My first date with my future wife was a group backpacking trip to Kings Canyon in California. One of the highlights of that weekend—besides launching our marriage—was dinner the night we arrived. We had hiked in 11 miles and had brought scarce snack food for the trail to minimize weight. It had taken forever to set up the campsite. We were almost shaking with hunger by the time we got the fire going. So we got out our freeze-dried dinners, added some boiling water, waited two and a half minutes instead of the three you’re supposed to, and dived right in. Sitting out there in the open air, gazing dreamily (but subtly) at Jodi, savoring every tongue-burning bite—it truly deserves to be called a feast.
About ten years later I was on a retreat at the the Society of St. John the Evangelist’s Emery House in rural Massachusetts.. It was one of my infrequent experiences of fasting, and after a full day and night I dined with the monks. We ate without speaking, only spoons scraping plates to break the silence. It was corn from the farm next door, homemade bread, and squash soup, all prepared very simply. As my food preferences generally lean toward the “massive carne asada burrito with lots of hot sauce” kind of thing, I was not expecting anything spectacular. But I was wrong. The bright, fresh tastes, savored without distraction, were perhaps the purest joy I’ve experienced through food.
These are two of my most wonderful memories of eating. It surprises me that they came to mind first because objectively they are not my favorite tastes. In fact, one time we had a leftover freeze-dried backpacking meal, so we ate it around the kitchen table just as an experiment. It was horrible. We couldn’t even finish it. And to this day I still don’t like squash. But both meals took place in the context of fasting, and I think they were unforgettable because my hunger made me so fully appreciate every nuance of the taste.
Right now I am two weeks into my Lenten commitment to drink only tap water, and I think I’m experiencing some of the same dynamic. First, because I can’t have them, I’m appreciating much more the awesomeness of orange juice, tea, and cas (a kiwi-like fruit juice only available in Central America.) I’ve noticed how often during the day I absent-mindedly go to the refrigerator for a little shot of liquid tastiness. So I think I’m learning to really savor the privilege of access to such luxuries. That big, cold glass of high pulp orange juice on Easter is going to be spectacular. But I don’t want to underestimate plain old water either. Despite all the shelves and shelves of manufactured thirst quenchers, it’s hard to beat the original.
So for me, I think this Lent’s Simple Living Challenge is deepening my sense of what God meant when he created water and fruit and tea leaves and said “It is good.” When my life is just an all-you-can eat buffet or an unlimited refills large drink, I begin to experience diminishing returns in terms of taste and thankfulness. I know that the rhythm of feast and fast that marks the traditional Christian calendar means more than just deeper appreciation of food and drink, but it certainly does not mean less.
How about you? How’s your experience of fasting (tap water or otherwise) this Lent?