other “safer” routes towards closeness with Christ. (These other things were good things, but I have learned well through the years that they too are enhanced by fasting.)

Eucharistic Adoration Chapel at the Sisters of St. Francis Convent

This little book from the drug store rekindled some long smoldering embers. It pointed me towards the biblical basis for fasting. I was familiar with many of the biblical stories, but it was like the scales were falling off my eyes and I began to notice things that I have never noticed. During the ensuing month, I spent many hours in that convent chapel reading and praying about fasting as I sat in the presence Jesus Himself in the Blessed Sacrament.

Then a couple weeks later, I had a conversation with a devout Catholic doctor friend about the spiritual practice of fasting. We didn’t talk very much about the physiology. I wanted to make sure that it would not hurt my health to fast as I had made a commitment to my wife that I would always do what the doctors recommended. (This promise was to alleviate her stress about her husband having cancer.) I asked him if I could fast and he answered that nobody had ever asked him that so could he please have a little time to think and read about it. I said, “Of course.” Then only a day or two later, he emailed me some material that actually encouraged the practice of fasting from a physiological point of view. I was surprised but excited as I really wanted to begin as soon as possible. This was the green light I needed to overcome my fear of being a zealot and a fool, a great step forward towards the practice of fasting for me.

One of the drugs I was taking at the time was Prednisone. If you’ve never taken Prednisone, it is a very powerful steroid with many side effects, including an absolutely voracious appetite. I was on 100 milligrams of it, which is high. (Many people never exceed 20 mgs). I gained about eight or nine pounds in a week on it. My body felt absolutely disgusting. So after a huge, delicious and way overindulgent Christmas night feast, I found myself alone in my living room when everyone else had gone to bed, reading the scriptures by the light of the Christmas tree and the fire in the fireplace. I felt called to fast both spiritually and physically. As one final test of discernment, as my wife headed up to bed, I told her what I planned to do the next morning. Had she expressed any concern for my health or mental sanity, I would have backed down. But she gave me her blessing.

And so I did it.

For three days, I drank nothing but water. I had many prayer intentions for my fast, but among the foremost was an increase of peace and love in my family. I committed myself to more time in prayer. I continued to research the medical implications of fasting.

And small miracles began to occur.

Michael 2010
Michael in 2009

The night after my first full day of fasting, I was lying in bed reading again when my twelve-year-old son woke up, climbed down from his bunk bed in his room and appeared at our door. He said he was scared and had a strange and inexplicable desire to be near me. This was completely out of character for him. He was a kid who learned not by talking and asking questions, but by trying things and making mistakes and then adjusting. He laid down with his pillow and blanket on the wood floor next to my bed. After a short period of time, he began to ask me questions.

Deep questions.

Questions about life and death.

And God. And sin. And virtue. And hope.

He listened to my answers and asked further questions. We talked for a long time.  Finally, as the conversation was winding down, he asked if he could get into bed with us because he was getting uncomfortable (my wife was sleeping next to me). I knew I couldn’t allow this because she has a bad back and a tough enough time sleeping as it is. Another body would not be good for her. So impulsively I just told him to switch with me and he did immediately. So there I was lying on the floor, not wanting to break this special moment when my son suddenly realized that his father was lying on a wood floor and he was lying in the bed. It shocked him, and he said,

“Dad, I don’t want you to sleep on the floor.”

To which I replied,  “Michael, I want to do it because I love you.”

And then, after a few moments of quiet, as he began to fall asleep, he said, “Dad, I want to become just like you.”

My eyes filled with tears. I was overcome with gratitude and a knowledge of the presence of God. This was the miracle of my very first day of a fast. There were more to come.

(Go Back to Fasting: Part 2)

(Go Forward to Fasting: Part 4)