On Learning the Fast


Content warning: This piece discusses disordered eating.

It’s Ash Wednesday, early and cold. I’m locking my bike outside the Duke Chapel, catching my breath through my mask, rubbing the feeling back into my fingers. I’m here to lead worship at this morning’s service. Today, I’m fasting, though it’s not a choice I’ve come to without some real thought.

I get anxious as Lent approaches each year, and it’s because of Lenten diets. Most Christians I know, imitating Christ’s temptation in the wilderness, dispense for this season with a vice—red meat, desserts, alcohol, caffeine. These fasts are admirable, even if sometimes accompanied by joking wishes to shed a couple pounds. They’re also a minefield for people who, like me, have survived eating disorders.

As an unhappy teenager with a mile-wide perfectionistic streak, I became anorexic. It was about control, I think, and self-loathing. If I constrained myself to tiny portions of edamame and chopped vegetables, faithfully logging caloric allotments on my phone, I could fix myself, become faultless through my vanishing. Of course, I also wanted physical beauty, to inscribe myself with thinness: that mythic power bound up with interpersonal, medical, and systemic violence against fat people.

My illness made me a crueler person, constantly snappish and shivering. I fixated on my next meal and the width of my wrists. I was always tired. I wasn’t a Christian yet and so hadn’t learned that I could call what I was experiencing by another name: idolatry. For I really did believe that if I stayed “good” enough (hungry enough), I’d be in control. I’d save myself.

Why am I writing to you about this? Well, there’s a few reasons. First, let’s be honest—on a campus as competitive and appearance-obsessed as ours, everyone knows someone whose relationship to food is unhealthy. If you’re that person, reading this, please know it is brave and good to seek whatever help you need. God wants you to flourish.

Second, given our culture’s fixation on dieting and my own experience with self-destructive fasting, I want to use this terrain to explore how we might fast to honor the God who calls human bodies good, blessed (Genesis 1:28). The Bible is vocal in many passages about the holiness of fasting when offered as worship, but lately I’ve felt especially drawn to these verses from Isaiah:

Is not this the fast that I choose:

             to loose the bonds of injustice,

             to undo the thongs of the yoke,

to let the oppressed go free,

             and to break every yoke?

   Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,

           and bring the homeless poor into your house;

   when you see the naked, to cover them,

             and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,

             and your healing shall spring up quickly;

   your vindicator shall go before you,

           the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. (Isaiah 58:6-8 NRSV)

These lines reveal that fasting is fundamentally about community. Fasting (from a specific food, on holy days, or whatever other practice we’ve chosen) should guide us not towards an unattainable beauty standard or the illusion of control, but back to each other and to God. If fasting does not make us more generous, more hospitable, more radical in our distribution of resources and love, perhaps it’s become an idol to us.

This passage also illustrates the breadth of Lenten disciplines acceptable to God. In place of or alongside our fasting, we can commit to greater solidarity with people at the margins of our society: learning the names and stories of homeless people who live near us, giving our money to those in need, writing letters to and visiting people in prison. When we learn to do well on less for others’ sake, we participate in the divine economy, which argues against the precepts of this age that we can care for our neighbor and have enough, through God’s mercy.

Which brings me back to Ash Wednesday, the day we remember that, like the sticks under our feet, we die and fall back to the earth, the stuff of these mortal bodies nourishing the life after us. This year, my Lenten practice is to fast from social media on Sundays, to read Scripture and theology with greater intention, and to fast today and on Good Friday. I’ve made this latter choice because my relationship with food has grown comfortable by now, but I still don’t think anyone recovering from an eating disorder should fast.

Holy fasting is a sweeter hunger. Today, as I sit, legs folded, in the pews, my mind wanders where it will, thinking of work, worries, maybe even the idea of writing this to you. That’s the thing about minds, or mine, at least: I forget, in the snap of my synapses, what a rare and miraculous thing it is to be embodied. I forget that my life tosses like a leaf on the wind, and it’s wonderful to give it into God’s hands. But my fasting body remembers, feeling its own frailty and lack. I feel a hunger pang, and then I’m in the moment again, jewel light tumbling through the chapel windows, my tenuous, beautiful body praying for me.

This piece is a part of a syndicated series in collaboration with Yale Logos for Lent 2021. Read more at: https://www.yalelogos.com/lent-2021.

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