Body vs. Spirit: Lent, Fasting and Failing

It's Lent, y'all. And many of us will choose at this time to abstain from a practice or consumption of something. Whether it's giving up chocolate, or deciding that Lent is the time to work on fighting an addiction, one of the beautiful things I find about Lent is this broad, global and communal participation in what can be understood as a spiritual practice.  Millions of people fully and simultaneously engaging in spiritual formation is incredible to consider.

Let's talk about Fasting.

It is interesting what the contemporary version of fasting has become in our Christian culture. Traditionally, fasting quite literally means a time of not eating. Not eating anything, or at least severely mitigating food intake for a period of time. Now I am not here to make value statements regarding giving up Diet Coke for Lent as opposed to more vigorous forms of Fasting. We don't have time to be Lenten hipsters. ("My Lenten practice is totally vintage.")

Fasting is a conduit for God's grace to enter into our lives, but why is it a spiritual practice? Isn't fasting a physical act involving physical things including the physical, bodily act of self-restraint i.e. ignoring physical cues from your body? Fasting involves mitigating the physical intake of food, (or in some traditions abstaining from things like sex as well) so what does the fact that fasting is a spiritual discipline mean? It means that our spirit and, therefore, spiritual practice, is not separate from our bodies and, therefore, physical practice. What we do physically is what we do spiritually. Popular contemporary religion, traditional (Thomistic, Platonic, etc.) understandings of religion, and also christian gnosticism see spirituality as separate from physicality. I disagree. Fasting helps us physically remember a dependence on God. Fasting places us closer in physical solidarity with people all around the world who are hungry. Fasting as a means of grace, is a physical act that leads us to a spiritual experience--an experience that occurs for us within our bodies.

Fasting is also something we will repeatedly fail to do. Since fasting is a practice, not a performance, fasting is something we will always approach imperfectly. Part of the spiritual practice of fasting include the times where we fail to do it. We can't grow without making mistakes. I think this applies broadly to spiritual practice in general. Whether it's meditating, or engaging in a more active prayer life, we aren't going to get it right 100% of the time. We aren't going to flawlessly perform because, again, spiritual practice is just that: practice.

I've decided to adopt a practice in Lent of daily scripture reading and meditation, and ALSO to fast during the day on Fridays. I have already failed twice to consistently follow the practices I committed to when I received my ashes on ash wednesday.

Perhaps a deeper Lenten practice for me is to be more compassionate to myself in the midst of failing. Perhaps that is where the deeper spiritual growth will occur.


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