Giving up sugar, taking up prayer

Thursday 29 October 2015
Natasha Marsh, Media and Communications Office

‘FAST AND PRAY’. This advice has been a Catholic staple for two millennia, and stretching back into the Old Testament. Ask any prophet, research any apparition or mystic and prayer and fasting will get a look in.
Lately, this simple advice has become less fashionable. I haven’t heard a sermon on the importance of prayer and fasting for years, except sometimes in Lent when the priest will say something to the effect that Lent is not really about fasting at all, it’s about the disposition.
So, when I decided to go on yet (another) diet, in moral support with a friend, I was not expecting that the major fruits of my labours would be spiritual.
However, so it would seem.
The particular craze that I jumped on is the ‘I Quit Sugar’ diet, started by Australian food blogger Sarah Wilson. It’s a fairly simple premise: don’t eat sugar. For the hard core IQSer this includes even fruit (for a couple of weeks) but I interpreted it to basically mean ‘don’t eat refined sugar’. Because, chemistry demands that almost everything contains natural sugars (including milk) and if you cut these out, you will die.
While I haven’t experienced any of the immediate health benefits of the online IQS community: instant svelte figure, luscious flowing hair, or jumping out of bed with a fist-pump every day, I have noticed something quite unexpected and worth sharing.
I have become a little more mentally disciplined.
For the first week or so, it seemed like the whole world was conspiring against me. Cookies, muffins, Nutella doughnuts and croissants exploded from every door. Lovely colleagues would ambush me with home-make cookies, and I would spend parties clutching a round of brie, sipping water and staring hypnotically at other guests’ drinks. The stuff of nightmares.
But, with every ‘no thank-you’, I gathered a little more strength for the next time, and the next. Until (just like in Lent), by Easter time I don’t actually want the chocolate-sweet-deliciousness anymore.
Which got me thinking–this is the exact same thought pattern which underpins morality and the spiritual life.
Saying ‘no’ to sugar (or carbs, or gluten, or anything) is a very simple form of building what the Greek philosophers meant by virtue. Aristotle taught that virtue is formed by the accumulation of lots of little good habits. In time it becomes a virtue–that is, a disposition to do the right thing. Same with vice, it just swings the other way.
Just as each time someone offered a plate of delicious sugar, I would have an internal battle, but say ‘no thank you’ so too every time I go to pray but find myself distracted by a host of ‘more important’ things I should be doing (spiritual sugar if you like), I could also say ‘no thank you’. The more you say it, the easier it becomes until … a beautiful moment when it is no longer hard but actually a pleasure, natural. Virtue formed.
So much for fasting helping out the prayer life, but what about the other way around. How does a prayerful attitude help with fasting?
As Catholics, we have a real advantage in the fact that we can mix the spiritual and secular aspects of life. Our faith is incarnational, not dualistic. We are meant to use the things of the earth to get to heaven, and this especially relates to food. If you don’t believe me, just think on the Eucharist.
Health fads, while having obvious benefits, can also make one become a little self-absorbed. Of course it is important (and good) to try and be your best, but, as St Thomas Aquinas reminds us, a good thing done with bad intentions is still bad.
One thing that was helpful during IQS was this piece of advice:
‘And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’ (Matthew 6:16-18)
Nobody wants to spend their morning tea talking about your latest diet. So, when in company, loosen up on the diet. Or go quiet on the sacrifice. In good grace, pretend that you really do like a handful of almonds better than brownies.
This doesn’t mean you can’t talk about your latest fad diet with friends. It can become a fun and social thing when done in company. But to avoid the narcissistic elements, pick your moment. So, when your well-meaning relative offers you a plate of freshly baked cookies, don’t drone on about your new ‘sugar free’ lifestyle, just accept it, gratefully and go for a jog or something afterwards.
In time, these thoughtful habits will turn into wonderful virtues: temperance, fortitude and courage, and with the assistance of prayer, eventually crowned by charity.
The Fathers and prophets were onto something when they spoke of prayer and fasting as necessary in building a relationship with God.
So, if you are on a diet, or considering going on a diet for summer, try linking it with prayer. By giving it the spiritual element you are more likely to persevere and are on your way to a toned will-power to match your toned abs.

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