Fasting and Humility Redux

Posted: June 2nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Fasting | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Fasting and Humility Redux

I wrote a few days ago about Fasting and Humility as I’ve struggled with the necessity for being “out there” with your condition that celiac imposes on you when you have it. Since then, I’ve encountered the following quote by St. Isaac the Syrian. It’s caused me to pause and reflect a bit more.

If you practice an excellent virtue without perceiving the taste of its aid, do not marvel; for until a man becomes humble, he will not receive a reward for his labor. Recompense is given, not for labor, but for
humility.

This is, of course, exactly what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount. We do not practice any discipline or virtue for the purpose of achieving some desired goal or reward. We cannot manipulate God or other human beings in that way successfully or without ultimately dehumanizing ourselves. It is only as we learn to serve our Lord in humble obedience that we begin to see any benefit from anything we do.

Yet true humility is perhaps one of the most universally difficult things for us all to achieve, even fleetingly. I do not wish to be quietly humble. To the extent they notice me at all, I want others to notice my excellence, not my failings. We want to be first, not last. Even when we try to turn that upside down and say we are seeking to be last, we make the pursuit of “lastness” a competition unto itself. Humility itself does not seem to me to be something you can actually try to achieve. It seems to me that if it can be achieved, it is only achieved by emptying yourself of the things for which you are striving and filling yourself with God and the loving service of other unlovable human beings in whatever way God desires. That’s speculation on my part, of course, since I’ve certainly not done that at all. But it seems to me that it’s at least part of what I’ve seen in the few I’ve encountered who are humble.

If this fast can in some measure teach me humility, so mote it be.

Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me.


You Are What You Eat

Posted: May 28th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Fasting | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on You Are What You Eat

You are what you eat.

As I adapt to life with celiac, I’ve noticed that every food I eat seems to somehow be in sharper focus than it was in the past. I am more acutely aware of the nature and quality of every morsel I place in my mouth. I’m aware that what I eat truly affects me to my core. As I reflect on this awareness I realize that this is true of all of us. At a very basic level, we actually do become what we eat. As we incorporate the food we consume into our body, we are simultaneously changed be it, for good or ill. I recently heard a story on NPR that exposed that reality. (The first is the shorter segment on All Things Considered. The second is the longer interview on Fresh Air.)  Take a moment to listen to the reports.

Why Do We Overeat?
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=103862714

Mind Over (Food) Matter: Combating ‘Overeating’
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=104068820

Former FDA Commissioner David Kessler has studied the food we eat, even dumpster diving behind restaurants, for clues to why we overeat. He has discovered that the food and presentation is designed to stimulate our hunger, to keep our bodies in a stimulated state. The more we consume, the more we desire to consume. The physical stimulus of fat, sugar, and salt actually conditions our minds, especially when melded with appealing visuals.  I believe this is a facet of the same reality I am discovering through celiac. We are not disconnected or separated from our bodies. As we eat, we are incorporating matter into our bodies. What and how we eat impacts all of us.

In this instance, the folk wisdom is right. You are what you eat.

That’s just particularly true for me. I know that a certain ubiquitous ingredient will poison rather than nourish me. But as I consider the above stories and survey my nation, is that not true of us all? Perhaps it’s not as clearly or sharply defined as it has become for me. But if we were really drawing nourishment at a deep level from what we eat, it seems to me that we would all be healthier than we are.

And I wonder if we still fasted together as Christians if we would not share some level of this awareness. Would fasting bring the connection between what we eat and who we are into sharper focus, especially as lived and experienced the fast as a community? Is this not at the heart of Christianity? We ritually eat the body and drink the blood of our Lord. You don’t get any more visceral than that. We consume God in order to transform our being. We swallow God in order to digest life.

Maybe it really does matter what we eat and how we eat it?


Fasting and Humility

Posted: May 20th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Fasting | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Only weeks into this gluten free fast, I already begin to understand the reason for the linguistic linkage between humility and humiliation, at least for someone with my longstanding private and often even stoic demeanor. That private aspect to my nature is the primary reason I never started my own blog. Celiac is taking that and stomping it into the ground.

My now familiar litany when I step into a restaurant, especially if I have not had the opportunity to research it online, is: Hi. I have celiac disease. Do you have a gluten free menu? Often, I have to clarify and explain exactly what that means. Frequently I end up speaking to the manager, who consults with the chef or cook to see if they can safely feed me something. The question becomes less about what I like to eat and more about finding something I can eat without damaging my body.

