Sunday, January 22, 2012

Food for my Soul

I've never been a big fan of fasting. It felt like punishment disguised as devotion. I remember as an eight-year-old, sitting in the hall of the meetinghouse waiting for my parents, with a lap full of vomit. Fasting made me literally sick. My mom let me eat soda crackers on subsequent fast Sundays after that until I outgrew the nausea.

As an adult, I've dreaded fast Sundays. I have a brother who, while decidedly non-religious, has discovered the spirital aspect of going without food. He says it helps him connect with himself on a deeper level. Or something like that. I'm a hedonist, I guess. I love fulfilling my physical appetites too much, and find it challenging to set them aside, even for a few hours. Obviously. As reflected by my BMI. Pregnancy and breastfeeding provided me with the perfect excuse to forego fasting each month, and I never really got back into the habit. And I cannot recall a single time in my life when I felt a greater connection to the divine by going without food. But that's just me. I recognize that, for others, fasting allows them to access a level of spirituality that they don't feel at other times.

My son, now 14, has had a particularly difficult time with fasting. We discovered, when he was about 8, that he became a completely different person when he didn't eat. He has always struggled with anxiety, amongst other issues, and lack of protein seemed to feed his inner demons. He has some compulsive tendencies, and, after hearing about the importance of fasting from his church teachers, he became convinced that a perfect fast was essential to his spiritual well-being. We encouraged it, of course, as he'd been baptized and had entered the realm of a practicing latter-day-saint. We'd taught our kids that fasting was an important aspect of religious worship, recognizing that learning to do so was a process. We didn't require a perfect, complete fast from any of our kids, especially at age 8. But, this kid wasn't content with attempting to fast. He was determined to obey completely, and always seemed to know when fast Sunday rolled around. He reminded us, much to our dismay, that it was time to observe the monthly fast. Ughhhh.... like I said, I've never been a fan.

It became apparent early on that fasting did not bring out the best in our son, and wasn't spiritually edifying for any of us. Fast Sundays quickly became a battle ground, with him insisting that he needed to abstain from food, and us knowing that if he didn't eat, the monster within would be unleashed and would devour us all. One such Sunday stands out vividly in my memory. It was the first Sunday in September, 2005, and hurricane Katrina had devastated the Gulf Coast. The leaders of the church had called for a worldwide fast to benefit those affected by the disaster, to coincide with our regular monthly fast. It was Labor Day Weekend, and we were camping with my extended family, but we all planned to participate in the fast and then attend church with a local congregation. We were in our trailer, and Daron and I had prepared a simple breakfast of cereal and fruit for the two youngest kids, our son included. When he saw that we'd fixed breakfast, he became incensed, furiously accusing us of purposely thwarting his desire to obey God. Maybe not in so many words, but we got the gist. My husband and I attempted to explain to him the importance of not letting his blood sugar drop, and keeping some protein on board so that he could stay the pleasant, reasonable little boy we'd come to know and love. And he wasn't buying it. He started to weep and wail, pointing his finger accusingly at us, repeatedly saying, "You're evil! You're evil! My parents are evil!" This at the top of his lungs. In a campground full of other campers, my extended family included. We were humiliated, and tried to get him to lower the volume, but once he has started in on a rant, there is no stopping until he has exhausted himself. And us. We were all drained, emotionally and physically. Nevermind spiritually. There was nothing uplifting about the experience. I don't recall how the episode ended that day, but once we returned home from the camping trip, I put in a call to the pediatrician.

Dr. Anderson was also our congregation's bishop, our ecclesiastical leader. I thought that, if he couldn't help our son physically, maybe he could perform an exorcism? We were desperate for help. After a brief physical examination and one-on-one interview with our son, the good doctor explained that there was no physical reason he couldn't fast. But there were emotional ones, and mental ones, and spiritual ones. While our son wouldn't be damaged physically by going without food, the experiences we'd been having were damaging to our souls. He told the boy that, yes, he could observe the fast perfectly by not eating for 2 meals, but how much good was that doing if he then beat up on his parents emotionally and mentally? He explained that, for many people, fasting does not mean going without food, but is a mental state of mind. People with diabetes, for example, cannot abstain from food. Pregnant women, as well. But they can find ways to observe a spiritual fast that edifies and lifts them closer to God, but doesn't place their loved ones in harm's way. Coming from his doctor/bishop, it seemed to have the desired effect. Our son agreed to change his definition of fasting to include toast and some sort of protein to sustain himself physically, while focusing on turning his spirit toward God. And it made a difference. Through the intervening years, fasting has ceased to be a problem, and we haven't had any more Sunday morning meltdowns. At least due to fasting!

This weekend, our next-door-neighbor's son experienced a life-threatening event that bought him a helicoptor ride to a Salt Lake hospital, and brain surgery yesterday morning. My son's quorum advisor called him last night and asked him to contact each of the boys in his quorum and ask them to fast today for a speedy recovery for their friend. My husband informed me of this development when I returned home last night from dinner with a friend. I know my son fasts periodically when the first Sunday of the month rolls around, but he doesn't seem as hung up on perfection as he used to be. When he got up this morning, he reminded me that he was fasting and wouldn't need breakfast. His demeanor was serene, a descriptor I never thought I'd use on my teenage son. I was impressed with his devotion to the cause, and surprised as well. He isn't particularly close to this other boy, but he seemed genuinely concerned for his well-being. And I saw, in my son's face, what it really means to fast.

Not only have I struggled to physically abstain from food and drink for two meals, I've also struggled to understand a God who hands out blessings based on who has the most prayers sent heavenward on his or her behalf. It just doesn't make sense to me to petition God to heal the sick or provide for the destitute, when he should take care of them just because they are his children, and he loves them. If the entire ward fasts for this young man, will God then bless him equal to the number of petitioners? What about the kid in the room down the hall who has no one to pray on his behalf? Is he just out of luck? Destined to die or suffer needlessly because nobody thought to ask God to spare him? Of course it doesn't happen that way, and sometimes people who are dearly loved and prayed for, die. And sometimes people live, who have only godless heathen loved ones who wouldn't pray on their own deathbed. It isn't fair because it isn't. If there is a God, he doesn't operate that way, and we cannot know the reasons why with our finite, mortal brains.

So, fasting. What good does it do? This morning, looking at my son's face, I saw love and concern for a fellow human being, the beginnings of compassion and charity towards another. His fast may not effect the outcome of our neighbor's surgery, but it has changed my son. It gave him a sense of community, of joining together with others in solidarity of purpose. As a ward, as a community of believers, they have been transformed into one body, of one mind, one in purpose, each pleading with God for the return to health of one of their own. Knitted together in love. Whatever the outcome, I hope they will always remember the experience as one that lead them toward a greater love for humanity, which is all God really wants anyway, right?