Fasting Part 11
Spiritual Benefits of Fasting
For most people doing a religious fast, the primary benefit is spiritual. You’re not supposed to be mortifying your flesh as an act of masochism or applied puritanism. The goal is to get closer to God. Less you = more God. One way you make less of you is to stop putting food in you, leaving room for God to fill the space. Bob’s told me that during a good fast, he can really feel the presence of the Holy Spirit. I haven’t been that lucky yet, but I have often felt a great detachment from the physical world that’s made it much easier to feel closer to God, particularly when a fast is coupled with increased prayer (as it should be.).
Charitable Benefits of Fasting
But the Christian life is not supposed to be all about YOU. Or even all about your relationship with God. Community matters, too. As such, I’ve found that one of the great benefits of fasting is the good it can do for others. I can very much confirm what Bob added in a recent blog post —nearly every time I’ve done a long fast, something good has happened to somebody for whom I’m praying. Someone who has been unemployed for a while will finally get a job, or somebody who’s been sick will take a turn for the better, and so on. It hasn’t happened every time I’ve done a long fast, but it has happened more often than not. I know it isn’t my doing, and I’m not sure how my sacrifice helps God’s action in the world, but nevertheless—it does. And the end results can be amazing.
Personal Benefits of Fasting
Finally, one of the great benefits I’ve drawn from learning how to fast is personal. I’m not sure how to put it in words, but I’ll do my best. If you’re reading this blog, chances are, you’re doing it in the United States. And, let’s face it, people in the United States are there because most of us are descended from starving immigrants. Or, at least, we eat like we are, anyway. And, let’s also face it, most of us aren’t working as farm hands or lumberjacks anymore, so we really don’t need as much food as makes up the typical American meal. One of the most primal of human fears is starvation, and it reflects a very real situation that many people have had to face until comparatively recently in human history.
By way of explaining where I’m going with this, consider the following example as an analogy. Like starvation, another primal human fear is drowning. Humans can’t breathe water, so if we’re dumped in a big enough body of it, we will die. BUT, that primal fear is greatly mitigated, if not even completely eliminated, by learning how to swim. Nobody who learns how to swim is ever truly afraid of water ever again. That doesn’t mean you’re immune to drowning, of course, but drowning loses its terror when you know how to handle yourself in the water. By analogy, learning how to fast is a lot like learning how to swim. You find out that going without food, even for long periods of time, isn’t going to kill you. That little epiphany is life-changing. And, unless you’ve experienced it, it’s almost impossible to describe.
The very first long fast I ever tried coincided with an academic conference I wanted to attend, and I decided to end the fast (early) at one the wonderful dinners for which the conference is famed. I got seated randomly next to a perky, bubbly young college student. “Ohmigosh; I haven’t eaten all day,” she said during our introductions, “I’m starving!” “I haven’t eaten all week,” I replied, and quietly realized that I wasn’t starving. It took her a minute to realize that I wasn’t joking, and when she did, she favored me with the same look of pitying incomprehension I’m sure I gave Bob the first time around. “But . . . you can’t go that long without food!” she said, and I laughed inside. Actually, yes. Yes you can. And longer.
How little I knew!
Bob laughed in turn when I shared this story with him. And then got pensive, as he so often does. “We don’t live in that world anymore, do we?” No. I guess we don’t. We both intuitively understand something now that’s incomprehensible to most people.
For me, this has been one of the most important benefits of fasting, which I now realize has come as a gift from God. That gift is detachment. I know I can do without something which many people absolutely obsess over. For a time, anyway. This epiphany has been amazingly liberating. I have long wondered at the example of those saints and mystics who are said never to eat anything except the Eucharist. I’m not in that league, and I know I never will be. But I’ve shared their experience, to a tiny degree, and I “get” it. There have been times in my life now when I can truthfully say, “For these last nine days, I have eaten no food, save only the Body of Christ.”
Those experiences have left me pondering, as I often do, about the nature of our own bodies after the Final Resurrection. We know that our bodies will be like Christ’s was after His Resurrection, and the Gospels show us that He could eat, but likely didn’t need to. Will it be like that for us? In a new Heaven and a new Earth, will we not need food at all? Or, perhaps, will our glorified bodies dine only on the Eucharist? I don’t know. But I can say that, if that’s the case, I know what it’s like.
And I’m looking forward to it.