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Sacred Fasting

Here is my latest column for Patheos on desert wisdom for Lent:

Abba Daniel used to say, “He lived with us many a long year and every year we used to take him only one basket of bread and when we went to find him the next year we would eat some of that bread.” (Arsenius 17)

Abba Daniel used to tell how when Abba Arsenius learned that all the varieties of fruit were ripe he would say, “Bring me some.” He would taste very little of each, just once, giving thanks to God.” (Arsenius 19)

–from Sayings of the Desert Fathers

The desert mothers and fathers devoted themselves wholeheartedly to the ascetic practice of fasting. Asceticism essentially is about letting go of everything that keeps us from God and so is intended to be a journey toward authentic freedom. Desert ascetics kept their possessions to a minimum and fasting was practiced as a way of attending to the body. Fasting to the point of harm to the body was condemned, although there were certainly monks who did end up starving themselves to death.Asceticism is always meant as a practice in service to freedom. When it becomes a competition or is oriented toward achievement, it no longer serves its purpose and becomes destructive. It can be another way we distract ourselves from the sacred presence in our midst. The fasting of Lent is not a second attempt at dieting when New Year’s resolutions have failed. This is a distortion of the deeper meaning of this practice.When we fast from food, we are called to become keenly aware of our relationship to food and to pay attention to our own hungers. When we fast from the comforts of our lives, the invitation is to stretch ourselves and become present to what happens when we don’t have our usual securities to rely upon.

I have been contemplating what a life-giving fast looks like for me this Lent. I have chosen to fast from foods which aren’t nourishing and only eating that which truly strengthens and vitalizes my body for my work in the world. As I sit down to a meal, I slow myself down, I ask is this what I am really hungering for? Does this feel truly nourishing?


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