Lent is a time for Christians to give up what is good in order to be reminded of something better. Fasting and prayer are linked in Scripture, and it seems that fasting is a discipline which intensifies our prayers. It does so not because it makes us more holy to abstain from food, or purifies us of earthly desires, but because it creates a unique singularity of attention. Our time is not spent attending to our bodily needs in the way it is generally. This allows more time spent intentionally before the Lord. It fosters our relationship with God, because it gives we who have plenty an experience of neediness.
Our spiritual need, though undoubtedly our most dire, does not confront us with its demands the way the need for hunger or sleep will. Physical desires and needs are insistent and all-consuming when we do not attend to them; spiritual need is often experienced so subtlely as to go unfed for an entire lifetime. The God to whom we pray for our daily bread is also the God who nourishes our souls. Fasting creates a sense of dependency, a visceral experience of our own insufficiency. This fosters a felt understanding of our radical spiritual dependence on God. Fasting, like most disciplines, is a mode of self-teaching, of choosing certain behaviors and activities because they enforce to our somnolent selves the urgency and the reality of our relationship with God.
For most Protestants, “giving up” for Lent is viewed as a way to revamp forgotten New Year’s resolutions, or as an opportunity to give up what they shouldn’t be doing anyway. Fasting isn’t the same as dieting, though the two are often confused. Giving up treats or television is all very well, but Lent isn’t just an opportunity to break a habit. However much our fast may force us to attend to it – we can’t help but feel the tug of desire we are refusing – let us not forget that it is not about what we give up, but what we give it up for.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Catholic priest intimately familiar with the self-denial of the Christian life, wrote a poem that movingly expresses this. “The Habit of Perfection” is a series of addresses to his senses, consoling them for their privation for the sake of greater attention to God. The life of the senses is so easily distracting. We are dazzled by data and allured by experience. Divine things are often less present and less compelling. But, as Hopkins reminds us, they are more worthy of our attention. It is often through the purposeful privation of the senses for a time that we are able to better sense our God:
Elected Silence, sing to me
And beat upon my whorlèd ear,
Pipe me to pastures still and be
The music that I care to hear.
Shape nothing, lips; be lovely-dumb:
It is the shut, the curfew sent
From there where all surrenders come
Which only makes you eloquent.
Be shellèd, eyes, with double dark
And find the uncreated light:
This ruck and reel which you remark
Coils, keeps, and teases simple sight.
Palate, the hutch of tasty lust,
Desire not to be rinsed with wine:
The can must be so sweet, the crust
So fresh that come in fasts divine!
Nostrils, your careless breath that spend
Upon the stir and keep of pride,
What relish shall the censers send
Along the sanctuary side!
O feel-of-primrose hands, O feet
That want the yield of plushy sward,
But you shall walk the golden street
And you unhouse and house the Lord.
And, Poverty, be thou the bride
And now the marriage feast begun,
And lily-coloured clothes provide
Your spouse not laboured-at nor spun.