A few years ago, I was your typical office-worker: stressed out, uneven energy, overweight, and inconsistent complexion. Now I'm just your typical 28-year old urban hunter-gatherer on a quest to be healthy, and having a few adventures along the way. See my full bio.
Fasting with the Trappists: An adventure in asceticism
As many of you know, I spent last week fasting at the Abbey of Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery in Kentucky. It was a rich experience, physically and mentally, and I'm glad I did it. This is my report. First, I'll give an overview of the trip. Then I'll talk about the more physical and mental aspects of the fast and the overall ascetic experience. And then a few general impressions and concluding thoughts.
You may be disappointed to learn that I didn't take any pictures, but it just didn't seem appropriate. It wasn't a spa. (And if you ever go, don't expect a spa-like experience.) But I've grabbed a few pics that were already on the net, and those will do. For the same reason, I won't be blogging about everything in the experience. And, of course, I need to save something fresh for the book. [more]
Overview of the trip
I flew into Louisville on Monday night, my birthday, and spent the night at a Howard Johnson near the airport. That was an ascetic experience in its own right. I arrived a night early because I wanted to get a good night's sleep before entering the monastery. Catching the first flight out of NYC the following morning would have meant a 4:30 am wake-up, getting probably 3 hours of sleep -- and I knew that sleep was going to be challenging at the Abbey, since I planned on attending "the hours". Vigils started at 3:15 am every morning (if you can call that morning), followed by Lauds at 5:45 am, Terce at 7:30 am, and Sext, None, Vespers throughout the day, ending with Compline at 7:30 pm. The monks still live by the seasons, and the times for the hours change throughout the year. Each of the hours is a formal session of prayer in the church, lasting about 20 to 35 minutes each, adding up to about 2.5 to 3 hours per day.
On Tuesday morning, I met my fellow travelers at the airport and drove south towards the Abbey. We stopped for lunch in Bardstown at a local diner called Mammy's Kitchen -- my last meal before entering my fast. I ordered a double cheeseburger, wrapped in lettuce, extra pickles, and a glass of water. After finishing, I realized I should have ordered two of those, gorging a little beforehand. As it would turn out, it was good that I didn't -- gorging in your last meal before a fast is generally considered a bad idea. (Whether this is based on the idea that most people would typically be gorging on sweets and excess carbohydrate, not protein or fat, I don't know.)
We arrived at the Abbey soon after. A sign greeted us where the parking lot ended and the path to the Abbey began: "Silence beyond this point." This wouldn't be the last sign reminding us instinctively chatty humans to shut the hell up. The Abbey was plastered with reminders: "Silence is spoken here." "The porch and gardens are places of silence." Monasteries and movie theaters -- both struggling to persuade people that silence is, in fact, golden.
We were greeted by Father Damien, the monk on duty to deal with retreatants. (A word on nomenclature: monks who are ordained priests are referred to as 'Father', monks who are not ordained priests - as many aren't - are referred to as 'Brother'.) I had been interested in going barefoot the whole time, but was unsure whether that would be allowed, so I asked Father Damien: "I've read about how going barefoot is part of the monastic tradition, and was wondering if it would be acceptable to go barefoot here." He laughed (all of the monks who I heard speak were quick to laugh) and kindly responded, "Not in our Abbey's monastic tradition. We wear sandals or shoes, and ask that you would do the same. But thank you for asking." This, I have to say, would be emblematic of the week -- I tended to be more interested in the physical aspects of ascetism (or the joint nature of body and mind), and the monks tended to focus on mental and spiritual ascetism.
We found our rooms and unpacked. The rooms were simple -- cleaner than the Howard Johnson, but less luxurious. (And the artwork on the walls had a slightly more religious design motif going on.) And thus began a series of days that involved attending the hours, reading (in the gardens, in the library, in my room), thinking, exploring the monastic grounds open to retreatants (fairly extensive), and attending meals where I ate ice water and watched other people eat food. I was not silent the whole time, nor was anyone I observed, including the monks (at a minimum, they chanted, sang, and prayed at the hours). I've concluded that it's nearly impossible to be silent for long stretches when in the company of other human beings. It's easier for a hermit in the desert to be silent than a monk in a monastery.
