This article was originally published in The Catholic News Herald of the diocese of Charlotte
The Lord truly invited us to enter fully into the desert this Lent.
And perhaps it has been a consoling blessing that this crisis happened when it did, right as we entered into this penitential season. Hopefully it has been an opportunity to deepen our prayer lives, reflecting more fully on the Lenten fasts we had already chosen to adopt.
In modern rhetoric, fasting can refer to a variety of things. We can fast from social media, alcohol, technology, sweets, or even habits such as complaining or gossiping. Traditionally, however, a fast referred to the simple abstention of food. In his recently released book, “Eat, Fast, Feast: A Christian Guide to Fasting,” Jay W. Richards presents a wonderful guidebook to reclaiming the practice of Christian fasting. Backed by scientific studies and his own years of experience in nutrition and personal training, Richards’ book is filled with important information about how to safely and effectively fast from food, as well as how to do so for spiritual benefit.
I will often say that food is my primary “love language.” I enjoy cooking and eating, and I appreciate quality ingredients and a variety of flavors from different cuisines. When visitors come over to my house, my first instinct is to offer them something to eat or drink. If a friend or family member is stressed or going through a rough patch, I try to think of a meal or treat I could make or buy to cheer them up. One of the most calming activities in my life is to go grocery shopping, ideally when the stores are not very busy, and plan a fun, healthy and delicious meal, preferably to be shared with a loved one.
I love food, but I’ve also learned to recognize the many ways that it has taken on a disordered quality in our culture. Diet fads and eating disorders abound. Gluttony is on full display as we have entire television networks dedicated to food and cooking, even though many Americans dine out more often than not. We have turned the basic task of cooking and nourishing our bodies into an entertainment industry, which has changed our relationship to the food that we eat and our reasons for eating it.
I’ve spent many years now navigating my own relationship to food. I’ve read books on nutrition, habits, and the history of our biology and diet practices. However, through spiritual readings and reflections I have gained the greatest insights about my own attitude towards food and other material comforts. The practices of fasting and abstinence teach us that it is in God that we find our greatest solace, not in that piece of chocolate or glass of wine. These practices of self-denial can make us stronger in the fight against sin, as we learn the strength of our own will and the importance of our reliance on God. As St. John Paul II said in one of his Lenten messages, “Going without things is to free oneself from the slaveries of a civilization that is always urging people on to greater comfort and consumption.” Our true comfort and consolation can be found only in the Lord.
In his book, Richards also reminds us that our religion is one of feasts as well as fasts – Easter follows Lent, and the Easter season lasts just as long. God made us as bodies and souls together, and the nourishment of our bodies does not need to be purely utilitarian. We were created with the need to eat and drink, and with an appreciation of different flavors and tastes. God filled the earth with a great variety of plants and animals, and He gave us intellects and imaginations to make use of them. Christ Himself feasted and celebrated, such as at the wedding feast in Cana. The greatest miracle of His public ministry was the feeding of the multitudes. He broke bread and ate fish with His disciples after His Resurrection. And the most powerful and important sign of God’s love for us, of course, is how He feeds us with Himself in the Eucharist. God chose to use physical nourishment as a way of nourishing our souls, as well.
The nourishing of our bodies is a good and natural thing, and provides a mode of celebration and fellowship. Like all of God’s gifts, we must also make sure that we are still practicing virtues such as temperance, and not becoming slaves to our senses. Once we have learned to properly order our appetites and desires, we are then free to appreciate the goodness of God’s bounty.
G.K. Chesterton once said that “the proper form of thanks is some form of humility and restraint: we should thank God for beer and burgundy by not drinking too much of them.” Our Lenten fasts have taught us a greater reliance on God’s mercy and grace. As we enter into the feasting of this Easter season, let us seek a deeper gratitude and appreciation of God’s goodness and gifts.
And let us remember that the greatest food we will ever receive is the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.
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