What I Learned From a Year of Fasting
“God, thank you for the nourishment you provide when no food is available...”
On Ash Wednesday, March 6, 2019, I began a fasting process in which once a week, I would fast from all but water from one meal on a particular day to the same the meal the next day. This culminated with a 60-hour fast from the evening of Holy Thursday to Easter morning of this year. I had previously done 24-36 hour fasts, but had never sustained it weekly longer than a couple of months. The decision to do this wasn’t in response to any significant event in my life or in search for any particular insight or grace; it just seemed to be what God was asking of me. Little did I know that it would turn out to be the busiest year of my life.
Yet no matter what was occurring, each week I found myself coming back to a simple prayer that began and ended most fasts. “God, thank you for the nourishment you provide when no food is available, and thank you for the food you provide that nourishes me.” Simple in words and time, it became the sentence that distinctly marked the beginning and end of roughly 60 days without food.
Below are a few entries from my fasting journal that highlighted messages that kept reoccurring, ones that seemed to embody what I was to learn from this particular pursuit. The last entry details a personal story and the honest, humbling admission that it brought to me.
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The blessing of food is easily overwhelmed by the necessity of it. Although all of us have the potential to use food as an unhealthy therapy agent and a substitute for God, it goes without saying (but is worth reminding) that the gift of food is so much more than a caloried commodity designed to fill a physical void (although my late father-in-law might have argued otherwise). Food and drink comes to us in moments of celebration, in moments of joy, in moments of uncertainty, in moments of contemplation, and in moments of downright despair. From the beginning of time, the consumption that mysteriously provides for all the systems of our body and mind also fills our soul. To say it is the lifeblood of the people is even an understatement [in and] of itself. It is one of the few humanly things that is both absolutely necessary and abundantly pleasurable, and yet I show little regard for this marvelous duality until I voluntarily remove myself from what it offers.
And yet, as my fasting ushers in a celebration of all that food is, it also beckons for an even more important admonition. There is nothing wrong with seeking out food or other healthy pleasures in the moments where instant positivity is desired. But it is the dependence on this, and the independence from Him during these times that I would argue is making this fasting so necessary for me. I can rationalize that God’s gift provides a reflection of Him, and upon this I can stand on rather firm ground. But I cannot argue that it is a substitute of equal proportion nor of the same potential. For if in those moments of grumbling, my needs increasingly seek Him first without feeling as if I have given up some instantaneous delight, then I come to realize that what I really seek is the relationship that food cannot provide, but what is the Living Bread. I hope that I am fortunate to live a life where good food is always available, especially when it fills and feels the best. But even more, I hope it remains a luxurious gift that does not supersede the love He can provide.
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One [lesson of fasting] involves an inherent challenge easily lost in the obligation that has been undertaken. Beneath the penitential sacrifice, beneath the desire to see what lies beyond the ready pleasures of a typical day, arises a challenge put forth that seems rather divine, but [is] very simple in nature. The challenge I keep hearing is not if I am able to sustain this commitment to the year of fasting, but rather if I am able to be joyful in the process of doing it. Just as Jesus said do not be like the Pharisees who publicly moan during their religious sacrifices, I find myself personally challenged to consider not just where I will find a ready source of pleasure when the food is gone, but even more importantly, just how I will retain a sense of great joy while the fasting is occurring. Discipline is the heart of our faith, but discipline without joy seems to be missing the point. And so, this challenge grows even as my appetite increases.
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It had been a quite a week, or more. The previous week, just an hour or so after Memorial Day began, our beloved Grandpa Schroeder passed away at the age of 86. As a naval veteran of the Korean War, we thought it only fitting that he “hung on” until this day after a number of scares prior that could have easily led to his [earlier] demise. But as with his life, he had persisted as long as his body would seem to allow. He had lived a remarkable life, and part of what made it so was the simplicity by which he went about his days. As I noted in my eulogy to him, among lessons of love, commitment, loyalty, and grit, he taught me 2 things: life is fun and life is hard, and neither exist in isolation of the other. As the oldest grandchild, I had 40 plus years of meaningful experiences with him that left me and our family with an incredible legacy of love. We said goodbye on June 5th as he was buried with military honors at St. Joseph Cemetery, just barely a mile or so from where he and my Grandma lived most of their 66 years together.
This morning, as my fast began, I found myself thinking much about him and his fellow comrades. It was the 75th anniversary of D-Day and throughout this world, people celebrated the incredible sacrifice made by so many young men in preserving the freedom of this country and other parts of the world. Ever since Grandpa had passed, I could not help but think about the sharp contrast between the world with which I was raised and that of which he was. When he and his brothers joined the Navy barely out of high school, they did so with no assurance of where it would take them. Growing up in a working poor household, they had learned that each meal required hard work, and the only guarantee was that in order to survive, this work must continue. Eighty years later, my kids have no idea what this means.
As my fast continued, I found myself reading pieces of an article about Ernie Pyle, the famed WWII correspondent who first really gave an honest account of the horrors of this war to end all wars. With a firsthand view of D-Day, he spoke of walking the beaches after the invasion had occurred in which the carnage of war was on full display. As waves and waves of men came ashore, many of which never even made it to land, the bravery on display was only overwhelmed by its sheer brutality. In seeing pictures of these men as they prepared to enter into the jaws of death, I could not help but see myself in them. Varied faces of varied experiences all catapulted into the teeth of this giant conflict; I wondered just what I would have done. Even if I had survived, what would I have done with the horror of that day for the years and decades to come? The pridefulness inside of me likes to have said that I would have carried on strongly; the truth is that I am just thankful I don’t have even know; the cowardice in me says that it scares me to even consider being where these men went to be.