Friday, July 23, 2021

Everyday Ascetic: Using Hunger-Fast Prayers

I admitted last week to being a wannabe monk, and to spending some time devising various "rules of life" for myself (most of which I struggled to keep). I thought I'd give a few more reflections this week on one practice that I've found helpful in my own journey, and it may provide an opening for use by others as well.
One of my particular difficulties, as for many in our culture, is finding healthy ways to manage my eating. I've been blessed with a genome that seems specifically designed to prepare for an upcoming famine, such that my metabolism is excellent at stocking away every possible calorie around my midsection for any future needs. I suppose this was a good quality some centuries ago, when my ancestors lived lives of toil and hardship in the hills of Scandinavia, but nowadays it's a rather irksome quality. One of its many downsides, aside from ensuring a relatively well-rounded figure, is that any effort to lose weight seems to require feeling significantly (sometimes even painfully) hungry a good deal of the time. Unlike some people, I cannot lose unwanted weight simply by just shaving calories here or there, by exercising more, or by switching out certain foods to aim for a healthier diet (I already eat a fairly healthy diet based around whole foods). No, for me to convince my body to shake off its famine reserves, I need to feel like I'm actually in a famine, and just get used to carrying around hunger-pangs multiple times a day.
This used to annoy me. Being physically hungry a lot of the time is not pleasant. But as I reflected upon it while doing some readings in the early church fathers, it struck me that many of my greatest heroes would have seen this quality as a positive thing, not a negative one. The desert fathers (contrary to popular belief) tended to advise a fairly steady, healthy, and measured approach to eating and fasting. Their advice, in fact, matched up perfectly with what my body seemed geared to do. They counseled people to eat just a little less than they desired to eat, and to do this every day. In this way, the needs of the body would be attended to in a healthy and wholesome way, but you would also leave a little room for hunger in your life. Hunger, you see, was a reminder of our needs, a sharp little poke built into our bellies to force us to recognize that we are contingent beings, reliant upon God and his blessings for our very survival. (It should be noted, then, that the desert fathers did not advise extreme fasting as a normal practice, nor the pursuit of hunger for its own sake; and as always, any attempt at a program of diet or fasting should begin with a consultation with a medical professional, especially if you have any underlying conditions to consider.)
In this structured, well-measured framework of daily eating, each moment of hunger gives us the opportunity to turn our attention Godward, to express--with body and soul together--our longing for a wholeness and a satiety that only truly comes from him. We can offer our hunger up to God as an expression of our longing for him, the true bread of life. Further, hunger can function as a built-in reminder to be interceding for those around us. Rather than infrequently dedicating a whole day to fasting in prayer for something, this method allows one to remember to lift up our intercessions through dozens to little mini-fasts that pop up throughout our week in the normal course of our daily lives.
This, then, is how I've come to live. I still can't always outwit my body's ferocious inclination to prepare for the deprivations of the next cataclysm (and who knows?--maybe someday I'll need it for that), but I can use its tendencies to remind me to stay focused on God and to intercede for the work of his kingdom. So now I tend not to think too much about dieting; I just do what the desert fathers did. I eat three well-balanced, healthy meals, knowing that my ridiculous body will start demanding more before I get to my next meal. So three times a day my body will remind me that it's time to pray. I get to offer my hunger up to God, use it to pour out my intercessions, and then go and enjoy the blessings of God's provision at my next meal. Often I'll even plan out my prayers around these little hunger-fasts, devoting my pre-lunch morning hunger to praying for my family, my afternoon hunger to praying for my church and local area, and my evening hunger for praying for the world. What I used to consider an annoyance, then, has become a blessing, and given me space to grow in my hunger toward God.