The season of Lent is drawing to a close. The solemnity of Holy Week and the glorious celebration of the Resurrection are within view. It is the perfect time for me to reflect on the lessons learned from my Lenten fast.
Among my Orthodox Christian and many of my Roman Catholic friends, the ancient practice of fasting remains a central feature of the Lenten journey. We use fasting as one tool to deepen our spiritual experience and capacity and, ideally, to bring us nearer to God and our community. Typically, the Orthodox fast involves abstinence from certain activities and specific foods: meat, dairy, olive oil and wine.
Ever since I developed medical problems that would later be diagnosed as Crohn’s disease, I have been unable to fast according to the typical pattern. I have used a tailored fast instead. This year, for reasons wholly unrelated to my diet, I asked a blessing to fast from foods containing gluten.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, so abstaining from gluten means giving up bread, muffins, cookies, crackers, most commercially-packaged ice creams, prepackaged soups, and many other foods in which the protein is used as a bonding agent.
I developed a keen eye for products containing gluten seven years ago when my daughter Brittany was diagnosed with Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder caused by her body’s inability to tolerate gluten. When her gastroenterologist placed her on a gluten-free diet there was precious little public awareness of the damage gluten can cause to the intestines. Few products were available for Brittany to use as substitutes for foods containing gluten.
Since that time, many people have gone gluten-free. Although only a fraction of the population (1 percent) has been properly diagnosed as having Celiac disease, 10 to 70 percent (depending on the report you read) has “sensitivity” to gluten. A large fraction of the population would do better on a diet containing no gluten at all.
I was probably the world’s most reluctant convert to the gluten-free movement. Even though the diet worked wonders for my daughter, I assumed gluten sensitivity was something having to do with other people, not me.
As far as I was concerned there could never be too much toast and jam. I had been baking cookies since I was old enough to reach the oven dial. I come from a long and noble tradition of bowl-licking. I have long wished I could claim credit for writing the jingle, “Nothin’ says lovin’ like somethin’ from the oven.”
For the first two weeks of the diet I felt hungry all the time, and I had impure thoughts about pancakes.
But then something wonderful happened.
I realized that I felt better. Not just a little better. Substantially better. Most of the debilitating symptoms of my disease went away. I had more energy. I no longer had mysterious joint pain.
For the first time in over 40 years I could start the day without eating something made out of wheat. By the time I figured out that I could buy loaves of extremely delicious gluten-free bread at Monk’s Rock, I found I didn’t even miss having toast. I enjoyed my afternoon tea even without the ginger molasses cookie.
During the past few years several people have advised me to eat less wheat. I admit I nodded at their advice while harboring a suspicion that they were card-carrying members of the Flour Defamation League.
I am now more than happy to admit the error of my ways. I could only hear the idea when I convinced myself that it had been my idea all along.
The recognition of one’s own hard-headedness is just the sort of lesson one hopes to learn during Lent. I could become wise if I would take the specific lesson and make it my new worldview.
I am almost there. I am ready to renounce, without regret, my stubborn attitude about gluten. But my physicians raise an eyebrow when I tell them how much caffeine I drink in a day, and I confess I am not ready to hear the message behind the gesture.