In December of 2009, I was hospitalized for four days in two different hospitals with a blood platelet crisis. Platelets cause your blood to clot when necessary and I didn’t have enough of them (ITP). I had been fighting 3 separate occurrences of cancer since 2003, and while the cancer was no longer present, the treatments (including two stem cell transplants) had been so brutal that I was constantly in the hospital for something.
This particular hospitalization occurred the week before Christmas and came on the heels of a deep inner darkness, a time of great difficulty both spiritually and emotionally. However strange as it might sound from the outside, I found this stint in the hospital to be a great blessing. Having spent many long periods of time in hospitals, I am at home in them. This four-day period became a sort of retreat for me where the darkness lifted and I felt renewed in body, mind, and spirit.
Just a couple days before Christmas, I was released from the University of Chicago Medical Center. My wife drove me back to our home in South Bend in the afternoon. That evening I needed to go to the drug store to get the five prescriptions that awaited me. I was feeling well enough to drive and, frankly, I wanted to experience some autonomy and independence so despite my weakened condition, I decided to go and get them myself.
While I was waiting in line, I noticed a short little Christian book on fasting which seemed like it was jumping out from the stand in the waiting area. (Yes, in Indiana you can still find Christian books in drug stores.) If books could talk, this book was shouting at me! As I browsed through it, I saw that it laid out biblical reasons for fasting and included testimonies about how fruitful the practice of fasting has been in the life of this pastor-author and his congregation. Longing desperately for more fruit in my own life, I purchased it and spent most of the night reading it. The next day, I drove to a local convent’s Eucharistic Adoration chapel and finished reading it, using the Scripture citations in the book to look up and read all the passages directly myself. As I studied them, I could feel my heart burning.
Now it’s not like I’ve never fasted. Fasting was a part of my “re-version” twenty years previous as a young college graduate. But I was a different person then, much more youthful, naïve, and prone to excessive enthusiasm. As my Christian conversion deepened and moved from a lot of emotion toward a more lasting and quiet commitment, I encountered a Catholic Church which seemed rather unenthusiastic about fasting. Except when I was around people who had gone on pilgrimages to Medjugorje, whenever the topic came up, the topic of fasting was usually met with so many warnings and calls for prudence, moderation, and caution that it seemed like fasting was something the Church actually wanted to discourage. My impression was that in the eyes of most Catholics, fasting was really something only for zealots and extremists. To even bring up the topic made people look at you funny. Well, I didn’t want to be a zealot or an extremist, so I avoided fasting altogether, except during Lent when it was “safe” or perhaps secretly for special occasions. I pursued other “safer” routes towards closeness with Christ.
This little book from the drug store rekindled some long smoldering embers. It pointed me towards the biblical basis for fasting. I was familiar with many of the biblical stories, but it was like the scales were falling off my eyes and I began to notice things that I have never noticed. During the ensuing month, I spent many hours in that convent chapel reading and praying about fasting, as I sat in the presence Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.
Then a couple weeks later, I had a conversation with a devout Catholic doctor friend about the spiritual practice of fasting. I wanted to make sure that it would not hurt my health to fast as I had made a commitment to my wife that I would always do what the doctors recommended. (This promise was to alleviate her stress about her husband having cancer.) As anyone with medical issues should do, I asked him if I could fast. He replied that nobody had ever asked him that. He requested that I give him a little time to read and think about it, and I said, “Of course.” Then only a day or two later, he emailed me some material that actually encouraged the practice of fasting from a physiological point of view. I was surprised but excited as I really wanted to begin as soon as possible. This was the green light I needed to overcome my fear of being a zealot and a fool, a great step forward towards the practice of fasting for me.