Today many Christians observe Ash Wednesday. I do too, in my Christian-adjacent way. It is the beginning of Lent, a season to be marked by fasting, alms-giving, and prayer. It is the season of metanoia, or “turning back.” That turning is toward what is most important, toward God-as-you-understand-God, toward one’s own Divine Wisdom. Not just our own superficially good judgment, but deep, deep Divine Wisdom.
Lent is sort of like one long retreat for me. Or it can be. With its invitation to a renewed commitment to prayer, it is a deepening time. It can be a time of insight or emptiness—or both, I suppose. It can be a time of spiritual nourishment, a feast, if you will, in a time of fasting.
And speaking of fasting, boy howdy, does it get a bad rap in both Pagan and UU circles!
In my book, though, fasting is a complex and often useful tool in the spiritual box. For one thing, Lenten fasting in particular connects those who have with those who don’t. What is it like to be hungry? Do we even know? Have we even experienced hunger, for real? For even one whole day?
Some of us certainly have. Yes, I was so broke at one point in my life I lived on Ramen, Coke, and hard pretzels. But that’s not the same thing as growing up hungry. Fasting, intentionally connected fasting, can connect us powerfully with the reality of hunger in our world. It may be the piece of Lenten observance most closely aligned with Pope Francis’ admonition to give up indifference to our neighbors.
Now there are caveats to all this. As a Health at Every Size advocate, I know that fasting is triggering for many of us. That we have to be careful. I know that for me, as a former bulimic who still struggles with food issues, I have to be careful about feeling “virtuous” for not eating. It’s not about virtue. It’s about connection.
Sometimes we have to leave something out in order to let something else in. Sometimes fasting and its attendant hunger are helpful in making room for other things. Fasting is a key part of many monastic traditions, and it’s no coincidence that it—fasting—crosses so many lines, religious lines, lines of progressive vs. conservative, etc.
Fasting, of course, may also be used as a “mortification of the flesh,” a rejection of the evils of material existence. Bollocks, I say. Thomas Merton said that when enters renunciation, when one lets something go—as in celibacy, for example—it is only spiritually valuable if the renounced condition or activity is a good. We do not renounce eating for a day because eating is bad. We renounce eating because eating is good. Because we need it, and everyone needs it, and not everyone has it.
Furthermore, the other two Lenten observances—alms-giving and prayer—are similar. “Alms-giving,” which I extend to mean charitable or justice-seeking activity, and prayer are both activities of connection. Lent is not about navel-gazing. Lent is about connection, about return.
Certainly, remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return. But remember, too, that you are the dust of stars, as are ALL THINGS! We are all in this together. May Lent, however we do or don’t observe it, provide us at least some moments of connection this next 40-some days.