A bear paced up and down the twenty feet that was the length of his cage. When, after five years, the cage was removed, the bear continued to pace up and down those twenty feet as if the cage were there. It was. For him!

(Anthony de Mello)

Milan Kundera, the brilliant Czech author, poignantly describes in his novel "Slowness," how the western world demands and is enamored by speed — think about our culture's insatiable desire for faster computers, faster athletes, and fast food. And while speed and efficiency are not inherently bad, the consequence has been an ever-increasing sluggish, forgetful, and imprisoned spirit. This is true among Christians as well. William Wordsworth, in prophetic fashion, said it this way:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and Spending we lay waste our powers.

As followers of Christ, it is no small task to avoid the "getting and spending" frenzy that Wordsworth critiques, much less to live contemplatively. However, if we follow our culture's current trajectory, choosing to follow the fast course of this world, we run the risk of losing a great deal — the mind of Christ, the awareness of Father — God's presence, and freedom in the Spirit.

So, if the problem is "the world is too much with us," what are we to do? Simply put, we need less, not more. One practice or exercise to slow us down and awaken our spirit is the ancient discipline of fasting.

Fasting is a practice that has gained some traction in our health-crazed, therapeutic culture. And while there are physical and emotional benefits to going without food for a period of time, the real motive and blessing is spiritual. As we learn from those who have gone before us — like Elijah, Jesus, and the early Church — fasting is an exercise that awakens our spiritual senses and humbles us before Almighty God. Like the other disciplines, fasting is not easy and may be painful, especially at first. However, exercising our spirit by abstaining from what we so often take for granted will remind us of the source of every good and perfect gift.

While fasting from food is the norm, there are other things from which we can fast. Practices or activities such as reading, shopping, music, TV, even talking or sex (1 Corinthians 7:5), can be abstained for a few hours, or even days. The focus is not to punish the body, much less to call attention to our fast (Matthew 6:16-18). Rather, the point is to go without something we need or desire, namely food, so that we can remember the One from whom all blessings come.

Here are some thoughts to remember if you feel led to spend a day, or part of day, in a fast from food.

  • Choose a time to abstain from food for the sole purpose of humbling yourself before God. (If you are a nursing mother or ill, it is highly recommended that you not fast from food.)
  • Do not eat a large meal before you fast thinking, "I'll stock up for the fast." Rather, eat a light meal.
  • Begin your fast with Scripture, silence, and prayer, speaking to the Lord about your desire to learn and to grow.
  • You might want to keep a journal through your fast, noting, for example, what questions or decisions you are facing, how you are reminded that the world is too much with you, and how the hunger pangs affect you.
  • Be sure to drink lots of liquids during your time of fasting!
  • When you have hunger pangs, speak to the Lord about what you are experiencing.
  • Pay attention to what the Lord may be showing you. Remember: it is when we are weak that we often notice how strong he is.
  • The source of every good and perfect gift.
  • End your fast with a light meal, thanking the Lord for what you have experienced.

See previous exercises:

Introduction to Exercising the Spirit

Exercising the Spirit: Lectio

Exercising the Spirit: Silence

Exercising the Spirit: Meditation

Exercising the Spirit: Breath Prayer

Got Your Spiritual Trainer?

Exercising the Spirit: Generosity