In eighth grade, I had to wear an ankle brace and walk with crutches for a few days following a minor ankle injury from gymnastics. It was a little thing, but all of a sudden actions I had taken for granted—getting in and out of cars, climbing stairs—took a lot more thought and a lot more work. That small change to my physical being meant renegotiating my relationship to my body and my environment.
Similarly, a year later, my sister had an even more serious injury—a double compound fracture of her arm (again from gymnastics), a break so bad the doctors worried for a minute that they would have to amputate her arm. She was in a cast from her wrist up past her elbow, holding her arm in a 90 degree angle, a position that made previously simple tasks—like putting on a shirt by herself—impossible. When we went shopping for a dress for her to wear for confirmation, it was my job to help her put on and take off the dresses in the fitting room. Like it had for me, the addition of a cast forced my sister to do things in a new way and led both of us to a greater appreciation of what it means to have a healthy and functioning body.
The three traditional pillars of Lenten practice for Catholics are fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. This week I reflect on fasting and abstaining. Fasting usually means partaking of only one full meal in a day, something that is required of adult Catholics on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Abstaining means refraining from something, usually the eating of meat on Ash Wednesday and the Fridays during Lent, but it is also linked to the idea of giving something up during Lent. Many of us know that Catholics are supposed to do these things during Lent, without really understanding why.
In addition to these more traditional answers, I like to think of fasting and abstaining as spiritual casts, that is, as practices that force us to do things differently so that we understand ourselves, our actions, and our place in the world in a new light.
Here is a simple example: Last Friday night, we had planned to go out to eat at Famous Dave’s for dinner. Then we remembered it was the first Friday of Lent, so we decided to revise the plan. A search of the freezer and fridge revealed frozen veggie burger patties and the makings for salad, so we had that instead.
Certainly, this small decision about dinner did not change my life. However, it did get me thinking about a number of things. It made me appreciate the easy access to food I usually enjoy and the wide variety of food that I can eat. While I could easily choose to have something else healthy and satisfying for dinner, millions of people in the United States and around the world do not have such easy choices. People living in poverty are forced to fast or to eat the sparse food that is available. When I voluntarily fast or abstain from meat, I can recognize the hunger and suffering of others in a new way and search for ways to demonstrate Christ’s love in the world—from donating food to food shelves to writing letters to politicians to support just economic and political structures that enable people to provide food for their families.
It also got me thinking about Meatless Monday—a national movement encouraging people to go meatless one day a week for all three meals. Abstaining from meat is not only good for individual health, but it also serves the health of the planet. There are all sorts of statistics, but here is a startling one: if every American skipped one meal of chicken per week and substituted vegetarian foods instead, the carbon dioxide savings would be the same as taking more than half a million cars off of U.S. roads.* Maybe when Lent is over this year you could consider extending meatless Fridays, not only as a spiritual practice, but also as a practice that is good for you and the rest of the world.
Finally, I cannot think about fasting and abstinence without thinking of the countless friends I have seen struggle with eating disorders over the years. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, up to 10 million women and 1 million men suffer from anorexia or bulimia. While I choose to fast on two days during Lent, people dealing with anorexia may try to fast every day, decreasing their caloric intake to unhealthy levels. To people with some eating disorders, the self-denial recommended to Catholics during Lent becomes a daily practice, a standard by which to measure worth and success. I think it is important to be clear that Lenten practices are meant to serve our spiritual journeys and contribute to our overall well-being. Self-denial in the form of an eating disorder is not a spiritual practice; it is dangerous. What can you do to be more aware of how eating disorders affect young people this Lent?
This week consider abstaining from meat on Friday OR if you regularly abstain from meat, choose something else from which to abstain. Pay attention to what you think about as you make different decisions about food. Please share your thoughts on this blog.
*This statistic found at: http://www.alternet.org/water/134650/the_startling_effects_of_going_vegetarian_for_just_one_day/