“You are what you eat.” And, of course, what you drink. Without food and water, we eventually perish. But if we eat and drink unhealthily, we can harm ourselves. This is common sense, even if a cheeseburger, fries and large soda occasionally shove good sense out the door. During Lent, we are challenged to consider more closely what we put into our bodies; the Great Fast is meant to transform the way we understand our existence in this world and, thus, change how we approach our spiritual lives.
Scripture is filled with stories about food and drink. Many of those stories are about conflicts and temptations. The very first conflict in human history, as we all know, involved the eating of forbidden fruit. Father Alexander Schmemann noted that in the account of the temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden, “man is presented, first of all, as a hungry being. ...” Man’s greatest hunger — his essential hunger — is for God. This has been expressed in many ways, but this sentence from the opening of St. Augustine’s “Confessions” captures perfectly this deep hunger: “Our hearts are restless, until they can find rest in you.”
The saint later writes: “I was not in love as yet, but I was in love with love; and, from a hidden hunger, I hated myself for not feeling more intensely a sense of hunger.” Like Adam and Eve, the young Augustine tried to satisfy his Godly hunger with godless things. And so it has been through time. The Hebrews, liberated from hundreds of years of slavery in Egypt, soon complained of hunger and thirst. “Why did you ever make us leave Egypt?” they grumbled to Moses. “Was it just to have us die here of thirst?”
Mark Shea, in pondering the 40 years of the Exodus, remarks: “Israel escapes Egypt and begins a journey that, for the ancient trade caravans, took 11 days. But for the People of God, it takes 40 years. Why? Because that’s what it took. Getting Israel out of Egypt was easy. Getting Egypt out of Israel? That took some doing.” We all have some spiritual Egypt in us — a longing for a bit of this venial sin or a hankering for a short rendezvous with that mortal sin.
Idols don’t die easily. After all, aren’t we happy for at least a little while when coveting, lusting, raging or mocking? Yes, it’s true: for a few moments, our hunger seems satisfied. But then it returns, even more intensely than before. Fasting reminds us of that gnawing spiritual hunger, which can only be satisfied by the bread of heaven, that deep thirst that can only be satiated by the living water.
“Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again,” Jesus told the Samaritan woman, “but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst. ...” Her response is immediate and direct, filled with desperate desire: “Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty or have to keep coming here to draw water.” She did not yet fully understand — how could she? — but she was reaching for what her restless heart truly needed.
In the words of Augustine: “But I was hungering and thirsting, not even after those first works of thine, but after thyself the Truth, ‘with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.’”
Which brings us back to the phrase, “You are what you eat.” We know that who we eat is ultimately of greater importance. And, as Augustine eventually realized, this is found in Jesus Christ and the Eucharist.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of Catholic World Report.