It is unpleasant to have to do that – every time. The great joy for me of the meal at Flemings was that this unpleasantness almost, but not quite, vanished. For a brief time, I felt almost normal. If I’m offered something to eat, I can no longer simply take it and try it. Instead I have to ask what is in it or simply decline the offer. It becomes impossible to simply be one of the group. If food is involved, I am forced to stand apart and always will be to one extent or another.

In a very small way I begin to understand the ‘chip on the shoulder’ that some of those with real disabilities can acquire. There is something soul crushing about always being the one who is different, the one who is limited in some way. My illness cannot even begin to compare to an actual disability. But through it, I can see how the perceived humiliation could easily turn to anger and anger to bitterness. Even though my situation is not a true parallel, I understand now in ways I would not have understood before.

Fasting, at least as described by Jesus, is something to be undertaken with humility. If not, then the recognition and honor you receive or expect to receive from others is all that you will receive. It’s hard to be humble. It’s hard to accept. It’s hard to be forced to expose your weakness and rely on the care and empathy of others – even in small ways. As I proceed forward, I also begin to understand that a little better than I did before.

I don’t know that I am any humbler than I was before, but I have certainly, in some ways, been humbled.


Breaking the Fast – the Ancestral Sin

Posted: May 19th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Fasting | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Breaking the Fast – the Ancestral Sin

For several days, I’ve been reflecting on the story of the ancestral sin. I had never really considered this aspect before, but the whole story revolves around a fast. God gives the adam, humanity, a single and apparently simple fast. Anything in the garden you may eat, but of the fruit of this one tree, do not eat.

Do not eat.

It’s strange, in a way. We try, rightly I think, to understand what the symbol of this command might mean. We struggle with the impact of what it means when we choose that which is not God, turn to face non-existence, and reflect chaos into creation instead of the God whose image we bear. And we should so struggle. It is not some ancient event for which some distant ancestor is to blame.  We participate daily not only in our destruction, but in the fall of mankind and the ruin of creation. For we each set our will against God, against life itself, and embrace the non-existence of death instead.

And yet, in our reflection we miss the most basic aspect of the story: its crunchy, gritty, embodied reality. Don’t eat that fruit, God says. Come on … eat, the serpent whispers. And they eat. They pick the fruit. They hold it, feeling its texture in their hands. They smell it. They lift it to their mouths, bite into it, chew, and swallow. It’s not some disembodied spiritual or intellectual act in the story. They eat. They consume something and make it a part of who they are, a part of their body, a part of their being.

They break the fast that God has given them. They were surrounded by food created by God and given them to sustain their existence, to give them life. But when they swallowed the one fruit from which they were to fast, they swallowed death instead. Our materiality is part of nature, our being, our soul. What and how we eat matters.

We see this theme of food writ large across the story of what we Christians often call the Old Testament. We see famine – the absence of food – threatening God’s people and we see God providing them food in strange and marvelous ways. We see it again and again. And in the central event, in the penultimate liberation that defines the people of God for generations upon generations, we see death itself passing over those who have the blood of the lamb which they have consumed on their doors. Then those same people are fed by God through the manna, the bread that appears from the heavens, the bread that sustains their life in the desert.

And we see the people of God turn again and again to those which cannot sustain life. It might be a golden calf, or an asherah pole, or bloody baal. But they turn from the one who has given them food by which to live to that which offers only the coldness of death. The people of God continue to recapitulate the story of the fall. Do we not still do this as well?

And so God does the unthinkable. He comes to us as one of us. The sustainer God of all creation is contained in the womb of Mary, growing and being nourished from Mary as all human beings grow and are nourished in their mother’s womb. When the baby is born, entering the world of humanity through pain and struggle and blood, this is God joining our nature to his. When Jesus suckles at the breast of Mary, drawing life, it is intimately human life.

In this context, is not the first recorded temptation of Jesus fascinating? The Spirit of God has driven him into the desert to fast and pray and sustained by the Spirit Jesus has fasted beyond the natural capacity of human beings. How does the tempter then first tempt him? Make some bread. Eat. We can almost hear the serpent hissing in the background. Break your fast. Eat. Give yourself food in the desert. Fill your mouth with manna drawn from barren rock. Trust your passion rather than God.

But Jesus is faithful. He maintains the fast that God has given him. He does not eat. He remains true where we do not. In order to change our nature, Jesus had to not only be fully human, he had to keep the fast we had never kept. This fast provides the foundation for the fast that God desires in Isaiah. The two are linked. We are not dualists.

