Fasting is More than Just a Holy Diet
How the spiritual discipline connects the body and soul to God.
I love food. I love touching it, smelling it and particularly, eating it. I often wish I needed to eat more often than three times a day. I love baking bread and the way dishtowels keep their yeasty smell even after washing. I love to feel dough get smooth as a baby’s skin as I knead it. And drinks: I love brewing spiced, milky chai or thick, dark coffee in the little silver pot from Germany and foaming sweetened milk until it tastes like liquid clouds.
I’ve studied biology and photosynthesis, and I know that plants live on light and water that soaks through the soil. It makes them independent. They’re producers. We’re consumers. If all the plants died, almost every other thing alive would starve. If we died, the plants would go on living off the sun, unfazed.
Fasting is like photosynthesis. You live on sun and rain. You drink water, and if it’s not warm outside, you’re drawn to every source of heat. But unlike photosynthesis, fasting will never make you independent; it’s not meant to. The point is not to prove how little we need, but how much—and how deeply.
The first time I fasted regularly was my sophomore year in college. I’d been reading about fasting, and the pastor of a church in town encouraged us to try it. So I did, one day a week. Nothing terrible happened. I didn’t faint or flunk any tests from lack of concentration. Nothing terribly wonderful happened either, but from the books I had been reading, I knew that was fairly normal. Fasting lets God change you, and change doesn’t always happen in fireworks with trumpet fanfares. Also, fasting is a way of connecting yourself to the spiritual world. The things that happen in the part of our world that’s not made up of flesh and bone aren’t always immediately visible.
My one-day-a-week fast happened on Mondays. Sunday I went to bed with an impending sense of doom. I don’t know what I dreaded, but it seemed to come back every week nonetheless. So I was surprised that when I decided to fast for a week or maybe more, I actually starting looking forward to it. It felt like an adventure; I couldn’t wait to start.
The books all said the first three days are the hardest. It was a Monday, and it felt a lot like normal Mondays—with a little extra adrenaline from knowing I probably wouldn’t eat for at least six days more. On Tuesday, I wasn’t hungry exactly; there was more of a dull ache in my stomach, and I felt a little weak. My heart seemed to beat faster from less exertion than it normally would. On Thursday, I had the same weak feeling and light flu symptoms, as the books had promised (author Richard Foster said the flu symptoms were my body getting rid of toxins). In the afternoon, I had a burst of energy. Friday was a lot like Thursday, but in the evening I had enough energy to go sledding. Climbing the hills took a while longer than normal, and in spite of my six layers, I only held out for an hour or so.
Things came into very sharp focus. Every step took concentration. When I climbed the stairs in the library with a backpack of books, I had no mental energy to waste on anything other than lifting the next foot. Putting it down. Sitting down was a gift, so was the pointed lace of winter trees. The smell of food, strangely, was not torture at all. Instead, I began to savor each aroma for its own sake. It was as though my very existence had been altered, and I was now some see-through creature, living on whiffs of goodness.
But at the same time, I was very aware that I was not a plant or some fairytale creature, independent of physical food. When I tried to read, I got sleepy more quickly. My tongue felt dry all the time, and I was constantly running (that is, walking slowly) to the bathroom from drinking water, even though water had taken a nasty taste. Every part of life seemed to weigh more. By the end of each day I crawled into my bed totally exhausted and used up. I was overwhelmed with gratitude that I had made it through the day and that now I could lie still for an entire night.
The books said that after the ninth and 10th days, fasting starts to feel like soaring. Hunger, flu and aches are gone, and you feel as though you could go on without food forever. Sometime after the 10th day, Foster said, real hunger will return; this is the time to stop fasting.
I have a German friend whose mother fasts once a year, not for spiritual reasons, but because she likes what it does to her body; she enjoys the experience. And in the instant you break your fast, it will certainly seem that your first sip of something other than water was worth the whole experience. Once I broke a fast drinking watered-down white grape juice from a tall, narrow blue glass with white spirals. I started out with more water than grape juice; still it tasted like a stronger drink than anything I’d ever had before, like something divine, not meant for mortals.
Fasting and prayer are often mentioned together in the Bible. Prayer takes on new meaning when you’re weak enough that you sometimes feel the wind might blow you over. It is a physical manifestation of a spiritual reality: We are husks of nothingness without God.
While I was fasting, the lines between spiritual and physical realities blurred. The Hebrew word that’s translated “soul” in the Old Testament actually means “breath.” The ancient Israelites didn’t have the distinction between mind and matter (or spirit and body) that we do today. We got that from Greek philosophy.
We run into problems when we make the soul all-important and the body totally insignificant. When we forget that our bodies matter, we live lopsided lives. We forget to rest. We forget that our very cells are holy and that the clearest word God’s ever spoken came to us as a body with red blood and breakable bones. The spiritual intersects profoundly with the physical.
Our souls are all tangled up in our bodies, and when I fast, I know this. I become more aware of each small physical thing and each small spiritual thing, and that they are not so separate as I once believed.
This article originally appeared in the Sept/Oct issue of RELEVANT.