The Spirit of Lent: Food and Fasting

Fat Tuesday has passed (or Pączki Day as we called it in southeast Michigan) and thus begins the season of Lent for Catholics.

Let was my favorite time of year (when I was a devout Catholic). The whole notion of the season was to remember the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert and the temptations the devil presented him during his weakened state.

At it’s essence, Lent was all about giving something up (chocolate, soda, cigarettes, etc) and, something that’s forgotten, but was stressed at our church by the priests, was the idea of also taking on a heightened awareness of committing acts of good. It was the inversion of selfishness and narcissism. Not only will you give something up yourself, you will take on the burden of others.

Around 14 I started fasting for Lent. Just on Fridays though. Since it was fish only that day I thought I might make it the day I give up food during the day as well.

As I got older, the more I’d dwell on the notion of Jesus and his fast, I wanted to try and emulate him as much as possible. That’s when I started fasting for two days at time. Then three… toward the end of high school I would fast for the month; eating one small meal at night and only water during the day (although there were many a time I remember my mom would chase me out of the house with a SlimFast, waving it at me like I was off to  war, “Please drink this for the vitamins and calories”, she’d say).

By the time I hit college, I was so in love with the idea of Lent (give something up, take something on), I would extend the season for myself and essentially was constantly fasting and eating as little as possible to further my relationship with God.

This is what I would psychologically dub “religious based anorexia”.

No one knew about this either. I would only tell my mother as the same bible story was read every year before Lent with Jesus warning his disciples, “And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” [Matthew 6:16]

Fasting was my little secret for myself to build my relationship with God. But mom knew. If she does not insert herself into her child’s business, is she a mother?

As an atheist now, I reflect on that time and think about the meaning of it all, the lessons learned while I fasted. When I talk with friends about this they ask, “Did you think about God more”?

“No”, I reply, “I thought about food more”.

While fasting, it severely altered my relationship to food. For starters it made me more grateful for any meal I eat. Even in my poorest times, while first moving to LA, when my lunch, for years, was an apple and a can of tuna, there was a still an appreciation for the idea I ate anything. I certainly eat more quickly. People often say to me, “You ate your food so fast you didn’t even enjoy it”. In my head I’d think, Well, I’m literally starving, ya pike, let me eat the food! But I was a good Catholic, and only judged them in my head instead of telling the truth (because I wanted my reward in heaven (as a side note, it seems goofy to me now Jesus was telling people to do something for a reward from God, like a treat to the dog from the master for being a ‘good boy’))

When you fast you essentially are starving yourself by choice. It’s a great lesson in empathy (and if the woke reader notes; privilege). Your thoughts go to those who do not starve by choice but starve for any other means. Your thoughts become more morose as your stomach growls, you grow tired, and energy fades. In a way, you’re killing yourself in a form of self abasement, and essentially forcing others to be around you while hangry all the time. The idea that I kept any humor about me and didn’t let on to others what I was doing or why I was doing it is beyond me now.

Even as an atheist now who thinks it’s fine to tell people about your actions, not in the way of a braggart, but just as a means of sharing information about yourself with friends and family, my appetite has never gone back to the days when I could eat an entire five dollar hot-n-ready on my own in one sitting.

My stomach remains small, my appetite nonexistent, and can see a certain resentment in the eye of my date when I say I’d be happy with eating anything for dinner that night because truly, to have any food in front of you is a good day. People often ask how I stay so skinny and I respond, “Just starve yourself for a period of years, that’ll do the trick”, and they laugh.

This is the first year since my early 20s I decided to start fasting again. Not as a relationship builder with God, but simply to get back in the mindset. Again, I’m an atheist now, and don’t believe in the specifics of any religion, but what I can respect is the sentiment behind it. The test of the inner will, “Can I go 40 days without [thing], without cheating”?

My Grandma Gert smoked cigarettes for well over 70 years, and every Lent she dropped them for 40 days, cold turkey. I respected her testament to will power as a child, and still as an adult. I want to test once more if I’m as strong as my grandmother (I’m not).

To give something up and to take something on. That is the spirit I saw in Lent, and it is the spirit I try to keep with me, not just for the forty days preceding Easter, but for all the days I walk.