Childhood is a time for figuring out the rules of the world. Some of these are natural processes, such as what happens when you touch something hot; others are social realities administered by adults, such as the concept of “proper attire.”
Those of us who attended school in the '50s and '60s remember that there was an immutable order to the lunches served in the cafeteria: Wednesday was always something like beans or chili, for what reason I have never learned (although I vaguely remember Capt Kangaroo singing a song about it); meanwhile, Friday was always some kind of fish – usually a fish sandwich or fish sticks – often accompanied by macaroni and cheese. And when we asked why we always had fish on Friday, we were told, because Catholics were required to eat fish on Fridays, so it was a convenience for them that we all eat fish on that day.
We Protestant or other kinds of kids thought this was odd, but no odder than many of the other rules of the world we were learning. But when we asked our Catholic friends why they had to eat fish on Fridays, they replied, “We don’t know – it’s just a rule.” They were figuring out the rules of the world just like we were, it turns out.
Well, eating fish on Fridays is a form of fasting. Fasting is a spiritual discipline that is much recommended but perhaps only sporadically practiced these days. And it is the third in our series of sermons on spiritual disciplines.
Fasting means going without something, such as food – or a particular kind of food – for a spiritual purpose. Someone who is fasting is not dieting – the purpose is different – but rather, denying oneself something in order to pay better attention to God.
Pious Jews in ancient times fasted twice a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays; Saturday, the Sabbath, was always a feast day. Adapting this for their own purposes, the early Christians fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays, and had Sunday, the Day of the Resurrection, as a weekly feast day. It was the Christians of the Middle Ages who came up with the fish fast. The idea was to deny oneself rich food, such as beef or other “red meat” by eating fish. Now, this was very much a rule for affluent types: aristocrats and clergy, and later on, the merchant class. Peasants and serfs were largely immune to the temptation to over-stuff themselves with rich food, since they rarely ate any red meat at all, except at Christmas.
But the idea that one ought to exert some kind of regular discipline over one’s eating – a bridle on the deadly sin of gluttony – remained important. So eating fish on Wednesdays and Fridays – and finally, just on Fridays – remained a rule for everybody up until some time after the Protestant Reformation, and for Catholics up until the rules were relaxed by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.
Still, though, eating fish was just a substitute for eating red meat, and one could be as gluttonous with fish as with beef. The original idea of fasting was to deny yourself: to go w/o eating at all for a period of the day; to wait, and not give in to the immediate impulse of wanting to eat; to offer that up to God. Jesus highly approved of this, as we noted in his Sermon on the Mount, but he also noted that people sometimes trumpeted the fact that they were heroically not eating in order to parade their piety before others, and he said God was not impressed with that. Fasting is a thing of the soul, something between you and God, not a thing to be exhibited to others.
And it’s not always about food. One can deny oneself other pleasures, even other necessities. We see this still today when people talk about “giving up something for Lent” – doing without something for the 40 days leading up to Easter. Some give up chocolate – and some give up Facebook. I have joked that I once gave up giving things up for Lent, and liked it so much that I stuck with it. But that’s just a joke; in fact, we have so many things that we are attached to in an unhealthy way, which we ought to take a break from now and then.
Giving up something for a day, or a week, or a season – fasting – is what we call a “mortification of the flesh” (flesh in this sense meaning not just what our body craves but what our ordinary humanity desires). Time spent in solitude, away from others – taking a break from dealing with the demands and pleasures of others – is also a kind of fast, and for those who love to talk a silent retreat can be as difficult as going without food.
But why deny yourself any good thing? Why not enjoy them all, as much as you can, as often as you can? Didn’t God make them all to be enjoyed? What is the value in denying yourself something God wants to give you? Well, we give things up for a while in order to practice the discipline of giving things up for God. This is important, for at any moment, we might be called to give something up for God - indeed, to give everything up for God – and we have to stay in practice.
When somebody says you have to choose between doing something God says you should do or doing what the rules of our club – or even our country – say you should do, there’s a choice to be made. Oh, we blithely promise we will follow Jesus to the bitter end. So did his disciples, but at the first sign of difficulty or embarrassment, we tend to dump him as quickly as they did back then. And as for inconveniencing ourselves, or accepting a lower standard of living – oh, no, God would never want that for us.
But y’know what: you can get way too attached to money; forget money, you can get too attached just to stuff, and it can all be lost when a house burns or a job disappears. And if your vision of God is held hostage to a certain level of prosperity, well then, you will have a grievance against God and will not be able to perceive his love and assistance amidst your current difficulties. Instead of thanking God for helping you deal with what you have to deal with, you will blame God for dumping all this on you, and that’s not good.
