Tuesday, 14 January 2014

Fasting again

My appetite is still diminished due to the fall out of my stomach problems after Christmas not caused, I hasten to add, by the usual feeding frenzy that seems to afflict a lot of folk over this period. I can't eat my favourite sweets - midget gems or wine gums - or chocolate any more unless I am prepared to pay the penalty of an aching and grumbling stomach for the next day or so. I have to eat much smaller quantities of food and at the moment I am trying to avoid bread or grilled cheese.

But this post isn't about me complaining or crying out "woe is me" but to point to a rather positive outcome of it all. And it is this. I seem to be thinking and praying with much greater clarity on an empty or half empty stomach than hitherto on a full one. Now I realise that there are other factors I could point to i.e. a Christmas rest, a less busy speaking schedule - for now at any rate - or a less cluttered life (at the time of writing), but I suspect that it is perhaps more to do with the fact of what I was once told about the way to get the best out of your brain in an exam. I was told - and it seems perfectly reasonable - that when we have a full stomach, more blood tends to be re-directed to the stomach to help with the digestion of the food and the integration of its nutrients into the bloodstream and body. When the stomach is not active in this respect, there is more oxygen and greater blood supply to the brain helping it to function better.

Certainly it seems from the Bible that fasting tends to heighten thinking, whether it be awareness of spiritual realities - see Jesus' 40 day fast in the desert in Matthew 4:1-11; or in alliance with prayer (Mark 9:29), to somehow boost its effectiveness not in some kind of magical way, but in improving discernment or our ability to listen to God's Holy Spirit.

In Matthew 17:19-20 Jesus touches on the subject of  fasting. In response to a question about why his disciples didn't fast, he answered:

“How can the guests of the bridegroom fast while he is with them? They cannot, so long as they have him with them. But the time will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and on that day they will fast."

Jesus is referring to fasting here in the context of his presence with the disciples as opposed to his forthcoming absence. "Why fast when I am here?" he saying. "There is no need for it now, but there will be later." In other words he is looking ahead to the time when he will be absent in the body but present in the Spirit. Then the disciples will need to have sharpened minds and be on their toes spiritually if they are to continue their relationship with him in the future. The physical presence of Jesus then meant that there was less difficulty in hearing him speak and so no need to fast, whereas a different kind of hearing would be required when he was ascended to be with God but present through the Holy Spirit. Fasting would help facilitate that.

I appreciate I may be reading too much into the text and that Jesus may well have been speaking in this context about fasting representing mourning for sin rather than feasting for celebration. However I think fasting can also be understood as an ascetic exercise which, with prayer, and alms-giving (see Matthew 6) can enhance and mature our spiritual lives making us  more spiritually sensitive as we grow to become like Jesus.

Also Jesus refers to "that..day" perhaps referring to the 'day' of his crucifixion when fasting for mourning would be more appropriate, rather than subsequently when he promised to be present with us always be in the Spirit. The fasting - in the sense of mourning for his death =- will no longer apply. Fasting will therefore be for another reason - to heighten spiritual awareness, and discernment. This make more sense.

Whatever the passage from Matthew 17 may or may not mean, experience shows that fasting does seem to make a difference to prayer, spiritual reading and reflection on spiritual, as well as other things. Try it and see.

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