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Slow down and fast: forgoing food is a time-tested method to cleanse your body and awaken your spirit. .

"But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden."

--Matt. 6:17-18

EACH WINTER I THINK ABOUT HOW I MIGHT ENTER most authentically into Lent. No matter what else I choose to do--make a retreat, support a special charity, study the life of a particular saint, or attend daily Mass--I will certainly undertake a fast.

My history with fasting goes back 33 years and predates my conversion to Catholicism. Back in 1970, I was living in San Francisco, working a hectic 60-hour week, and trying to reconcile an inconvenient vegetarianism with a schedule that had me eating mostly grilled cheese sandwiches and french fries in a cafe near the office.

Browsing in a bookshop, I discovered a small volume written by Arnold Ehret called Rational Fasting (Benedict Lust Publishing). First published in 1914, this book convinced me of the health benefits of a cleansing fast. In brief, Ehret believed that some form of constipation or clogging is the cause of disease, and that we can cleanse our bodies through careful, intelligent fasting.

I undertook my first five-day water fast after reading Ehret's book, not to cure a disease but to rid my system of the effects of my fat-and-carbohydrate diet. Not only did I not starve but I experienced a greater vitality and well-being than had ever known.

Since that first fast in 1970, I have fasted four times a year. Along the way, I have experimented with different lengths and types, but always return to my typical fast: five days, water only. On this fast, I know exactly what to expect: two days of preoccupation with food, including my recognition of its normal abundance in my life and its scarcity elsewhere around the globe. I am brought closer to the plight of the poor and their daily struggle for food. On day three, my hunger abates and I experience a state of alertness, energy, and often joy. The morning of day six, I break my fast.

It wasn't until 1984 that I went through the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, preparing to join the church at Easter. By then fasting had been a part of my life for 14 years, though I wanted nothing more from it than physical purification. Now, with all the zeal of a convert, I expected to spend Lent in fasting and prayer. In fact, I expected the entire congregation at St. Joseph's Parish in Seattle to do so, too. But it was already a different age.

The fast, as I encountered it in the church 19 years ago, referred to the reduced-size meals that are mandated by canon law on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. One rarely, if ever, heard about not eating at all. Rather, I heard people talking about "fasting" from chocolate or procrastination or their favorite television show.

Yet fasting has a long history within our Judeo-Christian tradition. It was during a 40-day fast that Elijah heard the "still small voice" of Yahweh. And designated days of fasting were observed in Judaism at the time of Jesus. In the Matthew passage we read on Ash Wednesday, Jesus advises us to be discreet when we fast. It should not be a way of advertising our austerity, Jesus points out, but rather a matter between us and God. The fast undertaken by Jesus in the desert, before he began his public ministry, establishes the duration of our modern Lent: 40 days.

From the Regula Magistri, that is, the early sixth-century rule for monastic life, we learn that even in a more severe age, monks were expected to make their Lenten "fast" by eating just one meal each day. Yet for those monks who desired to fast completely, the rule provided for them to read scripture aloud to their brothers, thereby taking their nourishment alone in the Word.

Why would anyone willingly take on this more stringent fast? It can be a powerful means of retiring from our usual pre-occupations and preparing ourselves to better listen to the Holy Spirit. By ceasing to eat, we are choosing to be guided by the spirit and not the flesh. For those few days, by severing our bonds to materialism, to our food addictions, and to our normal sense of entitlement, we recognize who we really are. We become who we are meant to be--a baptismal people longing not for bread but for God.

By MARTHA GIES, a teacher of creative writing at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon and at a writing program in Veracruz, Mexico.
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Author:Gies, Martha
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Date:Mar 1, 2003
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