Jesus said it all long ago: You cannot serve God and stuff. Not that there’s anything wrong with stuff, but having too much of it is a temptation and a distraction from God, and so you ought to stay in practice on “giving up things” in order to keep your rel with God open and straight, for only then can you enjoy yr stuff properly. So that’s what fasting is about. It’s about the mortification of the flesh, first of all, though it has other uses, such as intensifying one’s prayers – esp one’s intercessory prayers.
In times of crisis – either danger to the community or danger to a loved one – it is not unusual for a church community or a group of Christian friends to call upon each other to fast and pray. The received wisdom is that fasting adds power to one’s prayers. But why should this be so?
It would be tempting to assume that fasting is like a hunger strike – an attempt to influence public opinion or the moral response of authority by refusing to eat – to shame others into rewarding one’s cause. In medieval Ireland, a poor person being oppressed by a rich one knew that he would never win in court if he sued the rich man, so to prove the righteousness of his cause, he would “fast on” the rich man – go sit down at his front door and starve himself until he got satisfaction. In a shame-based culture like Ireland, this was an act that threatened the reputation of the rich person, which all his advantages could not sweep away; indeed, the rich man’s only recourse was to go sit down next to the man fasting on his front door and out-starve him. Or, he could come to terms with him. But going on a hunger strike against God only works if you think that God can be shamed into admitting that you’re right and he’s somehow in the wrong – which is silly.
No, the point of adding fasting to prayer isn’t to shame God into giving you what you want – make him change his mind, so to speak; rather, as C.S. Lewis said, “prayer doesn’t change God – prayer changes me." When we fast and pray, we are suspending our normal needs in order to apply ourselves to someone else’s very great need. We open ourselves up more to God by praying instead of eating. And in that increased devotion to prayer, we open ourselves up to his Spirit, so that the longer we pray, the more we are changed, our minds are changed, so that the way we pray for what we are asking changes.
“Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may know what is the will of God: what is good, and acceptable, and perfect.” We may start out seeking to change the will of God, but in our fasting and praying, we seek to know what is the will of God, and when he begins to shape us so as to know what is good, and acceptable, and perfect, our wills become aligned rightly with his, and then we can pray with power, for we are asking for what God wants us to ask for. When we pray for God to do what God already wants to do, then that is a prayer he always answers with a Yes.
Likewise, we may find in our praying that there are obstacles to God’s will in our own lives, and we are moved to repent of them. So our fasting changes us and by aligning our wills with God’s often corrects the problem; we thought it was about danger coming from without, while all the time the real danger was coming from within.
So fasting can be about mortification of the flesh, and it can be about adding power to our prayers, and there is a third use for it, which I hesitate to speak of, for it is highly dangerous; but truth impels me to say something about it, only adding, “children, do not try this at home.” Extreme fasting can be used as a means of altering one’s consciousness – and has been so used by saints and mystics throughout the ages.
Now, those of us who were around forty or fifty years ago remember when people altered their consciousnesses the old-fashioned way: with drugs! And, indeed, there were those who reported that taking psychotropic drugs yielded them what could only be described as a spiritual experience. They weren’t lying about that; people have used drugs for thousands of years to achieve altered states of consciousness. Which is why St. Paul said, “Be not drunk with wine [or, he could have added, stoned on drugs] for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit." For worship and prayer are God’s normal way of altering our consciousness and revealing himself to us. (In addition to drugs, people have used yoga and breathing exercises and meditation for the same purpose.)
Anyway, extreme fasting produces certain physical and mental changes which can open one to experiences not normally available to people, but it can also harm yr body: Martin Luther fasted so much as a young monk as to permanently damage his digestive system; Catherine of Siena thought she could live on nothing but communion bread and wound up starving herself to death. And it can also be a great danger to your soul, for not everything one finds on the other side of ordinary consciousness is of God, however spiritual it might be: Jesus fasted for 40 days and 40 nights and at the end of that time had figured out his call and came back preaching, “the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe the gospel” – but he also met the devil in person before he was done. Thankfully, Jeesus knew him for what he was; you and I might not. So be careful.
In the ordinary course of things, we fast in order to stay in spiritual training, to practice giving things up for God in order to keep God first in our lives. And we fast in order to add power to our prayers, not by changing God, but by allowing God to change us. And in all cases, we fast in order to whet our appetite for righteousness, for Jesus said, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness shall be satisfied. Amen.