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Hunger: A Lenten Meditation

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27 February 2009 No Comment

I’ve long regarded myself as an intensely hungry person, though not in the physical sense. I don’t care inordinately about my dinner, save that it is healthy; yet, I’ve always experienced the world itself—the concept of it, the vast beauty and mystery of it, as something I desperately long to bring nearer in order to incorporate it into my(S)elf. I experience this longing as hunger to be spiritually and emotionally intimate with the world by “consuming” it—by “feeding upon infinity,” as William Wordsworth might say, as if my mind and heart were a great, hungry belly ready to fill itself with the cosmos.

Because of these intense experiences of emotional and spiritual craving, I have come to understand God as that something I’m always trying to ‘eat,’ really, in the hope that in doing so, my hunger will be satiated. And the way to consume God is by consuming, on a variety of levels, God’s Creation, because as I understand it, Creation is meant to draw us into deeper and deeper intimacy with the Creator. I say “consume” because this is precisely what the body, mind, and spirit do: the eyes draw the world in—absorbing light (and matter is, after all, various forms of light); the pores absorb the atmosphere and environment; the mind is saturated by experience of the world, and human identity is shaped by our reflections upon and interactions with the world and its creatures. Finally, we put Creation into our mouths each day and eat it in order to live. The mind and spirit digest all of this “input”, or sensorial experience, and grow and learn from it–existing because of it.

In essence, I regard hunger as the root of my being and humanity, as well as my need for God and completion. But, how I go about satisfying my hunger is crucial; uncontrolled appetite can be utterly devastating. I’m reminded of Dante’s Inferno, which depicts cannibalism (which is hunger at its most uncontrolled) as the deadliest of all sins; and in fact, all sinfulness in the poem is represented as self-consuming—because sin eats away at one’s own heart and spirit, or selfishly consumes the lives of others. It is the inordinate hunger for power, wealth, and resources, for example, that produces war, genocide, and ecological devastation: in these cases, “eating” or predation, is meant for domination—one group of people consumes the resources and lives of other people and creatures, but not for the purpose of relating with them, and certainly not for intimate connection. So, in a very important sense, I understand religion as that which teaches us how to understand hunger, as well as how to control and satisfy our appetites on all levels of being.

These are some of the reflections I want to pray with this Lenten season, during this forty-day fast in preparation for Jesus’ rising from the grave. For the next month, Catholics are asked to cull their appetites, pare them down, and abstain from animal flesh. We are literally called to think about food and our relationship to it, for fasting is meant to make us more conscious of how and why we eat, and what we hunger for. During Lent, we are to mindfully consider how our acts of consumption bring us either nearer to or farther from Christ.

Thus, I understand this season as an opportunity to bring into order my disorderly appetites, emotionally, spiritually, and physically, by adhering to a more conscientious diet. I am asked to confront my hunger, and consider the origins of my cravings. I am called to discern the difference between holy and unholy hunger, because disorderly hunger complicates and obstructs my relationship with God. (So much depends upon how and what we eat!). Which raises, too, of course, the way I consume all objects and to what purpose. Living in a “consumer society,” it is crucial to have periods of fasting—of stepping back and away from this kind of relationship with my world and the people who inhabit it. It is crucial to get at the root of why I consume—mindlessly eating–physically, mentally, and spiritually… Lent is meant to give us all a time of pause to question the cause of our hunger, and to consider its insatiability. Not only is Lent meant to remind us, ultimately, that God alone can fill our need, it is also an opportunity to remember how to eat or consume consciously.

Because to live is to eat—the act of ingestion and even the process of “digestion” (literally and metaphorically) can bring us into deep intimacy with both the Creator, and with our Selves. When we ingest food, we turn Creation into our flesh. There is no greater intimacy possible than this, is there? Isn’t this why Christ has asked us to “eat” Him? Christ has called us to mindfully ingest the bread that has been transubstantiated into his own flesh, and in turn, we incorporate him—literally turning him into our own
corpus, or body. I cannot believe that the spiritual lesson is meant to stop here. What I take away from the experience of Christ in the Eucharist is also the lesson of how to eat period. To me, the Eucharist is a constant reminder of my relationship with what I eat, and the spiritual and physical possibilities available when I eat well, or with awareness and intention. The Eucharist invites me to consider the way I consume. It is a weekly reminder that only one way of consumption is meant to be truly satisfying…the mindful ingestion of God as my daily bread, and, that my daily bread is also full of God. I try never to forget that it is prayer and intention that transubstantiates food into Christ’s body… Prayer is both the awareness of God in creation, as well as the supplication for God’s presence to be increased; or, maybe prayer is really how we strive to perceive more fully God’s constant and complete presence in creation. Either way, if we were to bring a similar level of mindfulness to all our acts of consumption, wouldn’t we consume in a radically different way? Wouldn’t the earth be a vastly different place—if we mindfully acknowledged and prayed for the increased presence of God in what we consumed?

This will be the first year I take such questions and reflections with me through the Lenten season; normally, I get caught up and bogged down by the struggle of “giving up”—thinking that by giving up the addicting food or substance or object for forty days will cleanse me, and ready my heart and spirit for the Easter celebration. However, I’ve never really considered how fasting may be the best tool for teaching me how to know God through consumption, too. In learning how to fast, I also begin to understand how to better eat. I become increasingly aware of the nature of my relationship with those things that I regularly consume—and the possibilities that mindful ingestion brings to me spiritually, emotionally, and physically. So ultimately, I’m finding that Lent isn’t about merely “giving up,” but rather, about learning how better to relate with and grow in intimacy with my food, with the world, with other people…and thus, with God. I simply hope and pray for the strength to bring this mindfulness I experience during the Lenten season with me into Easter, and then into Ordinary time…

Photo: “Mmm.” by Shereen M from Flickr (Used under Creative Commons license)

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