Jesus makes himself into the food which gives life. He is the true bread that comes down from heaven. He is the water that quenches all thirst, the cool refreshing life-giving draught. We chew and swallow his body because he is the tree of life, the tree whose leaves are for the healing of the nations. We swallow his blood to quench the desperate thirst that only God can quench.

We who have eaten death must now eat life instead.


Not the Fast I’ve Chosen

Posted: May 18th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Fasting | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments »

This post collects the permanent links to all the posts in the series, Not the Fast I’ve Chosen. I wanted to provide this to make it easy to reference the entire series.


Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Epilogue

Posted: May 17th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Fasting | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

This series has barely managed to scratch the surface of many different and often deep topics. I never intended it to deeply cover everything in depth, but rather to lay the groundwork for my focus on this particular subject on this blog. I’m sure I will visit and revisit many of the topics touched on in this series in other posts and in other series. If you’ve read this series, you now know something of what I intend here, what my life has been, and how I speak and think.

I don’t know what this journey will be like. I don’t know what to expect. It’s very strange to have a whole category of food turn from something nourishing into poison. It’s even stranger when that category includes all that we normally think of in that most basic of staples, bread. Jesus, of course, transcends all. I’m not overly concerned that I am in any way cut off from his life-giving substance, especially after a reassurance from an Orthodox priest I know online and whom I trust. But bread is so central that Jesus described his body as the bread that comes down from heaven. He said that we the bread and the life. He taught us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.”

There are many worse diseases I could have and may one day have. I know that. And I’m grateful that I don’t need chemo, radiation, surgery, or any of a host of similar treatments. If I change the way I eat, I will recover. And yet it is disturbing at a very deep level when bread, the stuff of life, turns deadly for you. At least it is for me.

Thank you for reading. This particular series is concluded, but the discussion will continue.


Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 9

Posted: May 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Fasting | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I closed my train of thought in my last post with the idea that, though God has not given me celiac disease for any reason whatsoever, he has been quietly at work preparing me and giving me the tools, should I care to employ them, to stand and perhaps even grow in the face of this disease. For the reality is this: though the diagnosis is still so new to me that I have a difficult time truly wrapping my head around it, celiac disease has been working havoc in my body for years now. My gastroenterologist can’t even say how long it’s been active, but from the visible evidence and the other physical effects, it has clearly been a long time. That means that for at least some significant portion of the journey of discovery about Christian fasting that I have described in this series, I was actually suffering from this autoimmune disease.

I may not have known I had celiac disease, but God certainly did.

Now, I suppose I could be angry at God for knowing I was sick and doing nothing to heal me or somehow making me aware of it sooner. But that seems rather pointless to me. Further, I know that God’s purpose is to bring me into his life, to have me and all humanity participate in union with God and with each other, to conform us to the image of his Son, who lived the life of the faithful man God intended each of us to live.

My core cultural formation was such that the center of my being was shaped in more hedonistic and narcissistic ways than not. Would God physically healing me, especially if I didn’t even know I was sick, move me closer toward the center of the life of God? Or is my true and holistic healing to be found in the proper ascetical practice that allows me to heal from the effects of this disease? Might not that path carry healing not only of body, but also of spirit and will? I see the possibility. I see it through the lens of all I have read and heard and encountered of Christian fasting. No, I’m not angry at God at all. I know him. I know how much he loves all of us. And I’m beginning, just beginning, to understand something of the way of life. I understand enough to know that I desire more than simply a body which functions properly. I want to become truly human.

So no, this is not the fast I’ve chosen. It’s not a fast I want. But this is the fast I’ve been given. Will I have it be a fast for the physical and spiritual healing of my whole soul? Or will I have it be a fast of misery and destruction? Will I take advantage of the tools that God has graciously prepared me to use, even if I am still a neophyte and clumsy in their use? Will I choose instead to fast the fast of demons, a narcissistic fast, a fast that is all about me? Or will I ignore the fast altogether and destroy my body? Those are truly the only real choices I face at this  juncture. As the Didache says, “There are two ways, one of life and one of death, but a great difference between the two ways.” Narrow is the way of life. Broad is the way of death and destruction.

I choose life, in the fullness of the sense of the word.

This is my fast.


Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 8

Posted: May 15th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Fasting | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 8

If God is not any of those images of God from my last post in this series, then what sort of God is he? Why does it matter that he is not a God who sends illness and disease? The answer to both of those questions is the same: Jesus of Nazareth.

