Helen Copeland reviews Fasting by Dag Tessore.
[New City Magazine – 2007]
So I’m at a friend’s birthday celebration, just tucking into a huge slice of chocolate cake, when the editor of New City asks me ‘Would you review a new book on fasting?’ The great thing about reviewing books is that you get to read things you wouldn’t necessarily have chosen – but usually they are happy discoveries. Although I approached this book with more trepidation than I did with the second helping of cake, I found it enlightening, inspiring and indeed entertaining.
Fasting means different things to different people, as author Dag Tessore demonstrates in his examination of the history of abstinence in the Christian tradition. He sets it in its global context, highlighting the value placed on fasting by the major world religions. In fact I was very conscious as I read the book, of my Muslim next door neighbours observing Ramadan, and of the Buddhist monks protesting in Burma, who do not eat after midday. Tessore suggests that Western Christianity has lost something of great worth in its disregard for directed fasting in the practice of one’s faith.
Through early texts such as the writings of St Basil and St Augustine, we see how Christians were urged to fast as a way to draw closer to God and to deepen prayer life. Practices and traditions changed and developed as time went on, and Tessore is fascinated by the endless tinkering with rules and regulations. Should one eat meat on Sundays in Lent? What about eggs and fish? Some amusing anomalies are thrown up by his research. In the 13th century ‘granite’ was a popular food substitute for those fasting – a grainy-textured flavoured ice – but which now graces the tables of high class dinner parties (so I am led to believe!) Also, as late the 19th century, singers and writers were exempt from fasting obligations, along with doctors and lawyers.
The historical aspect of this short book is intriguing, but it works on other levels too. It is a reflection on our own times, and the emphasis we place on ‘satisfaction’ in our lives. We are encouraged to question where it is that we seek happiness in a consumerist and individualistic society. Even ‘good works’ can be used as a means of self-satisfaction, rather than putting gospel teaching into practice. As a vegetarian who is fortunate to have a vegetable-growing husband, I read the passages about abstaining from meat with a certain self-righteousness. However, I found myself robustly challenged about the importance we place on having full stomachs, and the time and energy taken up with thinking about food. ‘Having enough’ also involves how we furnish our homes, how we entertain ourselves and how we conduct our relationships.
Towards the end of the book, the position of the Roman Catholic Church on fasting is set out clearly. As the author himself acknowledges, that position could be seen as quite bland, though in fairness most rules need fleshing out with life if they are to have any meaning. The challenge Christians can choose to take up is more complex than giving up chocolate for Lent. This examination of fasting shows that we need to check out our relationship with God, the quality of our prayer life, and how we are striving to bring about his kingdom of justice, in a world where many do not have the luxury of choice about food. Fasting is no longer a means of ‘setting oneself aside’ from others, but a means of dialogue and of understanding if it is undertaken in a constructive spirit.
As an Anglican, I found the Introduction by Nicholas Sagovsky, Canon Theologian at Westminster Abbey, particularly helpful. His introduction to the book drew out the universal themes contained in it, as well as some wise reminders about some of the negative thoughts around eating in our diet-obsessed culture. The point is made that fasting is not about controlling our weight or body shape, but a token self-denial that opens our soul to God and to others.