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.
So for 40 days, I fasted from the need for love. For 40 days, I focused on giving love to others. I wrote cards to my grandfather, I called friends and fielded their worries, I smiled more warmly than usual at strangers. I listened to the long story of my hairdresser's harrowing childhood and encouraged him to pursue his dream of going back to college. I devoted a week to helping my brother adjust to civilian life after serving in Iraq.
That part of the discipline came fairly easily. The parts involving Joe did not. Daily I felt the tingling temptation to devise some new way of forcing the question. (Aloud: "Don't you think we're wonderful together?" Implied: Then why can't you say you love me?) I found myself refusing to offer my love because of fears that he wouldn't return it. I'd withhold a kiss, or fall into a dark mood. But every time I slipped, I returned to my fast. I cleared from my mind the impulse to try to take love. My mood brightened; I kissed him out of spontaneous affection instead of the hope that he'd utter the magic words.
One morning in the middle of my 40-day love fast, I awoke with a realization: I already had all the love that I needed. I had it from my mother and brother, from my friends, even from the memory of the love that my father had given me before his death. Consciously giving love to others—and seeing them spontaneously give it back—had made me recognize the love in my life more clearly. Most important, I had all the love I needed from God, or whatever you want to call that larger reality of the universe. I didn't need Joe's love. And yet, I still wanted it.
Near the end of the 40 days of Lent, Joe suddenly said, "Perhaps I'm not giving you everything you deserve." We both knew the three unuttered words we were really talking about. He asked to come over, his voice resigned over the crackle of our bad cell phone connection. I had the sad expectation that we would be saying goodbye.
When Joe rang my apartment door, my impulse was to hold myself aloof, to welcome him politely but coolly in case he wasn't, in fact, going to say that he loved me. But then, my arms around him, I thought, "What would happen if I stuck to my fast even now? What if instead of pulling away because I'm afraid he won't give me love, I stay here holding him, I keep kissing him and letting him feel my love?"
Joe drew back. He said, "I feel overcome by love for you and it feels...amazing." And then he said it. "I love you."
It could have gone the other way, of course. Joe could have balked; our relationship could have ended there. My fast from love had prepared me for that possibility—and my acceptance of it made Joe's love possible. The fast continues. As Bishop Marc said at the end of his sermon that Ash Wednesday, if your Lenten fast is a good one, it's not one you ought to give up once the 40 days are over. Joe still squirms over commitment. I still fight the urge to pressure him. I'm still tempted, every day, to think I need more love than I already have. And I still feel a strange new peace every time I say "I love you" first.