It seems to me that many in the modern era, whether they profess belief in the Christian God or not, profoundly misunderstand the so-called “miracles” of Jesus. I hear the miracles believed (and disbelieved) as these interventions into the natural order that Jesus did in order to prove that he was divine. The secular division between things that are natural or normal or mundane and things that are of God and holy is accepted almost universally except by those who believe the second category entirely unnecessary. The first category seems everywhere assumed.

The Incarnation itself gives the lie to these ideas. It is less an external intervention into creation than the ultimate coming alongside or joining of the creator and his created. God reveals himself within his creation not as its powerful sustainer on whom it is all contingent from moment to moment (though God is certainly that), but as one with his eikon, man. He joins his nature with ours. He shares in all we are. He participates with us in the most intimate manner possible.

The miracles are never about Jesus proving anything. God had nothing to prove. He was giving up his natural honor and becoming the servant of all. The things we call miracles, excepting the special and unique nature of the Resurrection, always are presented as what happens when God joins his nature to ours, when creation begins to be healed.

Jesus commands the elements. Man was created to rule creation and reflect God into it. We were meant to be the steward of all and lovingly order and care for creation. Of course, the storm bows before the true and faithful man.

Jesus feeds the people. This is what God has always done. From the garden to the desert, God provided food for his eikon. Now, in Jesus, he has come that we might consume God himself and receive life. Of course Jesus fed the people. Where else would we find life?

The demons and invisible powers bow before him and flee his presence. They have long ruled mankind through deceit and the power of death. But their tools are useless against the undeceived man, against the God-man who has come to break the power of death over us all. They have no power over Jesus and they see him as he truly is. I would suggest they see him as he was glimpsed by his followers during the transfiguration. Of course they flee the uncreated light of his glory. His simple presence must have burned them with the knowledge of what they had made themselves to be.

And Jesus healed. What are disease and sickness but the fruit of death at work in our bodies? Our bodies sicken and die because we, collectively as mankind, choose non-existence over life. We make that choice every time we turn from God and in some timeless manner we make creation what it is. There is no singular fall of mankind, some distant past event in which I share no responsibility or culpability. I don’t get to blame some faceless, distant ancestor. Every time I face the void and choose that which is not God, I share in the fall of man, I participate in the ruin of creation. In the Incarnation, God wed his nature to ours in order to enter death and break its power over us. This is the mystery of the Resurrection. Death swallowed a man on the Cross and found it had swallowed God instead. How can disease and illness and death, simultaneously the physical symptom and cause of sin (they are so inextricably intertwined) not flee from the very fount of life itself? Jesus heals sin and heals disease, often together and at the same time. This is part and parcel of the renewal of creation and a foretaste of the ultimate defeat of death.

Now, that is not to say that we get sick because we sin. It’s bigger than that, less individually focused. It is true that we can certainly damage our bodies through our thoughts and actions. But most illness and disease are simply part and parcel of a disordered creation. Did Jesus get sick in the Incarnation when he fully assumed the human nature? It seems likely to me that he did. We know he so fully assumed our nature that he was able to die. And could he have experienced all that we experience, could he have been tempted in every way we are tempted if he was never tempted to blame God for an illness? It’s one of the oldest temptations. I recall what Job’s wife said to Job when he was sitting in dung covered with boils. “Curse God and die!” Would a Jesus never so tempted ever even understand, much less have been faithful through, so basic a human temptation?

No, God did not give me celiac disease. That would be an almost blasphemous claim. But perhaps he did work to prepare me for this disease. Let’s explore that idea next in this series.


Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 7

Posted: May 14th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Fasting | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 7

But it is the fast that I’ve been given.

As I’ve written the posts traveling the thread of my own experience and personal journey, it’s dawned on me that some, perhaps even many, might read that statement from my earlier posts as some form of fatalism or even is if I’m blaming God for this disease. Neither is even close to the truth, as I’m sure anyone who knows me well would recognize, but I should spend some time to explain why that’s so.

It’s extremely common in our culture for people to have an image of God as a figure who stands apart from us, guiding and intervening in our lives. There are a variety of different images of this sort of God. I want to take a moment to explore a few of the more common ones.

Sadly, some people have internalized an image of an angry God smiting those who cross him and punishing those who screw up in some way. It might be all people with whom this God is angry or only certain ones. It seems to vary. This is also one of the more common images of the God whom those who have abandoned God have rejected.  Personally, I don’t blame them. If I believed that God was anything like this particular God, I wouldn’t worship him either. This God is a God unworthy of worship and certainly unworthy of love. Worthy of fear, maybe, in the same way you would fear a rabid wolf, but not worthy of love at all. So no, I don’t believe that God is ticked at me for not adopting and practicing the “right” rule of fasting and prayer and celiac is his way of punishing me for my failure.

