Pioneer magazine

Feb 09: Fasting

Paul Andrews, S.J.

Like fish on Friday, fasting has changed its flavour over the years. Many would now look on fish as a special treat, not a penance. Likewise fasting can be an indulgence, even a dangerous indulgence, rather than a good work.

In itself it is neutral, and can be good or bad depending on the circumstances. Anybody who has been close to an anorexic knows that fasting can be dangerous. I remember 14-year-old Brid, a lovely girl to my eyes, but hideously obese to her own.

She would quietly bin the good lunch her mother prepared for school. Her teacher presumed she was eating well at home, and her mother presumed she was eating well at school. Meanwhile her periods went haywire, her energy dropped to nil, she grew depressed, and eventually had to be hospitalised, just in time to save her life. In her reluctance to grow up, she had fasted almost to the point of self-destruction. Thank God, today she is the handsome mother of three gorgeous children.

Fasting has changed because food has changed. In the Western world it is rare for anyone to die of starvation though plenty of people suffer from malnutrition – through eating too much fat, sugar or salt. As I write, the radio is reporting that two thirds of Irish people are overweight, and one quarter of those are obese. Food has changed its meaning, from being just an essential for survival to being a source of pleasure, temptation, and bargaining between children and their parents. May I give you a family story that illustrates this change of meaning.

My cousin, who lived in the rich state of California, adopted a two-year-old – call him Alex – who was born in Guatemala. He had been well nourished from birth, first on his mother’s milk, then on tortillas, cereals and fruit. His adoptive mother was intrigued to find that Alex ate when he was hungry, and stopped eating when he had had enough. For the first years of his life his eating was in tune with his body’s needs. By the time he was eight, he found that his Californian playmates were different. They were surrounded by foods and drinks designed to attract a child’s desire, and many children were using food as a weapon in struggles with their parents. They would turn up their noses at what mother offered, and looked for delicacies, which were often fattening and short on nourishment. By the age of twelve many of Alex’s peers were flabby or even obese, while he was lean and strong.

Fasting still has a place in Christian spirituality, but it is more complex than it used to be. We adults in the Western world are pulled in two directions. On the one side are the siren voices wheedling us to indulgence: the cookery TV shows, with the chef making delighted faces as he tastes his confection on a wooden spoon; the sweet-laden counters round the supermarket check-out, designed to catch the eyes of children with their mothers; the honey-voiced hucksters urging us to buy, indulge, have a go, you owe it to yourself, you’re worth it.

On the other side is our sanity, telling us to reduce our needs, to value our freedom, to avoid addiction; the part of us that knows: I can take it or leave it alone. We do not have to be thinking of the starving children of Africa, or of doing penance and mortifying ourselves. The aim of fasting is still valid for us: to maintain a mastery of ourselves, so that we are not at the mercy of our appetites. But we need to choose where our self-control is threatened. If we want fasting resolutions for Lent, they will be different for every family and each individual in the family.

For some, of course, the focus should be on fasting from alcohol. That need is what brought the Pioneers to birth; and the need is greater than ever. Google “Alcohol abuse in Ireland” on the Web and you will get the horrible statistics of its cost to the country in sickness, hospital care, deaths, broken marriages, crimes. You read that we, with Luxemburg, head the EU League for alcohol consumption. A study of seven countries found that Ireland has the highest level of binge drinkers, with 58% of all drinking sessions involving men ending up as binge sessions and 30% for women. The number of alcohol-related deaths continues to grow, from cancers, especially of mouth and liver; from chronic liver disease and cirrhosis, from alcohol poisoning, and suicide. Alcohol is estimated to be involved in 40% of road deaths and 37% of all drownings. The bad news goes on and on. What can we do about it?

We do not want to sit self-righteously on the side-lines tut-tutting about other people’s wickedness. It is not always the good spirit that moves us to moral indignation. We have to watch ourselves before we cast the first stone. Moreover we have dark spots in our own hearts, areas of gross self-indulgence, or resentment, or intemperance. We are not castigating sinners, as though we are not sinners ourselves. Rather we are keeping alive an awareness of a national problem, alcohol abuse, which is growing rather than diminishing, and which stains the reputation of Ireland among other nations. We are not pushing for prohibition, which never works. Alcohol is a blessed gift, which Jesus enjoyed as we do. But in Ireland we are not handling it properly.

The church’s call to fasting is really asking us to look at our relationship to food and drink. Jesus loved to eat with his friends. Meals were important for Him. For families too, meals are a time when children watch and listen to their parents and vice versa. But family meals are in danger of disappearing, what with fast food and the lure of TV, which is sometimes left on even when the family are eating together. For many families a good Lenten resolution would be to have meals together at least once a week, and expose themselves to the need for listening, sitting at peace, knowing how the rest of the family is, and going for slow rather than fast food.

Individuals who are over-weight might resolve to go easy on foods that are full of fat or salt or sugar. Those who are slimming to the point of anorexia might listen to those who love them, and resume a more normal diet. Whose who snack all through the day, grazing on crisps or bars or soft drinks, might see if they could confine their eating to mealtimes. It is only when we try to change our habits that we discover how free or how shackled we are.

There was a time when church laws about fasting spelled out in detail the size and weight of what was allowed at main meals or snacks (collations as they were called). In our culture that makes no sense. Fasting for us means aiming to keep our personal freedom in face of ingrained habits, which may be habits of eating too much, or too little, or the wrong sort of food or drink. Plenty of room for resolutions still, but remember, a resolution becomes real not when we make it or write it down, but when we first put it into practice.