Frank Tracy Griswold III

The 25th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.

The fast I choose

January 31, 2005
Frank T. Griswold

In recent days, there has been much in the news about the physical state of Americans. We are learning that we eat far too much, prefer foods filled with fat and coated with sugar, and move our bodies far too little. As we have become more and more obese, clothing sizes have been reconfigured. What once was considered “large” is now marked “medium.”

Perhaps this a direct consequence of the fact that we now are carrying out our soft drinks from fast food restaurants in quart containers. In light of this unhealthy trend, new guidelines have been issued about our eating patterns, and we are being urged to exercise daily for at least 60 minutes.

All of this puts me in mind of one of the classic disciplines of the Lenten season that we now are entering: fasting. The exhortation in our prayer book calls us to observe the season “by prayer, fasting and self-denial.” In last month’s column, I offered some reflections on prayer. Given the concerns about our patterns of overeating, I thought it might be well to reflect on what fasting might mean to us in our own day.

Fasting is an exercise in mindfulness. It is an invitation to be aware of what we are eating in relationship to the needs and well-being of our bodies. Too often our eating patterns are random and undisciplined. The intentionality of fasting can spark within us a sense of gratitude as we become more aware of food as a necessity for life.

However, as is the case with most good disciplines, there can be a shadow side. An exaggerated focus on our eating patterns can turn us in on ourselves and lead us into a state of crippling self-obsession when in actual fact the spiritual discipline of fasting is intended to cleanse us of our tendency toward self-preoccupation.

In one of the lessons appointed for Ash Wednesday, we are told by the Lord, speaking through the prophet Isaiah, “Look, you serve your own interests on your fast day … Is this not the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke?”

What is very clear from this passage is that fasting is not seen as simply a private pious exercise that increases one’s sense of virtue. Fasting goes beyond concerns about food and also has profound social implications. Fasting is a way of entering into solidarity with others, particularly those who live on the margins and possess very little.

Fasting also can be related to dimensions of our life other than food. One can, for instance, fast from anger and judgment, from criticism and rumor mongering. One can deny oneself certain patterns of speech and behavior that tear down rather than build up the human community.

A fast from self-preoccupation can extend the boundaries of our concern outward so we become more permeable to others. In this regard the passage from Isaiah continues by describing fasting as sharing “your bread with the hungry” and bringing “the homeless poor into your house.”

The notion here is to make space for the other. This is an invitation to extend hospitality and open our hearts. So often we live comfortably within the protected domain of our own concerns and structures that we have carefully built and by which we define ourselves.

Home is not simply a place but a state of mind inhabited not only by familiar and comfortable furniture but also familiar and comfortable attitudes and perceptions. To invite the other to enter either our space or our consciousness, particularly when they are quite different from us, can threaten our sense of security. However, as the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, when we entertain the stranger, we may be entertaining an angel of God without being aware of it.

In many congregations Lent is a season for mite boxes and a means of self-denial, another invitation of the Lenten season that helps us make a connection between giving up something we want and the needs and well-being of others. Putting coins in a mite box is a concrete way of moving beyond self-indulgence and participating in God’s care and compassion for all.

Whatever ways we may choose to observe the season of Lent, it is my prayer that they may turn us away from ourselves. It is my prayer for us all that during these 40 days we will be cracked open in new ways. During this time, may God’s loving desire and presence find greater room in our lives and draw us beyond ourselves into the orbit of his longing for the well-being of the world he sent his Son to save.

Mite Boxes (or Treasure Boxes) are available from Episcopal Parish Services in packs of 10 for$3. Item #55-9309.