Others hold a milder version of this same God. It’s not a God who is necessarily angry with us, though perhaps he does get disappointed. This is a God who is, perhaps, more like the stern parent who will sometimes reward you and sometimes punish you in order to train you properly. I don’t believe in this God either. Yes, God teaches us. The Dark Night of the Soul shows us one way that he sometimes teaches us and moves us on to deeper and more solid practice of our faith and lives. He never actually leaves, of course, but for a time he lets the strong sense of his presence fade so we trust him and not that emotional experience. He also teaches us through the consequences of our actions, through illumination and revelation of Holy Scriptures, through other people, through the saints, and in a host of ways. He is the one truly good Father. But as such, he does not “teach” us by doing evil to us. Never. So no, I do not believe God gave me celiac disease so I would be able to move past the point where I have been waiting these past couple of years.

Still others imagine God controlling the minutiae of all that is. Of course, God does sustain and create all that is, but that is a different concept than the concept of control. Still, there are a small minority of ‘Christians’ who perceive a universe without any freedom whatsoever. God manages everything down to the smallest of subatomic actions and absolutely nothing ever happens at any level that is not precisely and exactly as God intended it to happen. There are varying degrees of this perspective and I will point out that I’ve never seen anyone who actually lives moment to moment as if they truly believed this were so. This God is perhaps the worst God of all of these. This is the God of scientific determinism. This is a personal, active God who originates all evil as well as all good. In such a scheme, there isn’t really any such thing as evil or good in any sense we would recognize. Every permutation and manifestation of this God that people paint makes me absolutely shudder. No, I do not believe that God foreordained I would have and manifest celiac disease and is putting me through my paces for his own narcissistic self-glorification and honor.

Indeed this is the fast that I’ve been given, but God didn’t give it to me. More on this in the next post.


Not the Fast I’ve Chosen – Part 6

Posted: May 13th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Celiac, Fasting | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

This post in the series should wrap up the meandering thread I’ve been tracing through the story of my life. For no discussion of encounters with fasting communities could ever be complete without discussing Orthodoxy. Somehow, in all my wide-ranging study, modern Orthodoxy still managed to catch me off-guard. Like many, at least in the US, I thought of them as an Eastern or even a Greek sort of Catholic (as defined by my encounters with Roman Catholicism) rather than as another Tradition of the faith. And as such, I never really spent any time looking at the thread of the Orthodox Church following the Great Schism of 1054.

Oddly, it was a distinctly Protestant book, Praying with the Church by Scot McKnight, that abruptly shook me from that complacent (mis)understanding. That book explores the tradition of set prayer within the church and includes a chapter on the manner in which it is practiced within Orthodoxy. If you recall from earlier in this series, I mentioned my love for Brother Lawrence and his The Practice of the Presence of God. One of the disciplines in that book is the discipline of breath prayers, short prayers that you can say, almost with the rhythm of your breath, as you work or engage in other activities. I’m not particularly skilled or disciplined in any of the Christian spiritual practices, but I had been using breath prayers for some years by that point in time. I had several that I found particular helpful and even compelling. These were the prayers to which I kept returning. When I read the chapter in the book above, I was shocked to discover that the breath prayer which I most used, the short prayer I had thought I had found on my own, was in fact a common variation of the Jesus Prayer, one of the oldest prayer traditions of the Church!

With that, I began to truly explore Orthodoxy to better understand it. You can’t do that for very long at all without running into their ascetical practice of communal fasting. It’s deep and rich. I would say that even after several years I’m only beginning to scratch the surface of the subject. The typical Orthodox fasting regimen is a fast from meat, fish with a backbone, dairy, oil, and wine. It’s very similar to what we would call a vegan diet. There are various periods of fasting in preparation for feasts. And they fast most weeks of the year on Wednesday and Friday. Perhaps you recall the excerpt from the Didache I posted earlier in this series? The Didache was one of the earliest rules of fasting within our faith. It had seemed to me that the practice of a weekly, communal fast had vanished from the modern landscape, but it hadn’t. I found that a very encouraging sign of continuity within our faith.

But I’m not Orthodox and I did not fast. I was intrigued, but still reluctant to jump in. I also did not live at that time with even a rudimentary rule of prayer. And I knew that a rule of fasting without a rule of prayer would be very dangerous indeed. Fasting, whether an ascetical fast or a total fast, still seemed strange to me. I did what I typically do when I’m unsure how to proceed and there is no urgent reason for action. I read and listened and waited while changing little in my daily practice.