Every Lent, I have practiced giving up some kind of food. Often, it’s been sweets and desserts, since I have a particular craving for all things chocolate and sugary. This week, in keeping with our church’s Lenten challenge, our family has also given up meat for a week. Sometimes this hasn’t felt all that difficult; we’re not big meat-eaters to begin with. But when our teenage son headed off to a potluck lunch this week, he noted that some mighty enticing meat dishes would be served. However, it didn’t take him long to add, “But I guess that a spiritual discipline which is not hard at times, is probably not much of a discipline.”
While “being difficult” is certainly not in and of itself the mark of a spiritual discipline, I find that the “difficult” part of spiritual disciplines has its uses. My longings for the foods I have given up remind me many times a day that Lent is a time “set apart,” a time to pause, to be mindful. My cravings nudge me to ask, "What is the true source of my hunger?" As C.S. Lewis writes, “What does not satisfy when we find it, was not the thing we were desiring.” Unfortunately, when a handful of chocolate chips does not satisfy, it’s easier to try a second (or third) handful rather than admit that chocolate is not, ultimately, the thing I am deeply desiring.
A true examination of our spiritual hungers can, however, be a frightening thing. John Kirvan writes that “feeding our spiritual hunger demands more of us than a warm, effortless embrace of serenity. This is no journey for the timid but a way marked, if we are wise, by a profound fear of what meeting God might be like.” It is both a terrible and blessed thing to encounter the living God. That encounter sometimes requires more of us than we feel capable of giving, and then offers more to us than we can ever imagine. It is an awe-full and stunning thing.
And so I walk through the daily grind of turning away from the chocolate chip bag in the cupboard, or from the succulent meat dish on the table. Most days it is not a glamorous thing. But it is a moment of taking notice, an opening of space for encounter, which often happens in quiet and subtle ways, and occasionally in surprising and startling ones.
Then, may our inward examinations of hunger also draw us outward. I personally have the luxury of using “hunger” in a figurative sense to explore spiritual realities. For many, many folks, hunger is a literal and urgent reality. May our longings this Lenten season, also impress upon our spirits the outrageous injustices which leave many people desperately longing for food. And may the Spirit then also move us to action.
Judith Friesen Epp