Illustration: Elvis Swift
I walked into San Francisco's Grace Cathedral on edge, full of worry. It was Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Before I chose to be baptized into the Episcopal Church, in my mid-20s, I hadn't even heard of the holy season of Lent; now it filled me with vague reverence—and befuddlement. In a few minutes I'd kneel at the altar rail, a priest drawing a smudgy black cross upon my forehead with his thumb and half whispering, Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Then would come the 40 days of penitence leading up to Easter, and with them a perplexing practice: 40 days of fasting.
Fasting confused me because it seemed in theory dark and serious—self-denial, self-punishment—and in action, totally trivial. As far as I could see, most churchgoers gave up something easy like chocolate or red wine, congratulated themselves for going without whatever they didn't really need anyway, and then Easter came and they ate Godiva and drank Pinot and went on with their lives as before.
I wanted my life to be different. Church was my ritual, a way to create the stability I still craved two decades after my father's sudden death, and it had gotten me through hard times. A year and a half earlier I'd split from my husband, and now I was rebuilding, finding my own footing. One sign of how I'd moved on: I'd met a smart, kind man and fallen in love.
But Joe squirmed at the slightest emotional pressure. On our third date he professed "commitment issues." Our early courtship became an unlikely dance of Joe showering me with affection before fretting that he couldn't start a relationship, and me reassuring him that he could. Whatever patience and self-security I thought I'd gained through this delicate process flew out the window the moment Joe decided he was fully onboard. Right away I needed him to tell me that he loved me. And though I thought I'd grown so much since leaving my ex—and though I didn't want to torture Joe with the 2 a.m. "do you really love me" talks my ex once endured—I still clung to pressure as my only tactic for reassurance. One night I gazed up at Joe expectantly. "I think you know how I feel about you," I blurted out. "But I'm not sure how you feel about me."
Silence. Joe's face furrowed as my unstated question dawned on him. And over the weeks that followed, even as I watched him flinch, I couldn't get myself to back off. I had a hunch, from the little cakes Joe kept for me in his refrigerator, from the way he lit up when I arrived at his house, that he did love me. But my need made him resist. His resistance made me apply more pressure. ... It was hopeless.
Then that Ash Wednesday, sitting in the pew and worrying about Joe, I was given a new idea of what it means to fast. Fasting, Bishop Marc Andrus was saying, didn't have to be about self-denial for its own sake, or giving up some trifle just to feel self-righteous. Traditionally, Bishop Marc continued, the thing people fasted from was food. And the idea was not merely to punish themselves. The idea was that by eating less, those fasting could give the extra food to other people who needed it more. Fasting could be about taking less—in order to give more.
As the bishop's closing words echoed and I knelt and prayed, it came to me. What did I think I needed that I could do with less of? What could I give instead? Love. I could focus on giving love instead of worrying about how to take it.