Exponent II Classic: Fear of Fasting
by Anna Tueller
Originally Published in Exponent II, Vol. 12, No. 4 (Summer 1986)
Fasting had always been a window-cleaner that allowed me, at least for occasional moments, to see through the glass a little less darkly. It was a key that I trusted and used to open, however slightly, the spiritual dimension when I needed to be comforted, assured, renewed, or enlightened. I loved Fast Sundays; my hair was always a little bit cleaner; my skin more radiant; my dress more pristine; my voice more melodious. I depended on that monthly spring-cleaning and trusted that if I would do my twenty-four hour vigil, my windows would be cleaned, that the light would shine through more brightly. My testimony was born and grew in those adolescent years as I participated in the spiritual communion of testimony meetings, and I learned very early that I needed to belong to a spiritual community. I went to those meetings and was fed. I found peace, joy, community, and truth. When the meeting was not a spiritual feast, it was because I had not properly kept my vigil.
Fast Sundays ceased to be so simple many years ago. Instead of the peace, joy, and light that I had learned to expect, I usually felt cynicism, outrage, disillusionment, and loneliness. I despaired at my continuing failure to make work the key that had served me so well. Fasting had become more associated with migraine headaches than magical Windex. The acceptance in a community that had once come to me so easily now seemed to be denied. I continued to assume, however, that I was failing to use the tool correctly. If I had only fasted more rigorously, or prayed more fervently, or taken the sacrament more thoughtfully, or behaved more charitably, the heavens would have opened for me. Often I would go to church, fully-fasted, eager to be fed, only to leave hungry, to return, once again, to a self-examination of my sins, my failures, my inadequacies that were keeping me from communion. Instead of becoming more at harmony with my spiritual community on Fast Sundays, I became more alienated.
In addition, the issues of being single in a married Church, female in a male Church, and doubting in a believing Church were more immediate on Fast Sunday than at any other time, and fasting—my magic key—only seemed to exacerbate my disillusionment. When I attended testimony meeting, spiritually prepared for it, I listened more attentively, felt more keenly, and as a consequence, hurt more deeply. I didn’t belong. I didn’t believe. Fasting, as always, made me more vulnerable, but instead of opening me up to joy, I was opened to pain. Eventually I became less willing to suffer on a monthly basis and would often avoid vulnerability and opt for oblivion.
This alienation was especially true during this past year when I moved into a ward that was predominantly married student couples with one-going0on-two children. For months, I attended meetings and felt rejected. The women seemed to look at me suspiciously, and the men looked right through me. I became more and more willing to fade into the woodwork, to become on of the women who just disappeared.
Until two months ago. As Fast Sunday approached, I yearned for one last chance to recapture my joy in fasting, and I was going to knock until I was answered, seek until I found. I had somehow shed my cynicism of the previous years, and I was the young adolescent again preparing for Fast Sunday.
I spend Saturday alone, in fasting and prayer, and on Sunday morning I walked to Church on a beautiful Boston midwinter spring day. It had snowed the night before, and my footsteps were the first as I walked along Massachusetts Avenue and across the Cambridge Common. I sang as I walked. I particularly remember my rousing chorus of “As the Dew From Heaven Distilling.” My voice was more melodious; my hair was cleaner; my skin more radiant; my dress more pristine. I stopped at the statue I have come to love that is hidden behind the Episcopal Church on Brattle Street and looked at the figure pleading with heaven and repeated to myself: “We shall not cease from exploration/And at the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.”
As I entered the chapel, I felt as though I had come home. Every person I greeted looked lovely to me. I wanted to hug all the children, embrace my brothers and sisters, and commune completely with them. The opening song, the prayer, the sacrament were all precious to me in the way that only once-forgotten familiar things can be precious.
And then the meeting began. Two babies were blessed, and the mothers were the first to rise and share their joy with the congregation. And then a third sister rose to tell the story of how she had to grab her two children and evacuate her apartment the previous night because of a first in the next building. She wept, and I was weeping with her as she spoke about taking only what was most precious with her, her children, from the building. And, then she said, “I know that the only way we can know of God’s love in this world is by having children of our own.”
The pain I felt was immediate and demanding. I realize now that it went away beyond the temporal circumstance of fast meeting. I looked around the congregation and saw the woman who had recently lost her first child to birth defects; I saw the sisters who had adopted children; I saw and numbered myself among the singly women; I saw the couples who weren’t able to have children. I was moved, more compellingly than I had even been in my adolescent zeal, to bear my testimony, and I was convinced that the words were given to me. I have gone over and over what I said in an attempt to analyze and dissect, but I can’t deny and refuse to dismiss the conviction that I had been told to speak, that the heavens opened, albeit painfully. I remember saying that I had to believe that we can know God’s love in many ways, that it is difficult to see life through any vision but our own, but we had to try, and that I knew and had felt God’s love.
The woman whose testimony I had followed left the chapel, hurt and angry. And the meeting proceeded painfully as person after person rose to defend the sanctity of the nuclear family. I don’t recall much; I was hurting too badly. The same door that at one time had united me to my spiritual community now seemed to separate me from it. The compulsion to speak was so familiar, and yet so foreign because it no longer opened portals of joy and communion; rather, it seemed to underline my separation and liminality.
My faith in fasting is stronger than it has ever been. That key is still available to me. While fasting I become spiritually vulnerable and sensitive in ways that I experience at no other time. After this experience, I couldn’t, wouldn’t, as I had done in the past, look for excuses that I had failed to prepare myself; the familiarity and rightness of the experience were too immediate. I had to accept that the heavens had opened, that I had sought and I had found, that the spirit can bear witness to error as powerfully as it ever bears witness to truth. It is not a failure in me that makes me most vulnerable to certain explosive issues when I am fasting. The issues are real; they constitute a large part of my spiritual life right now, and the spirit can bear witness to their validity. If a spiritual acknowledgment of their veracity brings pain rather than joy, I do not have to dismiss the experience.
If the blessings are not immediate, they are no less real. During the two months since that meeting, the ward has changed for me. Slowly and painfully, the doors have opened. I have talked with the sister whom I hurt and how hurt me, and we are careful friends. In Relief Society, I hear a new sensitivity to issues of single sisters, and my home teachers now talk to me instead of at me. If I once experienced fasting in joy, I now do so in fear, but certainly joy and fear are both time-honored emotions with which to approach deity.