[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, and allowing a second chance for those who missed them the first time, I reprint them here, with permission. The following was originally printed in The Forum newspaper, on March 8, 2014.]
Faith Conversations: Faith fasts generate ambivalence, receptivity
By Roxane B. Salonen
MOORHEAD – Several weeks before the start of Lent this year, Travis Woyen began salivating at the sight of a fish recipe on Facebook.
“I’m a sucker for fish,” he wrote. “I’ll admit that part of the reason I look forward to Lent each year is for the fish specials.”
Woyen, a Lutheran, didn’t grow up fasting for spiritual purposes, but says over time he has gradually entered into fasting and abstaining from meat.
The fish deals around town make it fairly easy. “It’s like buying hams after Christmas – it’s all on special and you can find it everywhere,” he quips. “Living 1,500 miles from the most convenient ocean, that’s certainly a benefit.”
Woyen, who sees both the light and deep of this season, says he does feel a bit torn by the different messages sent out this time of year.
“You’re entering a 40-day period of intense reflection and reasonably priced seafood, and it seems kind of wrong that there’s an upside to it,” he says.
The positives can include breaking out of ruts and becoming more self-disciplined. “The notion of stepping back from a lot of things is something we pretty much need as human beings to reestablish some sense of balance.”
And with the mental and physical benefits, the spiritual follows, he notes. “You do something to one, it affects the others.”
Greg Jeffery, Fargo, is a lifelong Catholic who approaches fasting during Lent as one with arachnophobia does a spider.
“The thought of fasting is not an attractive one in any way, shape or form to me,” he says. “I would rather run a mile than fast for a day.”
Jeffrey says he has no problem doing other spiritual exercises, like focusing on personal prayer, practicing devotions or giving extra time to a charity.
“There’s just something about fasting that I don’t like, to speak very candidly,” he says.
But he admits his resistance to fasting is likely telling him that it’s exactly what he needs.
“It does seem that the cross you don’t want to embrace is typically the one that is going to be the key to unlocking a greater freedom from sin,” Jeffrey says.
He adds that since fasting is mentioned numerous times in the Bible, there must be something constructive about it.
“It requires discipline, and we alone have control over whether we put something in our mouths or not.”
And since discipline is the grounding presumption of the acquisition of virtue – a persistent habit in favor of the good – Jeffrey notes, fasting can be a way to develop self-control over all kinds of vices, including common hang-ups like impatience or gossiping.
Though tempted to shirk the whole thing, instead he tries to follow the advice of a mentor, who once told him, “Don’t do what you can’t do; do what you can.”
“If you’re having a hard time getting started with fasting, just offer it up to the Lord,” he says. “Don’t try to lift 300 pounds when you haven’t yet bench-pressed 100.”
Val Wagner of Monango, N.D., a Presbyterian, has an altogether different perspective of spiritual fasting based on feeding challenges surrounding her 4-year-old son, Eli, who was born with the inability to process many proteins.
In response to what she views as trendy, faith-based diets, she wrote a post on her blog, Wag’n Tales, “Glorifying God doesn’t require a diet.”
In the post, Wagner said she recently read an article in which someone claimed to give up meat as a way to be closer to God, and that the hardship was worth it because of what Jesus gave up for our souls.
She wondered what that implies for her son, since he has no choice in his diet.
“Does that mean he’s destined for a life of being unable to show his gratitude?” she wrote. “If he finds himself really wishing he could enjoy ‘forbidden foods,’ does that make him less worthy than the others?”
Todd Ferguson, a local naturopathic doctor, has considered fasting from various perspectives.
“There’s a long history of fasting for both religious and medicinal purposes, from as far back as you could contract things,” he says.
Fasting for medical reasons, particularly water-only fasts, has been known to help the body’s immune system during infection, and migraine headaches can be alleviated when certain foods are eliminated, he notes, naming just a few benefits.
But fasting beyond five days, or when done with a patient suffering from a serious disease like cancer or heart disease, should be guided by a physician.
Some should avoid fasting altogether, including pregnant or lactating women and anyone who has struggled with an eating disorder. “If they have a confused relationship with food already, you don’t want to sweep them further into that pattern.”
In the right circumstances, however, fasting can be helpful, Ferguson says. From a medical standpoint, it can heighten appreciation for food and help us rethink appropriate amounts for our body’s proper functioning, while spiritually it can refocus our reliance and trust in God as well as on the needs of others.
“We tend to get caught up in the drama of everyday life,” he notes, “but in fasting, a lot of things seem simpler in terms of meeting your basic needs, and it exposes a vulnerability that we often have to ignore to get through life.”
There will always be those who do it for the wrong reasons, he adds. “We all have our pride that we have to come to terms with. But fasting is a good remedy for pride. It makes you quickly realize you’re weak and in need.”
Despite its pluses, he says, fasting can be difficult to pull off, particularly for our society.
“We’re not really good at sacrifice and putting ourselves in those situations,” he says. “But when your goals are grander than temporary pleasure it gives a different perspective. If I’m thinking of something beyond this life or this moment, there’s a lot to be said about fasting, because it can connect me to something deeper and greater.”