As Lent draws to an end, I have been thinking about fasting and feasting.
Our culture finds fasting profoundly odd. It runs counter to the utilitarian way modern, liberal societies organise themselves. That is, we are encouraged to enjoy ourselves as much as is compatible with doing sensible, thrifty things like saving for the future, and not staying up so late drinking you can’t get to work tomorrow. Enlightened self interest is the name of the game, where we seek to maximise our pleasures and minimise our pains (“hedons” and “dolors” respectively in Bentham’s terminology.) Fasting seems to be the opposite – not only refraining from seeking hedons, but actually seems to be pursuing dolors – the mild dis-pleasure of not watching TV, say.
And I also get the point being made by people who reject fasting as somehow crimped, limiting, negative. That it has no point in Christian devotion, because the Gospel is about new life, gratitude, rejoicing. Happy beggars don’t fast. And besides, is not Christianity beyond “religion,” concerned with the inner reality of things, not the dry external rituals and pointless self-abnegations that fasting seems to suggest? It feels like a harking back to a made-for-TV version of religion that focuses on the thin, pinched, pale faces of pale, abstemious, life-loathing, life-fearing people who are afraid of having too much fun. People who suspect that someone, somewhere, is having a good time, and intend to put a stop to it.
Finally, our culture, this vast empire of consumption that promises happiness, or at least a reasonable simulacrum thereof, from every ad – so long as we buy something, is very uneasy about fasting. Surely it can’t be healthy to go without? Certainly if we all stop consuming, then won’t this vast edifice of everyone busying ourselves selling each other widgets and toiling away in the great widget factory cities in China collapse? When we think we can buy spiritual “well-being” from an expert, as though it were a reified product, or a technology, a technique we could use, the very premise of abstaining from consumption is problematic to say the least. (see for example https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/unbelieving-age ) It raises questions like: why are we rushing around like this? What would happen if we stopped? What if this car/holiday/smartphone doesn’t make me happy? Then what?
So, why do it? Why deliberately do unpleasant things, why have a less nice time than I could do, especially where I don’t think it is somehow required – I don’t think, for instance, that God is going to be angry with me if I don’t fast. I don’t get a kick out of self-abnegation, and no-one who knew me would accuse me of being an abstemious person – I am a great fan of the pleasures of the table, and of lying around reading a book and eating buttered crumpets rather than going out for a healthy run, or the many useful things I could be doing around the house.
There is, I observe, an odd aspect of spirituality as understood in the west as being somehow about consumption, but of a special kind. A friend of mine once went on retreat to a monastery outside Melbourne, fantasising about homemade food and, I don’t know, spas or something, and was rather shocked to discover that food cooked by people for whom the spiritual world is primary was not all that exciting. This same idea is behind every ad for a Thai spa resort, or the massage at the gym – spirituality as being a lifestyle accessory for a busy middle class professional. Well, that’s another post in itself really, but it’s that sense that spirituality is always about “more” and never about “less” that makes fasting such an interesting experience.
There are in fact many good reasons for fasting, which I will probably get around to listing in a moment, but the fundamental thing is so sketchy, so… fleeting and hard to get a hold of that it is hard to explain. It’s much more of an image in my mind than a worked out theory. It’s countless people in countless generations and cultures all doing this, it’s something about summer and winter, springtime and autumn, death and rebirth. Sowing and harvest. All those rhythms of life that pre-industrial cultures are hooked into, and we are not. I want to be somehow attached to that. There seems to me to be something profoundly human, incarnated, earthy, and profoundly sane about this rootedness, something that acknowledges and encourages the fleshly side of ourselves that people like me, people who spend most of our lives living in our heads, profoundly need.
So. Beyond this rather romantic vision I have of Sadhus and monks and Muslims and ancient Greeks all fasting, why do it?
Firstly, and maybe primarily, I’m afraid I do it to emphasize the pleasures. Hunger is the best sauce as the proverb goes, and there is nothing like refraining from doing something to accentuate the pleasure of doing it. It kind of resets your appetites. And there is something pleasurable in the rhythm of feasting succeeding fasting. It stops life from being a bland, featureless expanse of sameness, like an all-you-can-eat gruel buffet.
The second thing is that it helps me to keep things in their proper places. Technically this is the idea of “ordinate” versus “inordinate.” If we keep pleasures in their highly important, but still relative place, then we can wring all the enjoyment available out of them. But once they take over, become the organising principles of my life, then not only do I not get to enjoy the pleasures for themselves, they stop me from putting the most important things first. Or, to use more contemporary language, my addictive behaviours start to take over.
Fasting enacts the reminder that I can’t consume my way to a worthwhile, meaningful life. There is no supplement or drug that I can take, no steroids to pump up my sense of meaning, no app for my smartphone, and not even some technique I can apply. To change myself is a second-order problem, not amenable to technique. Fasting helps me to get that at a deeper level of felt knowledge – knowledge-by-acquaintance. In less wealthy cultures than ours, it wouldn’t be so important, because, unless you are one of the few fortunate rich, you are unlikely to be able to use pleasure as a replacement for internal change. Richard Rohr says something to the effect that poorer cultures have the advantage that you can’t stay at the edge of yourself because you can’t avoid suffering. Suffering forces you inwards and downwards, and even our very mild fasting at least reminds us of that, and provides a very little bit of practice in doing it.
Finally, and I hope this isn’t too long a bow to draw, one of the interesting scientific facts behind the Fast Diet, where you fast (moderately) for two days, and eat normally for five, is that the very act of fasting puts your body into “repair” mode. No-one knows why, apparently, but it appears to be well attested. It makes sense, if you look at how humans outside our own unusually rich culture, have usually lived. It’s been harvest and plenty, or winter and little. Some days you kill the mammoth and feast on ginormous chunks of juicy quadruped. Other days you make do with a handful of nuts and a hearty drink of water. We seem to be designed to live like this, and perhaps that’s enough reason to do it.
In summary, humans are made both to fast and to feast; and unless we fast, there is no feasting.