Feast or Famine

Category: Monthly Reflection


On a visit to Egypt with a group of pilgrims I was shocked by deep poverty in the country especially Cairo. Under a spaghetti-like series of highways there is an ancient cemetery where those with no homes or means of support live among the tombs. They beg on the streets, sometimes steal from tourists and barely make a subsistence living. Although we took in historical sites our main focus was on visiting some of the ancient monasteries where Christianity has survived over many years of difficulty and pilgrims have been welcomed. In Wadi Nutran we went to several of the oldest foundations and then made our way to towards the Red Sea and the mountains where St. Anthony’s monastery thrives in the barren wilderness.

In the late afternoon our bus pulls up outside the gates of St. Anthony’s Monastery. After a lengthy wait, our guide, looking somewhat concerned, takes us inside. In the week before we were due to arrive at the monastery guesthouse, the Patriarch had ruled that only Orthodox Christians might stay overnight! Our expectation of beds, dinner, and rest was not to be realized. We are told that the Monastery of St. Paul, on the other side of this mountain, will probably take us in for the night. This will involve a further long drive back to the main highway to encompass the mountain. Before departing, we opt to hike the long, rocky way up to the cave where St. Anthony lived for many years as a hermit. Afterward, a gracious monk escorts us around the monastery.

Back on the bus there is a hushed, anxious atmosphere. We are hungry, tired, and uncertain about where we will spend the night, and whether we will eat. This is the desert. When we finally arrive at the gate of St. Paul’s monastery, it is 10.30 p.m. For a long time no one answers the bell. Finally our guide speaks to the guest-master through the antique intercom, and then waits once more as the monk asks the abbot if a motley bunch of Westerners might spend the night. When the gates open at last, we experience great relief.

In contrast to St. Anthony’s, the monastery of St. Paul’s is very poor. Every drop of water must be trucked in daily. There are few faucets, no proper toilets, and guests sleep on iron bedsteads with thin mattresses––mine, it turns out, is full of fleas! Six inches of space separate the beds, leaving no room for our bags and inevitable tourist “stuff.” In this arid desert, however, as the gate finally opens and we drive along the unlit, bumpy driveway, one incongruous neon sign looms in the darkness: Coca Cola! At least there is the possibility of a can of soda to quench our thirst. We discover that students often stay at the monastery and that an outdoor “café” provides snacks, but it closes at 11 p.m. In the five minutes before the café closes, we buy cookies, candy, and some unrecognizable food packages, grateful for something to eat at the end of a long day.

More than once on the bus after we left St. Anthony’s, someone said, “I am starving!” I probably said it myself. Soon forgotten were the ragged children begging on the streets and those who truly were starving under the bridges of Cairo. Of course we were not starving; we were hungry and tired. Our comfortable evening had disintegrated and our expectation of three good meals each day had not been met. How easy it was to fall into disgruntled complaining about this unchosen fast. In retrospect, I discovered a great gift in the experience as I reflected on my reaction to the absence of comforts to which I am accustomed. I was jolted out of my preference for quiet, clean places in which to pray, regular hygienic food of my choosing, and control of my schedule. I sensed that God was inviting me to open heart and hands to embrace difference, and to be more mindful of the abundance that I take for granted. When we toured the monastery in the morning, I was challenged by the utter simplicity of life for the monks and the deep contentment that radiated from their faces. What role does contentment play in our lives? SZ Scripture verse comes to mind: “Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for [God] has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’ So we can say with confidence, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can anyone do to me?’” (Heb. 13:5-6).NRSV. Fasting from discontent is an ever-growing challenge.

Nightly television reports of hunger and violence in the world have a way of anaesthetizing us to the reality of life for the majority of humans with whom we share the earth. Jesus mandated that his followers are to reach out with compassion and to share resources with those who barely survive in ghettoes, slums, and danger zones where violent death is a daily occurrence. It is easy enough to write a check in support of an organization serving the needs of the poor, but we may need to go further. Jesus began his public ministry with a long fast in the desert where he confronted the human ambition to gain control, importance, and power. From his reflective silence and hunger he went out among ordinary people to offer healing, hope, and sustenance. He spoke good news to them, telling of God’s love and manifesting that love through compassion. Jesus taught his followers to do the same

consumerismA fast from some of the privileges of Western life may lead us to a deeper empathy for sisters and brothers in need, and calls us to prayer and action. What if….? What if we perceived a Coca Cola sign as a sacred symbol inviting prayerful remembrance of those who lack clean drinking water and, instead of indulging in a nutrition-less soda drink, we used the dollar or so saved to support water filtration in the Third World? What if, instead of indulging in “retail-therapy,” we searched our closets for good quality but unused items that would benefit others, gave them away, and offered the money we might have spent to a homeless shelter? What if we gave a party, not to impress our guests with fine cuisine but to bring together friends and neighbors who would not normally gather in the same circles? Simple but nourishing food and openness to different racial and ethnic groups might allow those who feel disenfranchised and judged to join the circle. What if we adopted a family barely surviving on welfare checks and spent time with them, not as philanthropic helpers but true friends, inviting them to share our life as we shared theirs. The possibilities of fasting from privilege are endless.

Consumerism is largely a First World phenomenon, except in cases where a few in poor countries live with excessive wealth wrested from the powerless. Fasting from television is a good place to begin noticing the insistence in our culture that we need more, better, efficient, bigger items, or products that promote beauty, instant weight-loss, or sexual attraction. One evening I began counting the number of advertisements between segments of the news on one of the major networks. During one break there were no fewer than five different car companies all claiming to offer new, improved, more trustworthy and trendy vehicles, available at “zero percent financing.” The enticing invitation to buy now, pay later catches many who logically cannot afford these items and so will become delinquent borrowers. Jesus told a story about one farmer who built additional barns in which to store his bumper crop. Implied in the story is the obsession with wealth, in this case measured by grain, and disregard for soul-care (Luke 12:13-21). Following the parable, Jesus expands on the foolishness of worry and points to the antidote. He invites his listeners to pay attention to the simple wildflowers and the birds, the unnoticed blessings of the natural world for which God provides sustenance, and so to value who they are. Enough is enough. And when enough is set in perspective, it is revealed as abundance

One striking aspect of monastic guesthouses is their relative simplicity. Most convents and monasteries in the United States provide basic but adequate accommodations, nutritious but simple food, and spaces that invite guests into silence. The bombardment of advertising, the rushing from place to place, and the obsession with commercial gain is refreshingly absent. Those who give themselves to a life of prayer and service in religious community are wonderful icons for those of us who live and work in a culture driven by consumerism. I need to spend time each year in retreat, fasting from my often-mindless day-to-day consumption of things and assessing where I am on the Christ-path. Usually I spend a good deal of time outside the monastery, observing the “lilies of the field” and allowing the beauty of God’s creation to refresh and teach me. Through the monastic rhythm of daily prayers, work, play, and study comes a fresh vision of what life may be. I am not moved to become a monastic, but I am challenged to go home with renewed willingness to de-clutter my life and to live more simply.


Elizabeth Canham

This reflection is adapted from an article which appeared in Weavings Vol .X1X, No.5, Sept/Oct 2004


Photo Credits:  poverty in India photo by www.spotonlists.com; consumerism photo by www.theatlantic.com