I have an inkling what it feels like to be viewed as a religious extremist.
I arrived back at work from a lunch-time mass, with ashes on my forehead. 5 of colleagues, each at separate times asked, wondering if I fell into an inkpad or rubbed dirt on my forehead. Each time, in humour and shock, I explained. Having grown up in a Catholic country, there was never a need before to explain the ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday. “From dust you came, and to dirt you shall return”. If that is the looks I get, good humoured and curious, to ashes on my forehead once a year, I wonder how others feel with more stringent day to day activities. I had taken for granted being a Catholic in Ireland, where growing up having ashes on your head was not accepted, but expected. It is not that my colleagues are not religious, some are, some are spiritual in other ways, but the Catholic population is low on the ground. I travelled 13 miles to get a Mass that I could attend, and I was the youngest person in the small congregation, and by a pretty good gap.
It was also the first ever Ash Wednesday where I followed the fasting obligation. There are 2 days in the year the Church asks us to fast: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. From my mother, I learned I was supposed to have a slice of dry toast, black tea, and a dinner without meat. Never one to accept just one opinion, I had to research: a fast day constitutes one proper meal; you may have something at the 2 other mealtimes, but those 2 together should not amount to a full meal. There is no snacking. It is a sacrifice to prepare for Lent and connect with those less fortunate than ourselves, a sacrifice as penance, to say sorry for sinning, to increase awareness, to detach from the body and connect with the soul, to imitate Jesus’ fast in the Bible.
There was a reason I hadn’t done it before. I may question its reasoning: how does my hungry belly help starving children; why do I need to pray for people who in my judgement, should already be in heaven (Yes I know, I am neither a judge on earth or above) but the real reason: It is tough. When I was doing 24 hour fasts as a child for different charities, I would start after dinner one day, and finish with a late inner the next day. Not so with Ash Wednesday. It lasts all day, and you go to bed hungry. I even ate extra on Tuesday night to give me a head-start on hunger on Wednesday. I skipped breakfast and by lunch was hungry. Somehow, being that hungry made me more aware of actually being hungry and I didn’t even accidentally slip some fruit or nuts into my mouth like I would on a normal day. When hunger pangs struck, I thought on people I would dedicate my suffering to, to help me through it; people who had passed away, people who needed a little extra help, people I miss in Ireland. I really enjoyed my dry toast at lunch time, which I had sneakily sliced deliberately thick, just in case. I aimed to eat slowly, quietly, really savouring it, to make sure I benefitted from every crumb. When it was all I was getting I’d make sure it counted.
Due to work, we went out for dinner, ironically to an Irish pub, but I safely chose the soup, potato and cheddar. Colleagues again looked at me through their bites from their steaks, cooked rare, as if I was mad. Wow it was good, and then I wondered if having such a delicious soup was over-indulgence. It was thick and creamy and filling, and feeling full, I wondered if I should stop, 3 spoonfuls from the end. I couldn’t, it was far too delicious to waste. Regardless, I felt wonderful; this fasting thing was no problem. I would also have a tiny piece of brie later at a buffet later, and felt a teensy bit guilty. Arriving home at 10.30, I was famished. My tummy was empty, I was tired and I went straight to bed. Maybe for the first time in my life, I went to bed hungry. Again, I felt successful, I was hungry but I was in bed. I’d fall asleep, awake and eat, mission accomplished.
Sleep didn’t come. I tossed. I turned. I tried to focus on breathing yet it took nearly an hour to fall asleep. I was easily awakened and again would lie, trying to take my mind of my empty stomach. I had an argument with my boyfriend and it was harder to be ational when all I could feel was the emptiness in my stomach. At this stage the hunger felt painful. At 12.30, I had some cereal.
So ended my first fast on a holy day of obligation. I may not have been as successful as I had hoped, but I am proud of my attempts. I feel more connected. I can vaguely understand now how it feels to go to bed hunger. How it would feel to do that regularly, with no fall back is beyond me. I felt tired of hearing about famine and poverty, felt powerless to know how to help, but I have a renewed sense of injustice, of seeing a need I should respond to. Children especially should not go to bed, staring at nothing, overwhelmed by the hunger in their stomachs. I wonder how many people in my own community do not have enough food?
As well, perhaps less lofty as a feeling, I am proud of myself. I set myself a challenge and I worked hard on it. From someone who grazes at food all day long, I did not think I would even manage what I did. I learned that I am stronger than I think.