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It’s that time of year again – when Catholics and other Christian denominations are asking – “What should I give up for Lent?”

The word lent was derived from an old English term meaning “season of spring.”

The spiritual discipline of a Lenten fast as a preparation for Easter is not a new concept in churches, with writings about the practice in the early church dating back to the second century after the death of Christ.

Many churches have adopted practices of fasting and preparations during the season of Lent. All these practices strive toward a goal of mastery of one’s desires and offering sacrifices to help one focus on a deeper desire and thirst for God.

This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent- 40 days from then till Easter. Most Ash Wednesday services include this reading from the book of Joel, chapter 2:12-13, 15: “‘Even now, declares the Lord, ‘return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.’ Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity… Blow the trumpet in Zion, declare a holy fast.”

Jesus explained to his disciples that fasting and prayer is sometimes the only answer to conflicts including sickness and evil oppression (Mark 9:29). But Jesus also explained to the Pharisees that feasting was an appropriate response for his disciples while he was in their midst (Mark 2:19).

For many Christians, the concept of fasting, especially during Lent involves giving something up. While the prophet Joel focused the fast as a means to give God one’s heart, Isaiah echoes this truth and takes it a step further in the service of others.

“This is the kind of fasting I want: Free those who are wrongly imprisoned; lighten the burden of those who work for you. Let the oppressed go free, and remove the chains that bind people.” (Isaiah 58:6).

Medical science is also now recommending the practice of intermittent fasting as a way to heal the effects of inflammation in the human body. Research shows reducing and eliminating sugar and processed foods can even help to starve some cancers and feed a healthy immune system.

Our society in general, even apart from the practice of religious faith, is beginning to more fully embrace the value of fasting. Partially fueled by a desire to counteract the insanity of violence, concerns over the environment, and political strife, some people have chosen fasting as a way to spur positive change. At every facet of society, people seem to have a sense of a world gone awry. Some embrace the discipline of sacrifice and fasting as a means to help heal the world in which we live.

For many of these reasons and more, I embraced a 90-day fast from alcohol, sugar and most processed foods which began on January 21, the day of the last lunar eclipse and ends on Easter Sunday. So I guess I got a jump on Lent this year.

My efforts at fasting aren’t perfect. I have given into a few slices of pizza and chocolate along the way. But the benefits far outweigh any imperfect attempts during these 90 days.

Processed foods, sugar and alcohol cause brain fog. Fasting helps to lift the fog and discover new creative ways to live. This new found energy has led to more creativity in the kitchen as I focus on ways to incorporate more organic vegetables in my diet.

Eating my lunch by the front window, while watching the birds at the feeders, has become a favorite pastime. We have over 10 species of birds currently feeding here this winter. I am marveling at all the beautiful colors of the male and female birds, as well as the varied habits of each species. I’m looking forward to seeing even more birds in spring and the hummingbirds in early summer.

Sometimes fasting can uncover anxieties and conflicts we are trying to avoid or hide in food or drink. Adopting more time for prayer and seeking counseling can really help.

Another unexpected benefit I have discovered in this 90-day fast is laughter.

I find myself laughing out loud at circumstances I may have missed before. Laughing more helps me to not take life so seriously but could also be a bit embarrassing – like one recent Sunday when something struck me funny at church. It would have been fine if I was able to compose myself in the bathroom. But it was a little awkward that I was the cantor singing into a microphone!

I also began this fast just days after we started raising our seventh puppy for Canine Companions for Independence – so there are lots of reasons to laugh. Imani (her name means BELIEVE!) is an adorable golden retriever. Her daily antics and puppy energy makes me laugh every day.

Whatever your reasons for considering fasting – to restart your health, recharge a new year goal, or grow closer to God, I pray you discover a deeper purpose in the fast. Maybe you’ll even discover the gift of laughter.

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Eileen Benthal
Eileen is a writer, speaker and wellness coach with a bachelor’s degree in theology from Franciscan University. She and her husband Steve live in Jamesport and have four young adult children. Email Eileen