Fasting, Civilization Collapse and the Holy Eucharist

What is civilization without the Eucharist? The answer is all around us, and it is a terrible thing to see.

‘How the Eucharist Can Save Civilization’ by R. Jared Staudt
‘How the Eucharist Can Save Civilization’ by R. Jared Staudt (photo: TAN Books)

When it’s time for fasting, food is removed from your lips — but it seems like it gets placed on your mind. When fasting, I think about food more. The pangs in my body remind me of it. My natural desire for the pleasure of food is aroused during the denial. My nursing wife and kids — who are not fasting — make me think of eating when they’re testing out new seasoning on the ground portion of our freshly slaughtered pig, served with grits and eggs and fresh milk from the farm. My nose and mind enjoy it, but not my mouth.

Sometimes we seem to be overthinking fasting, perhaps in a way distracting from its simple fruitfulness, with all of the calculations about what a fast is. Less-than-half-times-two plus one whole meal equals fasting, or something like that. One friend of mine said that sort of thing makes fasting a constant “mind game” and not a spiritual practice. I’m sure there are good reasons for all of that talk, and I know it comes from competent authority, but there is value in the simple, universal and obvious meaning of fasting: not eating.

Fasting isn’t just on the Christian’s mind this lent — there appears to be a resurgence of interest in fasting in the health world. I’ve been to no less than four gatherings recently where someone was talking about intermittent fasting, a means of losing weight and putting your body in “ketosis,” which I’ve gathered means burning fat instead of storing it for later. I’ve been told fasting rejuvenates the senses, hormones and so on. This may be helpful for Catholics because it shows that the spiritual practice can be “backed up” by the biological benefit. But perhaps we should be less surprised that our spiritual and physical natures can be mutually benefiting. And, we should also be wary of a zeal for fasting inspired more by the physical side effect than the spiritual necessity.

R. Jared Staudt’s new book, How the Eucharist Can Save Civilization, has a beautiful and challenging reminder about why we fast, specifically in the relationship between the fall of man and the gift of the Eucharist. Fasting deserves reflection, because it could be argued that fasting is silly, because God created our bodies and created food and in order to live, we must eat. If bodies, food and eating are good — why would we not eat? The reason for fasting lies not firstly in its physical benefits, as good as they may be, but in the reordering of life that was brought into disorder by man. Specifically, sin entered the world through eating, and this gives us profound insights on why God gave us a life-giving sacrament that, to fully receive its graces, must be eaten. And why, before we receive that sacred gift, we must fast:

This act of disobedience [Adam and Eve eating from the forbidden tree] flips the universe upside down. The command to abstain from eating the fruit signifies the need to put God before the gift of His creation. Adam and Eve, however, subordinated God to a physical object, desired for its outward delight and the appeal of gaining knowledge. God, however, is the one to bestow wisdom, just as He provides fruit of the earth; it cannot be grasped but must be accepted at the proper time.

Fasting isn’t just a subjection of our sense pleasures to our reason, though it is that. Fasting also isn’t just a benefit to our overall physical health, though it is that. Fasting, first and foremost, is a reordering of our world toward God, because by food was disorder first tasted.

If this seems exaggerated, Staudt shows throughout the book how eating itself forms one of the primary foundations of human culture itself. One of the most basic purposes of our work, the thing that occupies most of our days, is to “put food on the table,” as we say. Yes, we can sin by food, but we can also celebrate and commune with it. It is an often an unrecognized component and communicator of life. What is a birthday celebration without a cake? What is a baseball game without a hotdog?

According to Staudt, perhaps we could ask the other question, what is civilization without the Eucharist? The answer is all around us, and it is a terrible thing to see. I am with Staudt in his observation of the Benedictines — an observation proposed by the writing and very name of Pope Benedict XVI — that the sons and brothers of St. Benedict of Nursia did the right thing to “answer” a darkening civilization. What did they do? They worshiped God. They treasured, lived, adored and stayed close to the Eucharist. The byproduct, if you will, of their life was the renewal and birth of a truly Christian culture.

I recently sat through a talk on economics in which one of the panelists asked, “In an emergency situation, what is the first thing you should concern yourself with securing?”

As a farmer and father, I answered, “Food.”

“No,” he said, “it is the sacraments.”

He’s right. It may be natural and necessary to secure food, but what good is it if I gain a whole storehouse of it and lose my soul? The soul must be first, which means God must be first in all things — even civilization collapse and emergencies. To do that, there’s good reason to deny our flesh, even if the new sausage seasoning is as good as it smells.