The trouble with fasting
Deacon Greg Kandra writes that getting the most out of Lent means selfless giving . . .
by Deacon Greg Kandra
I was doing perfectly fine, sitting at the diner, scanning the menu and steadfastly determined to have a tuna melt for lunch … until someone at the table next to me made a fateful decision.
They ordered a cheeseburger. It was all downhill from there. It arrived at the table, oozing melted cheese, heaped with French fries, the air fragrant with the faint aroma of just-broiled bacon. My salivary glands kicked into overdrive and before I could stop them, my lips were forming the words: “I’ll have the burger deluxe.”
Several minutes later, swabbing the ketchup from the plate with the last French fry, I heaved a deep sigh. I found myself once again back at square one, trying to maintain my Lenten fast.
Year after year, as the winter chill lingers and we wait expectantly for Easter, I am forced, like so many people, to confront my own weaknesses. Lent, I’ve discovered, is a period not only to pray and do penance; it’s also a time to look more deeply at my faults and consider more seriously the temptations that could be as close as the corner deli.
We realize during Lent that we are flesh and blood. The season begins with smears of ash, a foreshadowing of what we will become and a reminder of what we are. We are dust. We are human. We have weaknesses, urges, desires. During the Lenten fast we realize, too, how easily we can succumb — how spoiled we are by a culture that manages to deliver decadence to our door (OK, maybe it’s just a big sausage pizza).
Of course, in 2014, skipping meat on Friday isn’t the hardship it once was. What can really be challenging is giving up entirely a meal or two for a day — or maybe even going without any meal at all. My wife, already in the express lane to sainthood for enduring the man she’s married to, strives to eat only bread and water on Lenten Fridays. I marvel at her discipline and her ability to remain cheerful in a world without donuts. I’m not there yet.
But I have come to understand this much: Lent is about more than doing without. It is also about going within — looking more deeply at who we are, what we need. I think part of our Lenten experience should be not only spending time going hungry, but also confronting, in a stark and honest way, what feeds us — in every sense. What do we feel we can’t do without? What do we crave?
Beyond a Big Mac, do we yearn for something more elusive? Do we want flattery? Ego-stroking? Attention? Try giving that up for Lent. You may feel pangs you never knew before.
Sometimes the most difficult fast can be not giving up food, but giving up power or gratification. Try it sometime.
Do something wonderful for someone else, and don’t claim any credit. Pick up the check of a stranger at the restaurant, or send flowers to a lonely friend, anonymously. Donate to a cause, or give to a shelter, or toss more money into the collection basket on Sunday — but do it in secret. Your Father, who sees in secret, will know. And that will be more than enough.
I preach this message from the pulpit every year on Ash Wednesday: The first part of “giving up” is “giving.” During Lent we all need to try to fast from taking and make a practice of giving. Give time. Give money. Give attention. Give the gift of your presence to someone who is alone, or anxious, or sick, or frightened. Give kindness to someone you can’t stand. Give patience when you’d rather give petulance. Give quiet when you’d rather give an argument. Give peace when you’d rather give someone grief. But whatever you do, give.
That doesn’t mean we should skip fasting from food altogether or that living without meat or desserts or your favorite mocha latte will be any easier during these 40 days of Lent. But when we look beyond ourselves and our own hungers, we see more clearly the very real and tangible hungers of others — and what we can do to ease them.
That takes us to the core of our Lenten observance, straight to the heart of Christian love. If we think of fasting that way, the experience of Lent can be transformative.
You may end up giving up more than you expected — and receiving more than you ever anticipated. It can be a source of renewal, a moment of grace. And that will feed you in ways no hamburger ever could.
DEACON GREG KANDRA serves the Diocese of Brooklyn, N.Y. He is the multimedia editor of Catholic Near East Welfare Association (CNEWA) and creator of the popular blog “The Deacon’s Bench” at Patheos.com.