Lent is a time of fasting writ large. Many people take on some kind of dietary restriction like fasting during daylight, not eating chocolate or drinking coffee or alcohol. And it's for Lent only, as if it were being seasonally kosher. The tide returns with Easter and we can raise a beer glass to a fast well-wrought.
When I began experimenting with Episcopalianism in my later undergrad days, I lived in the dorms and ate at the cafeterias. I think I gave up red meat the first year and meat in toto my second year. This was my slippery slope into vegetarianism. While vegetarianism has its ethical concerns, it wasn't the primary focus for me. It was an easy act of fasting without fasting and it was a matter of health. Dorm food meat just seemed, stereotypically, risky to my undergrad brain. And Lent ended and I went on my way back to eating meat, but less so.
As a young adult who had little to no experience cooking for myself, vegetarianism became all the more attractive because I didn't want to give myself food poisoning. And the practice of eating differently soon became my way of eating. There was ebb and flow, but the kernal of the practice was there. I had become more conscientious about what I ate. It wasn't that I became a strict vegetarian. I would occasionally eat fish and beef, but I've tried to be very conscientious about how the animals were raised and prepared. And I blame Lent for that, really.
Lent is often thought of a time to reflect upon one's faith. But it is also important to see it as a time of reflection upon one's actions – and not just singular acts, but one's ways of living. What started as mere ritual for me became a shift in my fundamental understanding of food and its critical role in my life. And it was not legalistic. Our food practices are mostly of preference and, hopefully, one in community. When we share a meal, we are sharing food practices and preferences. When we agree to get Thai, we are actively deciding to eat in community.
I write all this because last night, we went to a local restaurant that does good German food and I like German food. It's also one of the few contexts that I will eat meat – and only if it has been appropriately sourced and prepared. But this time was different. I had wanted to become even more careful about eating this Lent and here I was eating a bratwurst. So, legalistically, I had blown it for myself. But I realized as I ate that I had lost the taste for it. I couldn't eat the animal, anymore. It just wasn't in my practice and ethics, anymore.
I live in a United States where factory farming and genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) have become the norm for our diet. The archetype of the farm family barnyard is an illusion, like that of the little red school house. There are many documentaries like Food, Inc., Forks Over Knives, and whatnot that provide insight into how my nation eats. And I think about how I eat, and how I practice eating.
When I eat in community, I eat with and for others. When we share a meal, we are endorsing our food practices. When we prepare a meal, we participate in these practices together. When we break and share bread together, when we offer bread together, when we eat it together and remember what bread is, what bread can be, we are deciding to act together.
In Lent, bread is never just bread. Take and eat it. But think about where it came from and how it will go.