Fasting and the Ascetic Experience
I chose to fast strictly for three days. That meant no food (liquid or solid), no juice, no cayenne pepper, no tea, no coffee, no caffeine, no medications, no supplements, no nothing. Just water. (And, of course, whatever the government puts in the water.) Previously, the longest I had fasted was about 24 hours, so I was a little apprehensive. (I had intended to do a 2-day fast over the past few weeks, but I never found the time.) That said, I fast for a full 24 hours on a fairly regular basis (between every two weeks and a month, most recently), and I have very little sugar in my diet, so I knew that my body is accustomed to burning my own body fat as fuel. I'm no stranger to ketosis.
Here's the headline: it was easier and less unpleasant than I thought it would be. When the three days were done, I could have just kept going. Yes, there were moments when my thoughts fixated on the food to come, but I wasn't dying to break my fast and devour the closest potentially edible food-like substance. My hunger was almost entirely absent, my brain felt fine (though different), and I felt healthy.
Here are my physical observations:
- My skin felt amazing. Never has my facial skin felt so healthy. You know how sometimes you feel like you shouldn't touch your face with your fingers, because it will make your face more oily? Well, I just wanted to touch my face because it felt so damn healthy, and whatever was happening, I didn't have the slightest concern that touching my face would result in pimples or anything like that. (I'll note that I don't wash my face with soap at all, nor do I moisturize, and only rarely do I specifically wash my face with water, other than drying off from the shower.)
- My sinuses completely cleared up. My sinuses are my canaries in the coal mind when it comes to inflammation. A few beers and they get slightly inflamed. But I really can't remember my nasal passages and breathing ever being so clear.
- I felt a little cold at times. My body was clearly conserving energy. I wasn't severely cold though. Just enough that I decided to throw on a sweatshirt a few times.
- Initially felt awake and alert, but then meditative. I felt awake and alert on the first day, and part of the second. I did quite a bit of reading throughout the experience, and even wrote a fair bit on the second day. That said, by the end of the second day and the third day, my alertness downshifted into a more meditative state. I wasn't drowsy, per se, but my mind lost the desire to work on complex tasks that people like to do when they're alert. I wanted to zone out a bit more. Stare at the leaves moving in the breeze. Look at the colors of pebbles on the path. Enjoy the sun shining on my face. Yes, on the third day, it felt like a mild high.
- No headaches, no light-headedness, no shaky hands, no grouchiness. Despite not being able to cut out caffeine in advance, I didn't have any caffeine withdrawal symptoms. Apparently, I'm not overdoing it, which is good. I didn't have any sugar withdrawal symptoms either. I assume that in this respect, my experience would diverge substantially from anyone who has a more typical diet.
- Slightly bad breath. But not as bad as the really bad morning breath people get when not fasting.
- Inactive. On the first day, a few hours after eating, I went for a long-ish run and explored around in the woods. (And got completely lost, trespassed multiple times, and startled some horses that could have easily killed me out of fright.) But I had no desire to exercise or move much on the second and third days. I definitely didn't feel like hunting any wild beast in order to feed myself. In fact, even going on some long walks was tiring, and I lagged behind a few others who weren't fasting. My body didn't want me to move very much. That said, I wouldn't say that I felt sleepy. Inactive, but not sleepy. (Though I did take some ill-advised afternoon naps that made it harder to sleep at night.)
- Not overwhelmingly hungry. My hunger decreased through the fast -- not increased. Day one was my hungriest day. But my hunger quickly subsided after that first and second missed meal. I had no problem falling asleep at night (at least, due to being hungry). My thoughts generally weren't fixated on food -- though sometimes they were. I had a few stomach grumblings. I didn't attend breakfast any morning, but I attended all other meals and just read a book and watched everyone else eat. If putting myself in that situation had required intense discipline to resist eating, I wouldn't have gone to the meals. (I can resist anything but temptation.) But I had a clear purpose for why I was fasting, and my hunger wasn't intense. I had a very odd experience of enjoying looking at food. I wasn't tempted to eat it, but somehow I could enjoy simply looking at a banana, knowing that it existed, and that one day I would eat one again. Like I said, very odd.
