Emptying the vessel

I have practiced various forms of fasting on and off for just over a decade now. I have become more committed to this process in the last three years, and have just completed a 180 hour water fast. Privately, I am increasingly convinced that fasting is the God-given way to invite bodily repair in the most simple, natural manner. No potions, no pills, no tinctures, no treatments, no healing modalities. Just pure rest.

Practically speaking, fasting requires nothing more than time and space. However, I began doing longer water fasts only when I felt certain that my body knew that this was a time of care and not a form of punishment. Fasting is a practice, and having exercised this muscle consistently I now feel confident that I can handle whatever arises on my own. I eased myself gently into and out of the fast by eating very lightly and minimally for at least a week on either side. For the fasting period itself, I took time off work, cleared my calendar of anything strenuous, booked myself a massage and bought copious quantities of bath salts. I vowed to do no reading, no studying and no listening to lectures or audiobooks. I wanted to steer myself away from the usual safe, diversionary harbours.

Once the fast was underway, I gave myself simple, physical tasks that mirrored the internal work taking place. I tidied cupboards, cleaned shelves and quietly sorted and ordered my cloister-home. I went for slow walks and did gentle stretching routines. I permitted myself family-friendly viewing in the evenings if my energy was waning, but otherwise I maintained a low-to-no info and media diet. Mostly, I did nearly nothing. I sat on the sofa, drank warm water and looked out of my window at the shifting mists and clouds. I listened for the owls and the peregrine falcons nesting nearby. I watched the birds and the squirrels competing for their portion of food on my patio.

A reminder from the red rocks of Arizona

Although tangible physical repair and the purging of junk and poison from the body is very much welcomed, fasting yields so much more than this. Without fasting, when would I truly let the tide to come in? When would I allow the rhythmic swing to reach its furthest apex? When would my mind and body entirely cease from churning and digesting? It has taken me a long time to recognise that there is a special kind of inertia in constant striving. Equally, there is an evasion in relentless production and achievement – a futile exercise, for as Thomas á Kempis states “wherever you go, there you are”. I fell into these habitual patterns of avoidance and simulation for much of my life, and fasting now forms a key part in my recalibration process. It helps me to place value where it abides naturally: in stillness, presence and being.

In the quiet sacrifice of foregoing the pleasurable lull of a full belly and the sensory satisfaction of taste and texture, there is a balancing point to be explored: the locus between the power and clarity of a disciplined self, and the humility and dependence of a frail body. I still lack the words with which to expand on this notion, but I know that on the sixth day of my fast when my muscles ached and my head was sore, I found consolation in identifying with Paul’s depiction of strength in weakness:

And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

2 Cor 12:9

The establishment of the fasting state is a particular blessing for an individual like me who is prone to be a thought-in-a-box, with a brain that is constantly juggling ideas and articulations. Over the course of the first three days, my mind gradually went into standby mode and my vision softened. The familiar laser beam honing in on fine details gave way to a more gentle overview. I was brought into a wordless space, a zone of neutrality and receptivity. Thomas Merton describes the art of contemplation as “learning to rest in arid quietude”. Fasting is a very literal way of playing out this aridity by creating a temporary wilderness in which you are compelled to face your own void while the vessel quite literally empties. In this sense, I experience fasting as a gentle exercise in learning how to suffer, how to accept transient aches and passing anxieties without fuss, how to not get what I want and still be ok. The more willingly and frequently I enter this state, the more at ease I become with my own inevitable discomforts. There is less fighting and more simple observation. As the surface fluctations ease and the flesh ceases “lusting against the Spirit” (Gal 5:17) a feeling of underlying harmony arises.

Eventually, there is acceptance. With yielding detachment from the appetites, the volume is turned down on the voice that likes to shout “my will”. The departure of this desirous chatter creates space, and in this space the well-buried but ever present peace of divine security feels closer to hand.

A brief caveat: clearly there are numerous situations in which fasting would be unwise. For some individuals, abstenance from food is ill advised under any circumstances. I am not here with the intention of dishing out recommendations. I am simply sharing my passion for a practice that I have found to be beneficial.

God Is Present Everywhere

Those who seek the throne of grace
Find that throne in every place;
If we live a life of prayer,
God is present everywhere.

In our sickness and our health,
In our want, or in our wealth,
If we look to God in prayer,
God is present everywhere.

When our earthly comforts fail,
When the woes of life prevail,
‘Tis the time for earnest prayer;
God is present everywhere.

Then, my soul, in every strait,
To thy Father come, and wait;
He will answer every prayer:
God is present everywhere.

Oliver Holden, 1765-1844

The nearness of God


How do I experience God?

How do I experience His nearness?

The words presence and absence radiate strongly from my enquiries into these questions. In reaching for answers, I find myself embroiled in both of these qualities simultaneously. Approaching the divine enigma using the mechanism of language is an enterprise that continues to fascinate me, even in its inadequacies. The experience of God’s nearness comes wrapped in wonderful, tangled paradoxes. I’d like to share some of my rough cut paradoxes here.

  • I feel God’s nearness as a certainty within an absence. The quality of certainty turns the absence inside out – it negates it.
  • I experience God as a presence encompassed in an emptiness. ‘Emptiness’ is my brain’s best attempt at quantifying a temporal, bound perspective on the boundless and eternal.
  • The abyss into which I surrender is the presence of God.
  • The absence I feel is God.
A present absence, an absent presence

How do I experience God in times of desolation?

In other words, how is God known and felt in challenging situations, when the drudgery of the mundane seems to blacken even the tiniest glimmer of the providential? The spiritually evolving individual understands that God’s perceived distance serves to test them. In stepping back, God is simply doing what all loving fathers do for their children: giving space for independent growth and learning. By not intervening, He offers us the free will choice to hone our skills, expand our capacity for love and deepen our wisdom – or not.

"For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another." 

Galatians 5:13

Above all, God wants to see if we continue to choose goodness and righteousness even when we feel that He is far away and we are standing alone on the most painful edge of solitary human experience. God gives us the gift of free will in honour of our potential, and the activation of this gift can only come through a journey of (perceived) separation.

It has turbo-charged my faith to understand that when God’s paternal presence is intangible, it is not an indicator of some great inadequacy on my part, but instead the sign of a loving manoeuvre made to aid my growth. When life is tough and I feel set adrift, I match these trials with a greater determination to cultivate humility and demonstrate my trustworthiness to our maker. Within this energy of perseverance and devotion, my faith flourishes.

"And whoever does not bear his cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple."

Luke 14:27

On the other hand, when the external setting surrounds me with joy and happiness, the efforts I make towards bettering my faith are naturally more light-hearted. In contentment and bliss, faith blossoms with minimal grit and enterprise on my part. Whatever the outer circumstances bring, I keep doing the work of seeking Truth. Divine bribery is not required.

My perception of God as present or absent is not what matters. What matters is the grounding of faith within my heart. This is where God lives in my individual experience. He is always that close, and it is only ever my individual-self-in-pain-goggles that hinder my seeing of this.

The constantly broadening certainty of my faith serves to assist in cleaning the lenses of these self-goggles on a daily basis. Faith in the heart as the seat of my relationship with God has also given me a greater sense of stability – it brings the possibility of being content in my own actuality as it shifts from one moment to the next. Nonetheless, I continue to remind myself that all expectations are hurdles, and that one of the more noble of these hurdles comes in striving to ‘achieve’ the feeling that God is close to me at all times.