Fasting has never held much fascination for me, but then again, I don’t think much about food. Still, I understand that fasting is a key spiritual discipline that remains significant for many individuals and central in many traditions. Each year, I watch my husband suffer through Yom Kippur, which is precisely the point for observant Jews – affliction and atonement, as my father-in-law would say. I see my husband watch the hands of the clock tick toward the evening hour, and I know he is agonizing over every minute, because my husband thinks about food a lot.
That may have been the most eye-opening discovery of my early marriage, what thorough consideration my husband gave food. On the rare occasions we had whole days and weekends together, it grew increasingly obvious. “What are you thinking about breakfast?” he would ask me in the morning. Later on that same day, “What are you thinking about lunch?” Later still in the evening, “What are you thinking about dinner?” I found these questions confounding. There were only so many variations on “not much/I don’t know/no thoughts/nothing, really” I could muster.
Finally, I told him, “You have to stop asking me about meals. Honestly, I just don’t give them that much thought. Just tell me what you’re thinking about dinner. You’ve plainly given it some thought; I haven’t.” When I get hungry, I have to figure out something or somewhere to eat, and I usually do that in short order. But my meals are hardly ever premeditated.
Sometimes, I’ll forget them entirely. Lunch is far and away the least memorable meal for me. When I mentioned to a friend that I often forgot lunch, he grew indignant. “I’ve never forgotten a meal in my life,” he declared. “How does a person forget to eat lunch? That’s crazy!” I wouldn’t go that far, but I will admit that it is at the very least ill-considered, especially when I find my energy flagging or a hunger headache coming on.
Strangely, for all my accidental fasts, I’ve always resisted intentional ones. I remember refusing to participate in organized fasts even as a teenager. A part of me has always believed that fasting made a mockery of hunger, that it was a practice that belonged to the haves and not the have-nots. I can locate myself squarely in the haves category, without a doubt, but I never wanted to play-act at misfortune.
I wonder how much of this superstition is atavistic and resides at the level of cellular memory. The Irish have never been known for their cuisine but they have been well-practiced at hunger — historically, at least. The so-called Potato Famine was really a series of devastations; those span of years in the 1800s eventually came to be known at the Great Hunger, a term that loses none of its poignancy centuries afterwards. My guess is my distant relations learned not to think about food, not if they could help it. I remember my great aunt once telling me that it was a shame and a nuisance how often we all had to eat. That idea likely came to her as mother’s milk.
A local priest I know leads pilgrimages to Ireland now and again, his favorite being three day of travel to a sacred site of St. Patrick. During that time, the priest said, he and everyone else fasts. But wouldn’t everybody get hungry and tired, I asked, with all that walking and no food? He assured me that this was an Irish fast: people ate tea and toast, toast and tea, but nothing else. “Tea and toast?” I asked. “Seriously? Because those are two of my favorite things. Tea and toast? I could do that sort of fast, no trouble at all.”
Of course, there’s little to be gleaned from the sorts of fasts that pose us no trouble at all. If I had only tea and toast on a Sunday, that would be both a tasty treat and a relief, because then I wouldn’t have to manage meal planning and all the rest of the eating rigamarole that seems so far beyond my ken. If I were to issue myself a sincere spiritual challenge involving food, it would probably involve me preparing a five-course meal as a kind of corrective to my current approach. It would involve my embracing bounty instead of skirting scarcity, as is my wont.
At the beginning of Lent this year, my husband started exhibiting a intense curiosity about what I would be giving up for the forty days. I suspected that he was looking to even the score for those bagels I ate on Yom Kippur. I grew prickly and made arch pronouncements about him not needing to keep tabs on my spiritual practices. No, I said, I wouldn’t be giving up chocolate or carbs, so there was no need to empty the cupboards on my account.
In all honesty, I also felt a bit embarrassed by my selection of Lenten sacrifice. It was not until I was sitting amongst the sisters in my regular stitch circle that Saturday, crocheting in hand, that I went public. For Lent this year, I decided to give up all yarny additions – no further purchase of yarn or patterns for me until after Easter Sunday had passed. I wanted them to know so that I could I could hold myself accountable. I did not expect the roar of laughter I got from them, but I could tell from it that they understood the import of my choice.
“Forty days, forty nights without any more yarn – that’s hard, right?” I asked. They were laughing because that brief interval shouldn’t be as ridiculously hard as it is for people like us, mad stitchers all. Knitters and crocheters tend to have huge stashes of yarn already, drawers full of possibility at the end of our fingertips. I think about yarn the way my husband thinks about food. I think about it several times a day, its different possible combinations, my current selection, whether I have enough at home to get me through a blizzard, should one strike any time soon.
Not only has my yarn stash not grown in the first few weeks of Lent, it has shrunk with a recent bag of donations to my neighbor, a upstanding church lady who has a bustling stitch circle at a nearby Presbyterian church. My own peculiar fast has helped me recognize that I do not necessarily need to have more in order to give more. It’s no longer a question of what sort of fast feels least distasteful to me – let’s say a modest diet of tea and toast – but what inspires a more generous spirit within me.
What I’m trying to do for these few weeks of Lent is tried to distance myself from what Jesus cautioned against in his Sermon on the Mount, that endless fretting we all engage in each day, continuous fretting over what we will eat or wear. These worries narrow our attention when we are called to turn our focus toward those wider spiritual concerns that require our undivided attention. It doesn’t particularly matter which sacred season or sacred place we’re moving through at any given moment, or if we’re fasting from food or fibers. The aim of those empty stomachs and hands is a clearer mind and maybe — just maybe — a softened heart.