- Time passes more slowly. This is fine if you're in a pleasant setting, and can just chill out. But if you have tasks that you can't accomplish weighing on your mind, you might feel like you're on a trans-Pacific plane flight where you can't get comfortable and can't sleep.
- Lower libido. Significant decrease in sexual desire. I'm sure part of this had to do with the context, particularly on the first day, but even so, I had a room to myself and I was there for three days.
- Didn't poo. Not once for three days. It was me and Mammy's lettuce-wrapped double cheeseburger, together as one, all week long. Only after I broke my fast did my body say it was okay to move my bowels. No discomfort at all or feelings of bloatedness. Very little gas.
- Weight. I wish I could tell you that I weighed myself before and after, but I didn't. Probably lost 3-5 pounds. Drank plenty of water (but I didn't force myself to drink water if I wasn't thirsty).
- Breaking the fast. **Whenever you fast, it's very important to only gradually return to food.** Do not gorge yourself on your first meal, particularly processed and sugary food. I had a banana and a pack of sardines. Neither would have been my top choice, and to be honest, neither tasted particularly good. Perhaps that should come as no surprise, given the total absence of a banana-sardine pairing on any menu, in any restaurant, in the entire world. Even so, I was surprised that I didn't enjoy the first few bites of the banana as much as I thought I would. My stomach was indifferent, almost stand-offish, to it. Also, it's best to break fasts communally, with other people, but due to some travel logistics, I didn't get to do that. So the breaking of my fast was a little disappointing.
- Who should NOT fast. Children and pregnant women are ill-advised to fast. All of the religious traditions I've read about exempt them from fasting. And people who are sick or unaccustomed to fasting shouldn't just jump into a long fast unless they're sure they know what they're doing.
All in all, I found this three day fast to be a worthwhile experience, and I recommend that you try it some time. For fasts longer than a day, I would strongly recommend doing it at a time and a place when you don't have responsibilities or distractions, and can have a little space. Finding a cause for a longer fast (a charity, a tribute, a goal) is also an effective way to overcome any initial temptations, and get you to the point where it becomes easier. Worth noting: modern people who do not find a reason to fast, never voluntarily will.
Fasting was the primary ascetic experience at the monastery, but there were other ascetic aspects.
- Sleep. The sleep patterns from attending the hours felt very odd, particularly waking up at 3am for Vigils. That said, I enjoy getting into a routine that is more in sync with the sun. (The monks go to bed with the sun...they just wake up way too damn early on the other end.)
- Barefoot. As mentioned, this was a bit of a disappointment. However, I did go for a lovely barefoot run, wore more authentic minimalist sandals than most of the monks (I saw a pair of Birkenstocks), saw one of the monks at one service who arrived barefoot, and heard from Brother Paul about the Nigerian Trappist monks (one of whom was visiting) who go barefoot all the time and have big, wide, and healthy feet.
- Standing. Some of the monks choose to stand in their pews, when they have the option, leaning against a high back. They kind of have "standing pews", not unlike standing desks, which work just as well standing as sitting. I built two standing desks during the week, one in my room and one in the dining room, simply by putting a stool on top of a table.
- Silence. Like I mentioned above, it's hard to keep silent when surrounded by other people. It's so easy to slip into just whispering a little bit, especially for simple logistical communication, like "I'll meet you downstairs in the cafeteria." Or, "Don't forget we're meeting with the Abbot at 11am." Whether you're an introvert or an extrovert, it cuts against human nature to be completely silent for long uninterrupted periods.
- Hair. Hair, a sign of individual expression (and health), was always cut short. Often shaved, many "buzzed", and only one of some forty that I would call a normal length traditional male haircut. No long hair at all. Many beards. And a LOT of male pattern baldness. This could have been due to the fact that 1) all of the monks were 40 and older, and most were 60+, 2) everyone had a short haircut, and 3) we looked down on them from a balcony. But it was frequent enough to make me wonder if there's something hormonal going on there, in terms of the type of person attracted to the contemplative life, or something causative in the life itself.
