For years, I've taken something on for Lent — a work of mercy, a good deed, a practice or a devotion. One year, I went to daily Mass; another year, I gave donations to local charities. This year, I did something I haven't done in a very long time: I gave something up.
I gave up snacking between meals and, in the process, I learned what it means to cultivate a hungry heart.
As a college campus minister, I am quite literally surrounded by food. Snacks draw students into spaces. They help facilitate conversations and give space and place (for good or for bad) to emotions, stress and sharing. They are everywhere, and for that reason, I knew giving up those snacks would be a challenge.
Within the first week of Lent, I realized the difficult, if not enlightening, situation I'd gotten myself into. Just as taking something on for Lent had served for years as a way of being more conscious of my actions in everyday life, returning to the practice of giving something up did the same for me in a new way.
I quickly realized that the snacks that are ubiquitous with my ministry weren't going anywhere. They were still there as I talked with students; I just needed to refrain. More difficult, though, was that I came to realize that after a stressful conversation or emotional moment, I couldn't reach for something sweet or salty to dissipate or absorb what I was feeling. Instead, I had to recognize what appetites exactly I was feeding. And where I might normally pause and gather myself for a moment with a mindless munch, I had to gather for a moment of recollection, centering myself again on the One who grounds my ministry. That moment of recollection made me realize the many moments of my day that call for rededication to what I do, moments when I might collect myself and invite God more deeply into my being and doing.
Those moments, no doubt, are even more numerous than I was able to realize. As the days wore on, though, I found myself more conscious of when I needed to pause and pray. My heart, it seemed, was hungrier than I had realized for these moments.
In the frenetic pace of our lives, this is often the case. It's only when we can stop ourselves (or even just slow down) that we realize how much more there is to be consumed and digested in each moment. To cultivate a hungry heart, we must be able to recognize and admit that we, in fact, are hungry. That acknowledgment of hunger is the beginning of a process of being fed.
Once I acknowledge my hunger, I can try to identify what will feed me. This requires paying attention and listening, not only to myself and my body, but to God.
Over the 40 days of Lent, I came to know more clearly the moments I needed to stop and reflect, and yet I also found that sometimes that reflection, for whatever reason, wasn't always a ready possibility. Sometimes I just didn't have the energy I knew it would take to dive deeper, and at other moments, it was a matter of not having enough time. Realizing that the hungers of the heart — hungers for justice, prayer, goodness, and grace — are those I can so often ignore, push aside, or, quite frankly, miss, I recognized the need to be intentional about how and for what I make space in my life.
My days of fasting between meals taught me the importance of what you eat when you get the chance. I became acutely aware that whatever I consumed during a meal needed to nourish me enough to carry me through the day. Meals on the fly weren't a good option. If I ate quickly, my body missed the intention of the meal. I would feel this later when my stomach gurgled. My body needed time to know it was eating, to feel cared for, to be filled.
In time, I came to understand the best ways to navigate my Lenten sacrifice and to see how it applied to what I ate and also how I lived. At its basest level, choosing not to eat between meals made me more aware of the most basic needs of my body. It wasn't until Holy Week, though, that I realized that what I'd given up had larger lessons to teach me about the truest hungers of my soul and what it means to have a hungry heart.
As my Lenten season came to a close, I took a few days during Holy Week to gather myself. The first few months of this year have been full of ups and downs; I'd barely had time to pause, let alone stop, to nourish my heart and soul. As I looked toward the holiest days of the year, I realized the need and desire within myself to step away and reflect. My heart and my soul were hungry. Like a body constantly in motion, eating meals on the go, I needed a moment to be filled. I needed time to stop and recuperate.
What I wanted were days of deep connection. I longed for release and relaxation. Yet as I settled into the silence, I found that I could only handle so much. I found myself both relaxed and restless. I knew what I wanted those days to be, and yet somehow, like a diner with too many menu choices, what I ordered never seemed to satisfy.
In fact, as I moved through Holy Week to Easter, that is what struck me over and over. No matter what I expected or tried to make those days, they wouldn't be. No matter how I tried to find nourishment in them, I couldn't quite manage; not because I didn't have good intentions, but because I wasn't really opening my heart to the One I hungered for.
Don't get me wrong, I thought I was. And surely I was making inroads, but what it turned out I wanted was to be in control. I wanted to choose how and where I would be fed. In my hunger, I'd forgotten that grace cannot be dictated and God certainly cannot be controlled.
After seeking without finding, I finally had to ask myself what my heart really hungered for.
Giving up eating between meals had made physical space in my life, making me more present to deeper needs in my life; it had disciplined my being and allowed me to be in control. Yet, as Easter quickly approached, the question now seemed to be if I could let the deepest hunger of my heart — the insatiable hunger for God — take control.
On Holy Saturday, after over 40 days of fasting, a simple yet profound answer seemed to come: In it all, be faithful.
Be faithful to prayer, to relationships, and to me, God seemed to say. Rather than dictating your consumption, let yourself be consumed by faithfulness.
Only through such fidelity can a hungry heart be cultivated. That, perhaps, is what the journey is all about: letting our Lenten sacrifice take on new life in the realm of Resurrection, to move beyond our boundaries and to let our deepest hungers, ultimately, be fed by faith.
[Colleen Gibson is a Sister of St. Joseph of Philadelphia. Author of the blog Wandering in Wonder, she currently serves as assistant director of campus ministry at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia.]