Posted by Eric (March 20, 2006 at 7:03 pm)
“He humbled you and let you hunger . . . that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone.” (Deuteronomy 8:3)
We are nearly at Mid-Fast, and I’d like to return to Alexander Schmemann’s comment, quoted in my last entry, that “fasting is the only means by which man recovers his true spiritual nature.”
At first this statement might appear contradictory. Doesn’t fasting make ever more present to us the fact that we do, indeed, rely on bread most utterly? Doesn’t fasting show us that we are but flesh and bones—hungry flesh and aching bones?
Yes, fasting does make us more aware of the limits of our flesh, of our utter dependence on food; being deprived of food, like being deprived of sleep, makes us painfully aware of our corporeality and even our mortality. One day last week, for example, after not eating much and also having had very little sleep, I stood up from the couch and gave myself one of those exquisite head-rushes that makes you feel as if you’ve entered an alternate universe with all-new dimensions from the ones we’ve got here.
I stumbled into a chair with a force that made me accutely aware of how heavy my body is, how completely dominated by gravity my unanimated flesh would be. (Before anyone posts a comment that I must be fasting too rigorously if I’m having head-rushes like that, let me say that the main factor was my lack of sleep, thanks to my baby daughter keeping me up late and waking me up early.)
Less dramatically, I’ve felt a kind of gnawing hunger several days in the last couple weeks brought on by fasting from lunchtime until after Presanctified Liturgy*, especially while writing an icon during a workshop at a local Byzantine parish (an intense experience about which I hope to write something soon). This dull ache is a persistent reminder that one is flesh.
On the simplest level, the experience leads to an appreciate for the gift of food. The plainest bean burrito with rice substituted for cheese (not always a simple negotiation for a gringo at the taco stand) is a kind of miraculous feast. Even a fistful of trailmix after Liturgy is like ambrosia.
But on a deeper level, this hunger facilitates a heightened awareness of one’s spiritual nature precisely by means of heightening the awareness of one’s own body. Because we are so rarely hungry—and even more rarely hungry by choice—we lose sight of how completely we depend on food to live from day to day, how our energy, mood and mental faculties do not emanate from within but are literally fed by what we eat.
This first of all breaks that egotism that one is in any real way an autonomous individual. Each of us is really no less dependent on the fruits of this earth than an unborn child on his mother’s blood. (They say a baby is a person because, unlike a fetus, he can “breathe on his own”—but who can breathe on his own? Try it in outer space; earth is but a womb for all humanity). That intense sense of dependence leads naturally to an openness to God as the One on whom one depends.
But the hunger, by its very perversity, leads one to recognize that one is not, after all, just flesh, just a body. That one is a body cannot be doubted; how different one feels from usual makes it all too clear that there is no “I” wholly independent of my body, that I am not merely a spiritual being temporarily enclosed within flesh. But the reality that there is a spiritual dimension to one’s being is brought home by the alienation from the body brought on by fasting.
In a sense, it is by pulling body and soul apart from each other by means of fasting, of hunger, that one gains a certain kind of perspective about both. We aptly call these kinds of penances “mortification,” from the Latin root mors, meaning “death,” and what is death but the complete separation of body and soul?
Fasting, then, is a kind of little death that clarifies what it means to be alive, and thereby draws one closer to the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life.
* On weekdays in the Eastern Church, the Divine Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts, or “Presanctified Liturgy,” is celebrated instead of the typical Divine Liturgy of St. John Chyrsostom, a penitential vespers service at which communion consecrated the previous Sunday is distributed. [Back to Text]