Cloistered Dominican Nuns Corpus Christi Monastery

The Jesus Bite: Food and Fasting in the Church (Part 1)

BBQ Salmon and Corn DSC06611

Food. In our country, it’s way more than necessary nourishment. It’s art, entertainment, and comfort. It can bring fame and fortune to chefs-turn-celebrities. Cooking shows morphed into television networks, with magazines and books. Restaurants open daily, and everyone flocks to the latest culinary “hot-spot”. In this country, an abundance of food is available on demand in quick-marts, fast-food restaurants, and “one-stop” shopping grocery stores.

While technology and industry has given us quick and easy access to rich and quite tasty concoctions, as a culture, our waistlines have expanded and experts tell us “life-style” health problems and diseases are on the rise. We learn that the food industry doesn’t always have the safest and most humane practices for the plants and animals we eventually consume. So, we decide to become more health conscious. Or we try (but this other “bad” food is just so tasty!)

New trends emerge in the food market. Diet products, health stores, organic produce are now mainstream; those books and magazines are touting the latest “superfood” and it soon shows up in everything, from recipes to packaged goods.

Whew! Food. How did we let it make our lives so complicated?

In the monastery, a nun is forced to forge a different relationship with food. The monastery table is set simply. Gratitude for the food prepared and the hands that prepared it is fostered by not asking for items that may be desired but which were not served. There are other penances or practices a nun may observe, such as passing on a dish or dessert she particularly likes, or saving the “best bite” from each dish on her plate for Jesus and the poor. These acts of sacrifice are not made to save her waistline – they are made with love for God and offered to Him: “I am passing on the bigger piece for love of you God and for love of my sisters so they may have it, because I love you and others more than food.”

As a community, we also observe the traditional monastic fast, which begins on the Feast of the Exultation of the Cross (September 14th) and ends at Easter. Why such an extended fast?

Fasting is a universal, ethno-religious experience. Humans long ago observed that food is a double-edged sword. It makes a person stronger, physically, emotionally and spiritually, by nourishing the body. Yet too much food, too much “rich” food, or being too attached to food, would weaken a person and make them a slave to food. How many of us now cannot imagine going more than a couple hours without a snack? How much time and energy do we spend thinking about, planning, preparing, and eating food?

Through fasting and abstinence, we tell ourselves and our bodies that there are more important things in life than filling our stomachs. When we fast, the mind becomes sharper, the spirit more attuned to God in prayer. Our example par excellence, Jesus, began His public ministry with forty days of fasting and prayer in the desert.

Nun in Sunlight under Eucalyptus Trees P1070641

Fasting is also a work of penance and of looking forward with anticipation to Christ’s return. When Jesus was asked why His disciples did not fast, he responded that a person does not mourn when the bridegroom is present, but that there would be a time when the bridegroom would be absent, and then they would fast. By means of fasting, we look forward to Jesus’ return and aim to dispose ourselves to receive Him. This is also one reason why we observe a Eucharistic fast prior to receiving our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, and why the monastic fast begins with the Exaltation of the Cross of Christ and doesn’t end until Easter Sunday (Sundays and other solemnities excluded).

So, through our fasting, we turn our minds and hearts to prayer, train our bodily passions to quiet down, and aim to be more receptive to Jesus. But there’s even more to fasting! Check back for a continuation on the benefits of fasting.

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