Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 2

Before I continue in the direction I pointed at the end of my first post in this series, I want to spend a little more time on the intertwined, interlocking, and interpenetrating nature of our body, mind, and spirit. I know it is often a foreign idea to those shaped within our American culture, but the concept is central not only to this series, but to the formative thoughts behind this entire blog. I think the common attitude of our culture is captured by a statement like this:

Celiac is an autoimmune disease. It’s a medical condition and the medical prescription is a gluten free diet. It’s purely physical (or some might say secular or natural). What does a disease or medical condition have to do with anything spiritual?

Such is the nature of our age. Even if we’ve never read Plato and never studied philosophy, we have absorbed from the cultural air we breathe and within which we live something of his deep dualism between the material and the spiritual. We see the two as separate categories. And thus we talk about a person’s body or a person’s spirit as though they were separate things and had little to do with each other. But that does not describe reality. Change the chemistry of my brain and you will change my personality. Much of the life of my spirit, for good or ill, is played out in the field of my body. I am not a spirit contained in a body nor am I wholly defined by the matter which forms my body. As a human being I am the union of the spiritual and the material. I am the dust of the earth imbued with the breath of God. I am a living soul – the union (and often disunion) of body, mind, and spirit. You cannot alter or remove any of the three without changing who I am in essential ways, without changing my very being.

So yes, celiac is a medical condition, an autoimmune disease. The treatment is a strict diet that requires me to fast from anything containing gluten – an entire category of food. And a fast is always spiritual as well, for good or ill, whether or not we acknowledge it as such. As the faithfulness of my adherence to this fast will heal or harm my body and my mind, so the spiritual impact of the fast will propel me along the way of life or along the way of death (as the Didache describes the two ways).

If I ignored the spiritual dimensions of this fast, I would effectively be fasting without prayer. And the Fathers of Christian faith have many warnings about such fasts. Fasting without prayer is the ‘fast of the demons’, they say, for the demons do not eat at all because of their incorporeal nature but they also never pray. So I see already that this fast must be intertwined with and shaped by a strong rule of prayer if it is not to shrink my spirit. Interestingly, we also find that fasting without love is another fast of the demons. St. Basil the Great writes:

What is the use of our abstinence if instead of eating meat we devour our brother or sister through cruel gossip?

I do not believe it is at all wise to be careful in the physical aspects of this or any fast and ignore the spiritual dimensions. I also do not believe our actions or inactions in such things are morally neutral by default. If I do indeed follow Jesus of Nazareth, then I am saying something definite about both God and man by doing so. And I must act and live accordingly.

In the next post in this series, I’ll continue in the direction I had originally planned for the series.

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