I recently undertook an ascetic fasting practice for my memoir Flunking Sainthood. For the month of February in 2009, I fasted as if it were Ramadan for 28 days, waking up before dawn to eat breakfast, and counting the minutes before sundown when I would eat everything in sight. I wouldn’t say it was a lot of fun, and in the book I recount some of the challenges and lessons I learned. (Lesson 1: Eat eggs for breakfast. Those Atkins diet folks are really on to something about protein staving off hunger.)
As a Mormon, it’s not like I was a stranger to fasting. However, I was never one of those hyper-ascetic fast warriors who lived for the first Sunday of the month, when Mormons fast around the world. Before the Ramadan experiment I often hated fasting. Maybe this describes you too. I know plenty of people who, when they are honest with themselves, admit they do not like to fast. One woman I knew found fasting so difficult that she joked that she continued having one child after the other like stairsteps so she could legitimately avoid fasting for years on end.
This month I'm revisiting fasting as a spiritual practice, as I spend a month each year in 2012 going through the various disciplines I attempted three years ago for the book. So I've been reflecting on my history with fasting. When I converted to Mormonism in 1993 I had never fasted before. I gamely tried it for a couple of years and found it very difficult and taxing—so taxing, in fact, that I quietly found excuses not to fast for several years thereafter. I had terrible headaches that prevented me from fasting; I also got mean and turned into a monster when fasted. (Brigham Young once memorably belittled those of us who skip fasting because of headaches: “If it makes my head ache to keep the commandments of God, let it ache!” Typical Brigham. Thanks, bro.)
It wasn’t until I was called to teach Gospel Doctrine in my old ward that I thought I should buck up and start taking fasting more seriously. I started with just one meal, fasting through breakfast and then eating a decent lunch when I came home from church. I found I didn’t get a headache from skipping just one meal, so I started doing this twice a month and it worked wonderfully for a time. I felt I was getting at least some of the spiritual benefits of fasting without having it be so depleting.
But one thing Mormons miss entirely and don't talk about is all the other kinds of fasts that people of faith can and do engage in. Maybe people who have an extremely difficult time fasting from all food and water, or who are exempt because of pregnancy or infirmity, can try fasting from other things. I know one woman who, as a nursing mom, is not in a position to fast from food. Rather than simply giving herself a pass from the obligation, she challenges herself to avoid social media entirely on Fast Sunday. (She is addicted to Facebook and knows that it takes her away from her family, and from God, on Sundays.) A guy I know who takes medication that requires eating regular meals just makes sure that when he fasts, those "meals" are incredibly simple--no meat, no sugar, no dairy. The small portions of bread, water, and vegetables he eats sustain his health but also remind him of the spiritual benefits of fasting.
In her book Joy Together (forthcoming this fall), Presbyterian minister Lynne Baab defines fasting in this way:
Christian fasting is the voluntary denial of something for a specific time, for a spiritual purpose, by an individual, family, community, or nation.
If done prayerfully, all kinds of fasts can be fruitful: Fasting from television (one of this year's Lenten sacrifices for me -- tune in next week). Fasting from criticism or complaining. Fasting from shopping (which Mormons do anyway on Sundays). The key is fasting from something we love, something that might remove us from focusing on God and neighbor. Any one can do that, even me.
This post was adapted from a piece I wrote for the Winter 2011 issue of Exponent II. Photo courtesy of FreeFoto.com.