I believed in fasting before I believed in God. I wish I could recollect in any detail the thought process that got me, an atheist with a thin streak of spiritual athleticism, to try to observe Ramadan when I was a junior in high school, but alas I cannot. A Muslim friend helped me with the fasting times and we compared notes on the experience throughout. That, I do remember: even the very mild strain of going without food or drink between the accommodating first light and sunset of a Wisconsin January was, for me, entirely unfamiliar. This was strange and metal enough that a few others joined in. It was bracing, and I ended up observing the fasting part of Ramadan for the next five years, with variable seriousness. I branched out to Yom Kippur and Lent, too–no prayers, no faith, but just the self-denial bit. In the politically innocent years before 9/11, there wasn’t even an obvious way to turn the practice toward solidarity or political consciousness.
If fasting is a meritorious work, it would have to be conceded that observant Muslims have earned rather a lot of merit. Ramadan is a harder fast than any I know in Christianity, even in the short days of winter. By the time I became a Christian, I was pretty well done with Ramadan, and my understanding of what Christian faith and life were about did not leave much room for that consideration anyway. Lent was about fasting from luxuries or pruning back vices–I gave up smoking for about three days in Lent 2002–rather than experiencing genuine discomfort.
Still, I’m glad for that experience. When I have, in recent years, made an effort at a more rigorous Lent, I can’t help but be struck by how challenging it seems. In youth we are highly elastic in any direction. I could have been a heroic ascetic, a junkie, an all-in activist, a musician. Now I’m a suburban dad whose head is cluttered with mundane worries and tasks. The ascesis of that–and it is real–is invisible even to me, most of the time.
So it happens that skipping one meal on Ash Wednesday, another on Friday, and eating neither meat nor sweets at all, leaves me feeling like Gandhi by Saturday. One of the implicit bargains I’ve made with life is that I do my work and meet my responsibilities, however onerous, and in exchange I eat whatever I feel like, whenever I wish to. And it’s not just me. This is the structure of daily life in the twilight of the middle class: sacrifice sleep, family time, personal interests, and peace of mind, but grant yourself any of a million coruscating indulgences. These indulgences, while optimized for compulsive behavior, are all at least adjacent to normalcy. The bougie self-improving disciplines that a lot of people take on during Lent as a way to distance ourselves from these compulsions seem to draw the ridicule of more theologically austere brethren. Some of them (fasting from nightshade vegetables?) surely deserve it. But there’s no doubt in my mind that fasting from seemingly trivial things can be a tactic of spiritual survival in a world where anything can be turned to our harm. Denial itself, including the denial of food, can take this compulsive shape if it has to. I am more fearful than I was not long ago about the implications of talking up fasting in Lent for people who have struggled with eating disorders.
That’s not where fasting comes from in the first place. Self-denial, as such, is probably a later explanation for a practice that developed to heighten and intensify the community’s contact with their divinities. We do miss that, with our varied spiritual exertions and behavioral allopathies. Even a dedicated community fasting together from the same things, within the miserable unending feast day of American late capitalism, can’t capture the experience of being in the midst of a truly collective fast. That’s not our world, and it hasn’t been for a long time. And much as one may wish to experience it, there’s no real point in lamenting its passing. The God worshiped by Christians is not hungry for anything we can give him. But the other gods are ravenous, and not for what we deny ourselves, but for what we grant–fuel we consume for their own fire, offerings on the altars of our lives for their own desires.