Ivy Helman has written on fasting and feminism over at the Feminism and Religion blog, and my response grew into a post of its own. She raises the following concerns about religious fasting:
Religious fasts regularly praise the virtues of self-denial and self-sacrifice. Abstention from food is thought to be spiritually purifying. The theology of fasting frequently seeks to humble the adherent in which the practitioner seeks to garner favor or be seen as worthy in the eyes of the divine. Fasting, especially in Christianity, also separates body and mind.
As a Catholic feminist, the eucharistic fast (fasting for a certain period before receiving communion) is my primary hermeneutic for understanding fasting in my tradition, especially since I grew up in a time when the practice of fasting from midnight (and therefore going to church hungry on sunday morning) was still a live tradition, even after the canonical discipline had been reduced to a one-hour fast.
As a child, I was taught very simply that we fast before communion so that we will be hungry for God. Our bodily hunger is therefore a sign, an embodied metaphor, of the spiritual hunger that we either do feel, or desire to feel, for God. This is the very opposite of separating body and mind! It is a sacramental understanding of fasting.
Although Catholics of a certain age were taught that a sacrament is “a visible sign of invisible grace,” I would more clearly describe a sacramental approach as one in which the divine is both hidden within, and revealed through, an earthly, human experience. The Incarnation is the ultimate, primordial sacrament: the LORD was hidden within, and revealed through, the person of Jesus.
This sacramental paradigm embraces the Catholic approach to sacred art and music, in which these earthly, sensual experiences are understood as a means by which we can come closer to God. It also embraces the embodied aspects of Catholic prayer, such as the sign of the cross and the postures at mass (sit to listen, stand to pray, kneel to adore).
Although there is indisputably a strand of Catholicism that devalues the body, there is just as indisputably a strand that values the body, and is based on a holistic anthropology in which body, mind, and spirit are all equal and integral aspects of the human person. This is one area in which Catholicism with its “smells and bells” is quite distinct from many strands of Protestantism.
Helman’s summary of the theology of fasting is very instrumental: we fast in order to accomplish this or that thing. My primary understanding of fasting is not instrumental at all: fasting is an embodied form of prayer. It is instrumental only in the same way that all prayer is instrumental: to bring us closer to God.
My secondary hermeneutic for understanding fasting is the Lenten fast, and this has two aspects. First, we fast to imitate and accompany Jesus, who fasted for forty days before beginning his public ministry. Imitating and accompanying Jesus are particular modalities of being closer to God.
Second, fasting is only one of the three traditional Lenten practices. The other two are prayer and almsgiving, and they must be considered together: we fast in solidarity with the poor, who have no choice but to fast; we give alms to the poor with the money we would have spent on food; and we pray for the poor. Operation Rice Bowl is a Lenten practice that does a terrific job of bringing these three parts together: each week, the accompanying materials features stories about poor people in a particular part of the world, including a meatless recipe that is traditionally eaten there; and the money we give funds programs that help people in those parts of the world.
Helman also shared a Buddhist story about Siddhartha choosing to break his fast because he realized it made him too weak to help others. This resonated strongly for me with my discernment about fasting more seriously than the canonical requirements for Catholics. (I might add, I was inspired to take fasting more seriously after learning about the Ramadan fast undertaken by my Muslim sisters and brothers!)
Frequently, I think, Catholic practices emerged in monastic life, and were exported to secular life without very much thought about how the different circumstances of monastic and secular life might affect the practices. I believe fasting is one of these practices. A contemplative, living a life of prayer and simple manual labor, living and working and praying all in the same place, doesn’t have to worry about being physically and mentally capable of driving safely on the interstate highway 30 miles to work and back. I need to be able to do my job both physically and mentally — I owe it to my employer. These responsibilities morally constrain my practice of fasting.
So when I do fast, I do so mindfully, attentive to my physical condition: hungry enough to feel hungry for God, not so hungry that I can’t meet my other responsibilities. I’ll drink watered juice to help keep my blood sugar up; I’ll have a midday snack if need be, but that doesn’t mean I’ve “failed”: it’s something I do with the intent of tiding me over and helping me stay hungry (but not too hungry) all day.
And when I do sit down to a simple dinner, I am more grateful for even the simplest foods than on days when I don’t fast. This, too, is an integral element of the discipline of fasting as embodied prayer.