Guest Post

More on fasting and self-help

I cringed when I read Jeffrey MacDonald's accusation, quoted
by Steve Thorngate, that Americans have turned Lent into a spiritual
self-help event "whose effectiveness is measured by how well it entertains us
and affirms what we already believe."

I love the Lenten season, and I followed its trajectory even
when I had no other religious practice. But I also I recognize how my practices
have sometimes fit MacDonald's characterization as "spiritual self-help" (help,
by the way, I've badly needed). That said, I've been arguing with MacDonald
ever since:

  • What exactly about contemporary Lenten fasts (giving up
    chocolate, for example) is entertaining? Is it the way we talk about Lent,
    regaling our friends with stories of our self-sacrifice with the knowledge that
    our practice is really very small?
  • If Americans were conducting Herculean "true" fasts for
    Lent, we wouldn't know about it, right? Jesus, after all, taught us to fast and
    pray in secret.
  • Is "true deprivation" really the point of fasting, or is
    true fasting measured by the extent to which it turns us toward God?
    Deprivation for deprivation's sake could easily become competitive or
    self-aggrandizing. Biblical writers frequently make the point that God isn't
    interested in displays of piety but in justice and love.

I'd like to seen a trend toward communal Lenten practices, in which groups could share the
struggles and difficulties of their practice and teach and learn from each
other. This might be a corrective for those Lenten disciplines that are not so
different from starting a new diet or exercise program.

Amy Frykholm

The Century senior editor is the author of five books, including Wild Woman: A Footnote, the Desert, and my Quest for an Elusive Saint.

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