Take not food until you are hungry
The Rule of Columba
Elitism is a destructive force and I am mindful of it as I write on fasting. The early British monk and historian St Gildas writing in the early 6th century was openly critical of what he saw as elitist monks who spent more time fasting than working and in doing so had made fasting and aestheticism an idol, rather than a practice through which to draw close to God.
Yet fasting has never been optional extra for those that follow Christ, it is clearly an expectation,
‘When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full‘ (Matthew vi, 15).
As my exploration of Columban spirituality has developed, I have been mindful and challenged by the simply put ‘take not food until you are hungry‘. Although not an explicit reference to fasting, it is pertinent challenge to the overweight consumption of our fast food culture. A direct addressing of our relationship with food of which every living creature naturally has a vested interest in. For many in the monastic churches of Britain and Ireland, food was taken only as required.
“When the stomach is full, it is easy to talk of fasting” St Jerome (340?-420)
Equally it has begun to sensitize me to the issue of appetite and the role food plays in suppressing and controlling the development of personality and culture. If I agree with the basic supposition that my life is dysfunctional, my character out of alignment with Gods, then I, like others am faced with stark choices as to how to respond. Food has become, I would suggest, more than meal, a shared table of hospitality, a means by which we are able to demonstrate Gods compassion for the hungry, or our daily link to the health and inherent goodness and provision of creation. The cult of food and the fulfilling of immediate appetites has become a curse to great to bear for the west, as the obesity epidemic gripping our societies indicates, as the food miles of the supermarkets cripples the environment and impoverishes poor farmers through unfair terms of trade on supply contracts and commodity exchanges. The unequal distribution of food and the millions globally malnourished as a result, is the disgrace of our scandalous selfishness that we seemingly wear with pride as we tuck into a 99 cent plastic burger in the name of ‘good value’. Are the golden arches the gateway to spiritual oblivion? These external manifestations of greed linked to appetite only exist because the internal world of the souls goodness, mingled with the grace of God has become polluted and the self substitutes this with an idol; in our case a wrong relationship with food.
As I prepare for what has become for me an annual fast leading up to the celebration of the Celtic Easter date of 15 April, one of my aims this year will be to explore fasting in a more proactive intentional way of calling out the ‘Monastic Churches of Britain and Ireland’ (as I will blog separately on this over the next few weeks of Lent I won’t explore this further in this post) This may sound counter-intuitive given that fasting is an intentional activity by definition, but I do believe for many fasting, especially in the protestant tradition has become something we do, a bit like a sanctified diet, if at all, and to a minimal impact. I hear of television fasts, chocolate fasts, my favorite computer game, Indian take away (one my wife consistently encourages). My fasting becomes the removal of a small part of the edge of my lifestyle, which may act as a reminder of Christ, but will not radically alter that trajectory of my lifestyle that may in turn move the very ground on which my relationship with God is built.
Another aspect of fasting, alongside the external political implications it can have on publicly standing against over consumption, is that it actively addresses the internal imbalance and our over reliance on sustenance that does not reflect the incarnation of God. It is only in Christ that the moral paradox of the incarnation of God as a poor man born into poverty and simplicity whom we are called to imitate, as opposed to what Julius Nyerere the first President of Tanzania once said in regards to the plight of his nation, ‘that God created humanity in his own image. I refuse to believe in a God who is poor, starving and illiterate’ can be reconciled. Fasting therefore catapults us towards being rooted in a symbolic re-imagining and imitation of the life of Christ. That life rooted in truth and the search for veracity in the earth and dust of my life.
I know Jesus fasted, and I am always drawn to the relationship between fasting and the desert. The desert a place of being alone with self, stripped of all props that crowd our life and distract us from our core being. The desert a silent place where only the cries of wildlife act as partners in our prayers. The desert a place were you are alone to battle the demons of your own self and the phantoms of your own perverted appetites. Fasting and the desert are Gods chosen partners in stripping us down to bare essentials and testing our resolve to put God before everything.
My personal practice, and one I have been developing since 2008, is to eat one meal a day after sundown. As I have repeated this each year I have built in new facets, like no alcohol, no take away food, or eating out. Each year growing in confidence that I can take another step in exploring the benefits of fasting. Last year I made the fatal mistake of externalising my fast to include greater levels of transparency and honesty in the gold trade. By the end of this fast the Christian company I was working with had defaulted on a project in Sierra Leone, been exposed as deceitful in intent, spiritually manipulative in saying because this was in the name of the Kingdom it was ok not to pay bills and left my household without an income for most of the year. This month I discover they have gone down for $2.8 million, leaving thousands without hope in the DRC and elsewhere in Africa. God honoured my fast last year, and I was totally unprepared for the consequences. A salient lesson in be careful what you ask for.
Fasting I have found creates the space both internally and externally for God to move more freely. It creates an environment of light in our lives that reveals the content of who we are and what surrounds us and hopefully will move us in such a way that as we emerge on the other side, we are more conscious of our need of grace so we may not only dream of truth, but may find the will to live with it.