The practice of fasting is having a moment in popular culture. It often feels as if every health and wellness advertisement, weight loss pitch or trendy celebrity is extolling the benefits of fasting, especially intermittent fasting. Recently, the New York Times personal health columnist, Jane E. Brody, published her analysis of the scientific claims of fasting stating, “I was skeptical, but it turns out there is something to be said for practicing a rather long diurnal fast…”
And yet we know that fasting is now and has been over millennia a central experience for many religious traditions and well represented in their sacred scriptures. For example, fasting for repentance, in praise and thanksgiving to God, for purification or for a desire to achieve greater connection to the sacred grounds many religious and philosophical journeys toward living a life of greater wisdom and seeking to understand calling, purpose and meaning.
It is in this context of the renewed popular awareness of fasting that I thought about my own preparations as a Catholic for the Ash Wednesday fast and the ongoing Lenten season. What does fasting have to teach us about our vocational wrestling? How might that be useful in working with students and members of religious communities on the development of their sense of meaning and purpose?
Here is the thesis that grounds my thinking: fasting is centrally about both what we need to let go of and what we need to embrace in order to understand meaning and purpose in our lives more deeply and authentically.
When we consider the etymology of the word “fast” it poses an interesting tension. In its Germanic and Old English roots it means “firm,” as in holding fast to something, or fastening down an object securely. It can also mean steady and unchanging, as in steadfast. Yet as the word is used and defined in our experience another understanding presents itself—moving at high speed or quickness. Thus, the richness of the word fast denotes fixed stability and rapid motion. Fasting requires us to hold in tension both steadiness and movement.
The tension inherent in our understanding of fasting proposes a useful way to think about vocation and calling. The clarity of a call has a formative effect stabilizing our identification of what I have described elsewhere as our “becoming-selfhood-in-relation,” focusing us in a direction and concentrating our energies towards a goal. Yet, such clarity can at times crowd out our experience of the constantly evolving nature of call and meaning, rendering us unable to hear how those certainties might be changing or developing. Thinking about the connection of motion to fasting can serve to loosen our firmness in order to experience an ongoing sense of God’s presence in our vocational awareness. Fasting can help us to connect with the tension in our vocational journeying between the firmness of our convictions and the movement of Divine Wisdom in our lives, leading us further to expand our understanding of purpose and direction. Fasting can help us let go of what we know and help us to embrace what is new and developing.
In the act of fasting we let go of those things that separate us from God and embrace that which helps us to hear Divine Wisdom better. Fundamentally, fasting can create the possibility of greater clarity in a vocational discernment. Fasting from food and drink leads us in this direction. But it can meaningfully be extended to acts of fasting from experiences or objects that disconnect us from living a life that feels truthful. There can be a meaningful fast of technology, social media, workaholism, addictions, self-disparagement or a general lack of self-care.
Fasting, then, can focus us on issues of justice and right relationship: with God, self, others, and society. Issues of justice are foundational to understanding the creation of a life of purpose and meaning. In fasting we let go of that which contributes to injustice and embrace that which works toward justice. The religious traditions of prayer, fasting and almsgiving seek to ensure that fasting remains about justice and not narcissistic self-aggrandizement. Embracing that which is positive and life affirming, even when it is difficult, helps us to fast in ways that create justice. Fasting can be associated with negativities which can hamper our capacity to understand greater meaning and purpose for our lives. Pressures of body image and its resulting gender-based oppression and the development of eating disorders can be connected to fasting in ways that thwart vocational awareness. In a world of unjust economic relations, where many persons lack food or potable water to survive, fasting must be combined with actions to help alleviate those conditions and change the social structures that create injustice.
Fasting can be a profoundly transgressive and disruptive practice that can support vocational discernment. Its intentions of letting go and embracing challenge the normativities that we need for living, such as food and drink, or that which is necessary for engagement in contemporary life, such as technology, forcing us to find sustenance in God. At the same time, it holds the power to disrupt the normativities that we cling to that are not life-giving. What we need to learn for our vocational journey might be deeply countercultural and can focus us to ask life-giving questions:
What do I need to let go?
What do I need to embrace?
With whom am I engaging in this practice?
To whom am I praying?
For whom am I praying?
Who is left out?
What am I doing concretely to help relieve human suffering and create a more just world?
Fasting that both lets go and embraces, that seeks to understand what we hold firmly and what movement we see in us, that focuses us on making space for Wisdom in our lives for the purpose of justice can empower our efforts to create purposeful lives that continually hear the movement of God’s Spirit in our lives and the world.
Kathleen T. Talvacchia is a contextual theologian with interest in practical theology, Christian practices of marginalized communities, and Queer theology. She was previously at Union Theological Seminary and New York University Graduate School of Arts and Science. Most recently she authored Embracing Disruptive Coherence: Coming Out as Erotic Ethical Practice (2019) and co-edited Queer Christianities: Lived Religion in Transgressive Forms (2015). While one part of her would love for vocational journeying to include a predictable map, her better-self rolls with and revels in the messy, unpredictable energy of Divine Wisdom.