I’m not good at fasting. “What’s to be good at,” You might ask? It’s a seemingly simple thing: just don’t eat very much (one larger meal and two small meals, which, together, do not add up to the larger meal), and you’re all set. The problem comes in that, well, I’m one unhappy camper when I’m hungry. My husband, who, by my estimation, has completed multiple rounds of purgatory and is pretty much set for the beatific vision after only two years of marriage to me, learned very early on in our relationship that it was a good idea – neigh, a necessity on which the continuation of our relationship depended – to carry food with us at all times. It didn’t have to be much – a pack of peanut butter crackers would do in a pinch – but it was necessary. I remember as a kid (read: until my later college years) translating the one large, two smaller meal rule as: eat as much as you possibly can during the big meal so that the two smaller meals, though they may be fairly large in size, will still not add up to its enormity. Talk about missing the spirit of the law! Even now, I still dread Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, but probably not as much as those who are forced to be around me do.
Today, as I pushed off breakfast to as late as I possibly could, hoping that my stomach just hadn’t realized it was morning yet, and I could therefore buy myself a little less hungry time later in the day, I got to thinking about what all this being famished nonsense is really for. It struck me that the part of fasting that I’m really bad at is not having the discipline to do it, but having the discipline to do it for the right reasons and to use it as a spiritual tool. This hunger is meant to serve a purpose, it is meant to draw me ever closer to Christ by reminding me of the hunger I SHOULD feel for Him, when I drift away from my spiritual disciplines.
For the past several years, I have given chastity talks to teenagers, wherein I remind them that the time they spend between their first awareness of their sexual desires and marriage is a very crucial time that has in immense impact on the formation of their character and on their future relationships. It is a time of sacrifice and waiting, but it is not just a time to sit around and twiddle our thumbs. That waiting and sacrifice is an opportunity to learn how to control our sexual desires because that self-control is a necessary tool for a happy future vocation (be that marriage, the priesthood, religious life, etc.) as well as for a successful prayer life. It is also an opportunity to realize how very much we desire the spouse that God has waiting for us. Fasting serves the same purpose – it helps us reign in our dependence on food, which is a good and basic human desire, so that we can gain the self-control to rely more on God than we do on any earthly good. It also helps us to remember how much we really hunger for the Creator of all good things, the Author of love.
It is up to us to channel that hunger into a prayer offered to God. It is up to us to harness the self-control to be in a good mood despite our hunger, and to be even more awake, alive, and happy than we would be with full tummies. The more grounded we are in prayer and centered we are on God, the more successful our attempts will be. As Ash Wednesday draws to a close and I look back over my day, I thank God I’ll have another chance to do this whole thing better in 40 days.
If today’s fast is any measure of how much I rely on God, it seems I’m pretty much on spiritual life support. And maybe that’s the main lesson I was supposed to learn today.