This post was originally published March 3rd, 2014 on the liturgical blog PrayTell, where Professor Belcher is a regular contributor. It is reprinted here by permission.
We often think of the Lenten fast on analogy with physical disciplines of diet and exercise, which was also common in the early Church. But today, the analogy between physical and spiritual workouts, and physical and spiritual nourishment, can also be very revealing of the gap between secular and liturgical views on food, discipline, and the body. And I fear that too often, our spiritual Lenten fast can be threatened by the dominance, in our minds, of a secular narrative of dieting.
Think for a moment about what foods you’ve given up for Lent. Thinking over my and friends’ food-fasts over the years, I can see chocolate, desserts, candy, soda (or pop!), alcohol, and meat. None of these are bad choices for a fast, of course. Alcohol and meat are even very traditional. However, I very much fear that giving these things up allows us to fall into a secular understanding of the purpose of food control – it’s for “health” or, if we are honest with ourselves, thinness and longevity. “The ten miracle foods that can make you live longer!” “The simple diet trick that can help you lose twenty pounds!” I noticed some time ago that no one I know has ever given up fresh carrots for Lent, though I don’t doubt that giving those up would make me far more aware of the great blessing it is to have fresh carrots — a blessing that many people are denied. I even seem to feel an incredulous indignation at the very thought. “Who could give up fresh carrots? They’re good for you!”
Now, I know it has been a perennial temptation for Christians to believe the health of the body is unimportant, and I wouldn’t want to go back to that mistake. But at the same time, the idea of a healthy body that we’re being sold in the grocery store and in magazines and on television is not the body loved into existence by God the creator of all good things, either. It’s a body subject to judgement, the beauty of which is dictated by secular culture’s terms. Marketers everywhere want to sell me the idea that my body isn’t healthy enough, so that they can sell me whatever fix they’re marketing. For me, though,the health of my body should not be an end in itself, but one of the many (temporal and temporary) goods I’m privileged with as a gift.
My Lenten discipline this year is increased psalmody, so I think I will try to transform my understanding of health and food by using a prayer from Psalm 104 before I eat:
“You cause the grass to grow for the cattle,
and plants for people to use,
to bring forth food from the earth,
and wine to gladden the human heart,
oil to make the face shine,
and bread to strengthen the human heart.”
I also think I will fast from fresh vegetables and fresh fruit for a week, as a measure of solidarity with those who live in food deserts.
May God bring us true and deep transformation, according to our needs.
Kimberly was appointed to the faculty at Notre Dame in 2013, and does research in sacramental and liturgical theology and ritual studies. Her current work explores how seeing the worship of the Church as human ritual can enhance an understanding of it as the work of God, and how the West can rediscover the Holy Spirit’s work in order to develop a fully Trinitarian theology of sacrament. In addition, Kimberly is interested in Catholic and ecumenical Eucharistic theology, in ritual adaptation and identity transformation, and in the liturgy of the Syro-Malabar Rite Catholic Church, especially in the United States.
Kimberly is married and has three small children. She also writes for the liturgy blog PrayTell, hosted by Liturgical Press.