Fasting and the Body

It's not a bad idea to occasionally spend a little time thinking about things you take for granted. Plain everyday things.
-Evan Davis

For many of us, perhaps most of us, food is an afterthought. It is available in massive, well-stocked supermarkets. It arrives in our hands sorted, packaged, and ready for consumption. We don't grow our own vegetables, we don't slaughter our own livestock. When we want it, it's there, wrapped in plastic for our convenience.

Because it can be easy to get, it can be easy to take it for granted.

Great Lent challenges us to think about our food. It demands that we take a few moments to think about what, when, and why we eat. This will change the way we see our food.

This will change the way we see ourselves, and the way we see our relationship to God.

Perhaps we're getting ahead of ourselves. What is fasting?

"[F]asting and abstinence is the first virtue--the mother, root, source and foundation of all good."1

Fasting is not simply a reduction in the variety of food we eat. It is also a reduction in the amount of food we eat. To feast on shrimp and bean burritos is to miss the point.

Lent challenges us to voluntarily invite hunger into our lives. This is not because the Church seeks to torment us, but rather because the Church seeks to free us.

Think back to the last time you overate. Remember how satisfied you felt. Remember how groggy you felt. Remember how difficult it was to stay alert and awake, how easy it was to fall asleep.

A full stomach chains us to our passions. We may be comfortably chained, but we are chained nonetheless.

A full stomach sooths us into letting our guard down. It opens the door for passions to creep into our hearts, and makes us more susceptible to them. When we overeat, we tend to nap; not pray or contemplate the Scripture or serve others.

"Almost all passionate impulses decrease through fasting."2

When we overeat, we satisfy a passion. We feel an itch, and we scratch it. This can incline us to succumb to other passions as well. Dulled as the mind is by an abundance of food, weighed down as the stomach is by gluttonous excess, we grow sluggish. We are less likely to dodge the "the fiery darts of the evil one which are craftily directed against us."3

An empty stomach yields the opposite.

"Passion is banished from the soul by fasting and prayer."4

Physically, abstaining from food alters the body's metabolism. It slows it down.

The mind is more alert. The intellect, feeding off less fuel, is less active, less dispersed. It is easier to focus, to slow down, to devote ones attention entirely to the task at hand. Our minds are frequently like angry beehives, buzzing incoherently and zooming in all directions. With a bit of fasting, as our metabolism slows thanks to the reduction of food, our scattered and broken intellect begins to defragment.

Through it all there are two constant feelings: hunger and weakness. The hunger of fasting is not the desperate hunger of true starvation, of course. Nonetheless, it is hard to ignore. The low and steady grumble of the stomach begins to accompany the beating of an increasingly contrite and humbled heart.

With less food in our systems, we begin to feel weaker. Not so weak that we cannot get out of bed, but weak enough that every movement becomes deliberate. Motion takes effort, though we're frequently unconscious of it. As our bodies slow, we become more aware of them. And the more aware we are, the more appreciative we become. "Never had he been so fond of this body of his as now when his tenure of it was so precarious."5

As our strength turns to weakness, we begin to see the world in a different way. A full stomach brings with it a certain confidence. When the body lacks nothing, the heart can grow proud and haughty.

Yet this supposed satisfaction is nothing more than deferred lack. In truth, we cycle between hunger and fullness. A stomach, no matter how full, will soon be empty again.

When our table is fully laden, it can be easy to overlook this ironclad law of nature. We can be like the rich fool who was confident in his wealth and sought to tear down his barns and build bigger ones to hold all his treasure. He had no idea that his position was not as secure as it seemed, for his soul would be required of him that very night.6 At death's door, no amount of earthly treasure could save him.

When our table is sparse, we are not fooled into trusting the false gods of our own wealth and power. We know that we cannot trust in the power of our own hands, but must look to the Hands that fashioned all creation, to the Hands of the One who alone can guarantee that we will no longer be empty:

"And Jesus said to them, 'I am the bread of life. He who comes to Me shall never hunger, and he who believes in Me shall never thirst.'"7

As we fast, our stomachs empty. And as our stomachs empty, our eyes open to a reality that may have escaped us. As we empty ourselves of what we once thought was treasure, we find ourselves full of something far more precious.

"Through fasting let us be filled with God."8

1 Saints Kallistos & Ignatios, "Directions to Hesychasts," sec. 31, Writings from the Philokalia: On Prayer of the Heart at 204.
2 Ibid, sec. 33 at 206 (quoting St. Isaac the Syrian).
3 From the Small Compline.
4 "Directions to Hesychasts," sec. 89 at 256 (quoting St. Elias Ekdikos).
5 Jack London, White Fang, chapter 3 at 39.

For more on fasting and prayer, we've prepared a special playlist of Be the Bee episodes for you: