Some have exalted religious fasting beyond all Scripture and reason; and others have utterly disregarded it (John Wesley).
At the risk of breaking Jesus’ injunction to keep schtum about one’s fasting habits, I am pretty good at fasting. I generally fast twice a week, meaning 2×24 hours without food, and began this year with a two-day fasting (non-)binge. I do this for health reasons, because I simply cannot do moderation — I cannot eat moderately, it is either all or nothing. For five days a week it is all, for two it is nothing. This way I am able to keep my weight down. It works.
So when Foster talks about epic multi-week fasts I think I could do it. I am a faster. Hooray!
Except, I also hate it. Feeling hungry makes me feel miserable, and even when the hunger pains go away, I still think about food. This, fundamentally, is what I do not get about fasting. We are supposed to do it so we can inwardly “be in prayer and adoration, song, and worship,” but I am more likely to do that if my mind is off my stomach, which it isn’t when I am fasting. In other words, fasting has the opposite effect on me — it tends to make me feel less spiritual. Asceticism is misery, not liberation. I have the will power to be an ascetic, I just don’t like it.
As is the case throughout his book, Foster warns against excessive legalism. Mormon tendencies to give fasting a specific day (“Fast Sunday”) or our worrying about details such as 24 hours vs. two meals or whether we should drink water (we should, I think), run that risk. On the more positive side, the coupling of fasting with a financial offering is very much in line with Isaiah 58:1-7 and is something of which Mormons should be proud (but we should keep quiet about that: Matthew 6:18!). What Foster says may be true: “Perhaps in our affluent society fasting involves a far larger sacrifice than the giving of money.” Certainly the little bit of money we may give to fast offering often feels less of a sacrifice than going without food, given our fortunate experience in the West of very rarely being involuntarily hungry. It is the sympathy that fasting ought to invoke for the hungry that may its greatest value today.
I really like Foster’s suggestions for other fasts: from people (the discipline of solitude), from the media, from the telephone (/internet), from billboards (i.e. advertising), and from “our gluttonous consumer culture.” I think I shall give this a go, certainly for Lent and Advent, but perhaps weekly. A digital fast especially may be fasting’s most important modern iteration.
How is fasting as a spiritual discipline for you? And what is Mormon fasting all about?