- The Trappist Diet. As for what the monks eat, I'm going to save that for another post. I also got to speak with five of the monks, either at special meals (they generally eat separately from the retreatants) or special meetings. I'll share how I talked about an evolutionary approach to health, sans Darwinian evolution.
General impressions and concluding thoughts
A few general impressions...
- Fasting was a critical part of my experience. I find it a little hard to get spiritual or meditative sometimes. Without the fasting -- a mechanism for the body to influence the mind -- my experience would have been less rich.
- Fasting has been in long decline in the Christian tradition. In most Catholics, it's reduced to eating fish on Fridays. Most Protestant don't fast. Supposedly, fasting has made a small comeback among Evangelicals. Mormons still fast once a month. (Note which denominations are growing the most.) The monks I spoke to about fasting certainly knew about it, but I didn't get the impression that it was a core aspect of the modern monastic experience. That said, their food was spare, and at least one monk (of the five I spoke to) fasted every Wednesday and Friday on bread and water only. But the monks weren't particularly interested in the body, so the entire health angle of fasting was of little interest. I found this disappointing.
- The contemplative life seems hard to outsiders, and is in decline, but the monks seem like jovial people. Like I said, the ones I spoke with were quick to smile and laugh. But monasteries in general are in global decline. There are 40 some monks at Gethsemani, down from a more typical 100 or so to run the place, and down from a peak of 300 and some in the 50s and 60s when Thomas Merton was there.
- I shared some thoughts with the Abbot on how to increase recruitment. My basic suggestion, which I'll share here, is that they need to incorporate physical ascetism with their mental ascetism, and make it physically much harder. Yes, harder, and less accommodating. Create a year-long Hermitage, which would not require a commitment to enter the monastery, that is physically and mentally grueling, and make it Navy SEAL tough. Shaved head, no name, no shoes, rough hard-spun clothing, silence, isolation, physical labor, cold exposure, and Zen-like, "yes, Sensai" shit. Maybe even some weapons training. Right now monks are very low testosterone people leading low testosterone lives. (Incidentally, the words to the Psalms they chant are often off-the-charts high testosterone -- the Lord will destroy our enemies for all eternity type stuff -- a very odd contrast.) But they have this rich tradition of bad-ass ascetic hermits that is going untapped. A Hermitage would probably attract high T guys, but that's a good thing. It would be like doing a modern day vision quest for warrior-monks seeking to control and channel their testosterone. And I'll bet the end result would be more novices of all types. You should have seen the look on people's faces as I was describing this to the Abbot in the Abbot's private study. Hey, every millennium or so it's time for a new branch to break away and re-dedicate. Maybe it's time.
- The monks were welcoming to people from all walks of life. That is part of their rule - St. Benedict's Rule - to welcome all-comers to the Abbey. And it is also part of the legacy of Thomas Merton, who was known for his interfaith outreach, particularly to Eastern Zen and Buddhist monastic traditions (see photo of visiting Buddhist monks at right). When I spoke about health and food, I heard more than one reference to vegans (which they endearingly mispronounced "vay-gans"). Not everyone there was Catholic, and I saw a few crunchy-looking folks wearing peace symbol necklaces in addition to more straight-laced looking religious types.
- Support local foods at Gethsemani Farms. The monks support themselves by making foods, including cheese and bourbon fudge. As they say: To a Trappist, work is a form of prayer. They are good people, who lead simple and peaceful lives, close to the earth, and welcome all.
Many thanks to Father Damien, Brother Paul, Father Patrick, Brother Allen, Father Elias, and all the other monks at Gethsemani for a memorable and moving experience.
I leave you with a few quotations from Thomas Merton.
"No writing on the solitary, meditative dimensions of life can say anything that has not already been said better by the wind in the pine trees."
"I cannot make the universe obey me. I cannot make other people conform to my own whims and fancies. I cannot make even my own body obey me."
"The whole idea of compassion is based on a keen awareness of the interdependence of all these living beings, which are all part of one another, and all involved in one another."
"A tree gives glory to God by being a tree. For in being what God means it to be it is obeying Him. It 'consents,' so to speak, to His creative love. It is expressing an idea which is in God and which is not distinct from the essence of God, and therefore a tree imitates God by being a tree."
"You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope."