A slow fastBy Sheryl Frances Chen, O.C.S.O.I have a regular practice of serious fasting: I do it once a decade.As a novice at 26, I found it difficult to adjust to our Lenten monastic practice of soup and bread for our main meal on Wednesdays and Fridays, and bread and water on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. My high metabolism meant that I was very hungry, and I had difficulty making the connection between my hunger pangs and anything spiritual. Generally, I dreaded Lent and its attendant penance.Both times I have done an extended fast, it was in response to a conversion experience. Having fallen in love with Jesus again, and feeling brought back to a right relationship with God, I wanted to do more to express my love and gratitude to the Good Shepherd who had sought and found one who had gone astray. Both as sorrow for my sins and as a joyful offering of devotion, I resolved to do a 24-hour fast, 40 days in a row.The prolonged fast I proposed to my superior consisted of eating only the main meal of the day, even if it was bread and water. I did not take breakfast or supper at all, and I spent the time I would have used preparing supper, in church. The first few days I was amazed by how often, especially around vespers time, my body would cry out, "Feed me! Feed me!" My prayer time would be filled with thoughts about what I could have for my next meal—and then I would realize I wouldn’t be taking it. What a waste of time and mental energy! So I made a little resolution that whenever a food thought came to me, to turn it into a little prayer in union with Jesus, or simply an act of love in his direction. After about a week, my body quieted down, my stomach started to shrink, and I settled into a re-trained rhythm that was earnestly Lenten.One advantage to a long fast like this one is that the less worthy reasons for doing it eventually fall by the wayside. There is the danger of trying to make ourselves worthy of God’s love. The ego may think it is doing something for God for a while, but by about the fourth week the physical hunger makes the ego admit it cannot do much of anything for long. Then there is a spiritual breakthrough, to the admission of my status as creature and utterly dependent on God for everything. One begins to do it in union with Jesus because there is nothing else. The hunger for food becomes hunger for God, for sustenance, for life itself.Some people when they fast do it with a sense of mourning, in union with Jesus in his passion. That would be the penance aspect of it for me. I don’t mourn the bridegroom’s absence because I know the victory is already won, and in fact I feel his presence more when I am fasting, at least I turn to him more because I am less inclined, in the poverty of my body, to think myself independent. But I do feel the sacrifice of offering some physical comfort as a small way of expressing my sorrow for sin. True, the penances we don’t choose are often of more value, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do penance at all. I trust that God will receive whatever is good in what I offer, and burn the rest away as dross.In fact there were several evenings when I had to be at a community gathering which included supper. I recognized these as opportunities to fast from my ego and my own plans for Lent. There is always the danger of spiritual pride when we do something "more" and so it is a good check on whether we are benefiting spiritually if we are still open to giving up our own will and going with God’s will as manifested in other people when circumstances ask it of us.Another check is how our fasting affects our relationships with others. If the fasting is really bringing us into closer union with Jesus, we should become more generous and more available to any person in need who comes to us. If our reaction is "Don’t bother me, I’m fasting," the best thing may be for us to stop. If it does not produce a growth in charity, the best thing for our ego may be to have to admit that we are not capable of fasting without becoming more irritable, and quit.At the end of Lent my hunger pains had stilled to a dull ache. I let it remind me of my yearning for Jesus. It was still hard not to allow myself "just a little something" for breakfast or supper, and not to snack between meals. The only adverse effects I noticed were the usual drop in body temperature so it was more difficult to keep warm, and the increased effort it took to sing properly. I continued to exercise (I swim 2 km a week) during the six weeks, lost about 15 pounds, and felt great. By the time we entered into the Sacred Triduum, I was physically and spiritually ready to celebrate the great liturgies of our salvation. I almost hated to stop fasting. But to everything there is a season, and I am convinced that this "slow fast" allowed me, as St Benedict says, to look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing.This kind of fast was possible for me as a monk, with the support of the season and the help of a community also following a regime. Catholics outside a monastery can also benefit from fasting. Originally monastics abstained from meat in solidarity with the poor. Cutting back on fancy or expensive food can lead to the possibility of giving alms, while at the same time fasting from one’s breadth of choice.Since we are embodied souls, there is an intimate connection between the condition of our body and the condition of our soul. It takes a lot of energy to digest meat—or a 9-course banquet at the best Chinese restaurant. I have experienced that it is easier to pray when my body feels lighter, and has more energy available after eating simpler and less. Fasting can be spiritually beneficial anytime, though it certainly helps to have the support of others who are doing it at the same time.Not just a food fastThe Sacred Triduum (the three days Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday) are a period of intensified anticipation of Easter. An abbot friend of mine finds it appropriate to eat nothing for these three days. This kind of concentrated fasting may be beneficial for those whose life situation makes a prolonged fast difficult or impossible to carry out gracefully. Even one or two days can focus spiritual energies in preparation for a significant event or transition in one’s life.St. Benedict proposes that during Lent monks wash away the negligences of other times, by refusing to indulge in evil habits, devoting ourselves to prayer with tears, to reading, to compunction of heart and self-denial. We can add to the usual measure of our service something by way of private prayer and abstinence from food or drink. Benedict recommends that each one deny himself some food, drink, sleep, needless talking and idle jesting. All ought to be done with the prayer and approval of one’s spiritual director. This kind of fasting need not be limited to Lent, and is particularly appropriate to days of retreat.Pope Benedict XVI has suggested Catholics can fast from words and images, and to create a space for silence, in order to open our hearts to the true image, to the true Word.Many people have found it beneficial to fast from the media, limiting TV viewing to a few hours a week, and abstaining from watching the news and reading the paper daily. Some have even thrown out their TV, and never regretted it!One of the most difficult fasts in our day is not to use the internet or send or read emails on Fridays or Sundays. Spend the time instead in prayer or meditation, reading an inspiring book, taking a walk, or spending quality time with friends or family.The choice of what you fast from, and with what frequency, is up to you, but it does us all good to shake up our routine periodically, examine our priorities, shed extra baggage and recall ourselves to the Christian journey of conversion and renewal. That is a lifelong adventure, and can happen anytime, in or out of season.USCATHOLIC March 2010 (www.uscatholic.org)