Most world religions, it seems to me, have spiritual practices centered on food.
Often it is refraining from eating certain foods, or eating only foods raised, prepared or blessed a certain way—vegetarianism, hallal, and kashrut come quickly to mind. There are also ritualized meals, such as the Passover seder and its transmogrified stepchild, the Eucharist. Food and drink frequently follow worship in many traditions.
And, of course, there are fasts—abstaining from all food or certain foods for a set period of time—the Day of Atonement, the month of Ramadan, or the season of Lent.
Religious liberals are not without food practices. Many of us seek out locally grown or organic produce, refrain from eating food produced by corporations or food that is highly processed.
Religious liberals, of course, are free to keep a fast or not. Often, our food practices (like much of what we do) are what we choose for ourselves.
The discipline of fasting has a bad reputation among religious liberals, as overlayed as it is for many with uncomfortable memories of headaches and stomach gurglings during endless Yom Kippur services or the guilt and temptation of restrictive Lenten practices or dying for a sip of water during Ramadan. We were supposed to feel bad about ourselves somehow, something that goes against the grain of liberalism’s spirit.
There are some things that religious liberals don’t do well, and penance is one of them. Discipline is another. While preparing for a Sunday morning service on forgiveness, my congregation’s music director and I reflected on the dearth of materials about being sorry and confessing one’s wrongs in the Unitarian Universalist hymnal. There were readings and songs about forgiveness, of course, but none that explicitly ask for forgiveness for missteps. The music director said: “It’s as if UUs are always forgiven, but never sorry.”
Because fasting is associated with penance and forgiveness of sin in the Abrahamic faith traditions, many religious liberals reject it. We’re not big on including in our religious life admitting we made a mistake, got something wrong or did harm to others—and saying sorry. We’re not big on guilt, often because we confuse guilt with shame. Guilt is the sign that one’s moral conscience is alive and well, and is triggered when we realize we have caused harm; shame is the pervasive sense that one is worthless or unworthy.
Liberal Christians have reinterpreted Lent as a season of introspection and spiritual discipline. “You don’t have to give anything up,” they cheerfully say, “take something on instead, like daily prayer or meditation or Bible-reading.”
As a religious liberal myself, I also object to the mortification of the flesh implied in many forms of fasting. It is the body that must be disciplined, in this view, because it is the source of sin and wrongdoing. One must rise above the flesh to be more spiritual, more like God—dispassionate and bodiless. I disbelieve in this willed opposition of body and soul, earth and spirit.
So with all of this in mind, I have decided to give up meat and dairy for Lent. (Or, for the cheery positive thinker, I have decided to take up veganism). Well, vegan until dinner, as Mark Bittman advises. For personal reasons, I choose not to deem entire food groups forbidden and off limits, so I may eat limited amounts of meat and dairy at my evening meal.
Abstaining from meat and dairy has been the traditional practice during Lent, of course. Interesting that what we now call veganism has been embedded in the practice of many North Americans by another name for so long. I’ve been eating less and less animal products over the past several years, and have become more conscientious about eating locally produced and whole foods. Often, I have been enjoined to try going completely vegan for a limited time—forty days or a month is often suggested—and I kind of put two and two together: vegan for forty days during Lent.
Because food is so daily, cooking and eating so regular in my day, I like having a spiritual practice associated with it. It creates an atmosphere of mindfulness. The routine and mundane take on significance. There is a sense in which I am somehow participating more consciously in the rhythms of the earth. My daily choices have an effect on animals and farmers and climate change and natural resources. It reminds me that I am connected to something larger than myself, that I am a strand in a vast interconnected living web. Care of the body and care of the larger earthbody are simultaneous.
For those of you who observe Lent, however you mark it, may it indeed be a time of introspection and prayer, mindfulness and preparation for the coming banquet to which all are invited and nobody turned away hungry.