The beginning of this Sacred Triduum marks the end of Lent as we eagerly press on, now, towards Easter. Lent has been, among other things, a time of fasting. In availing ourselves of this ancient discipline we have inevitably experienced one of its more noticeable effects, namely, hunger. Indeed, there are days and times when all we seem to be able to think about (when fasting) is how hungry we are, and how much we would wish to remedy the situation with a good meal. Accordingly, unless we are physically unwell, this fasting-induced hunger is not something that we have to make ourselves aware of, it simply asserts itself because of the body’s natural instincts towards self-preservation.
One of the motivations for Christian fasting is that this hunger we experience can serve to alert us to a still deeper hunger that is one of the heart and of the soul—that is, our inbuilt hunger for God and the painful emptiness of our hearts when he is thought to be absent. And whereas there are times when the early pangs of physical hunger can be confused with something like nausea, physical hunger is generally easy to become aware of. The same is not necessarily true of spiritual hunger. This is especially so for those who have no belief in God and whose lives are closed to the spiritual. For such people, hunger for God can be experienced in things like inner restlessness, inner disquiet, inner turmoil, distress and, not infrequently, feelings of meaninglessness, hopelessness, and despair.
For Christians (and especially for monks) this spiritual hunger is more easily recognized for what it is. However, even with us this hunger assumes different forms. In the early stages of the Christian’s spiritual life, there can be what some spiritual writers term “spiritual gluttony” as spiritual consolations are sought out and desperately clung to. For those who have already made progress, however, this deep hunger can seem to dissipate under the onslaught of acedia as the soul develops an apparent distaste and disinterest in all things spiritual. Like the sick person with a lost appetite, partaking of spiritual food becomes an act of the will with no natural enjoyment or satisfaction. And just as some of the sick give up eating and perish, so those who give in to acedia and no longer take spiritual nourishment die a spiritual death.
However, those who persevere and resist the noonday devil of acedia, usually break through to a deeper and increasingly stable union with God. But although the acute hunger for God is initially satisfied by this deeper union, such souls now experience a very different and delightful hunger—a paradoxical hunger that is both satisfied and yet awakens a deep hunger in the very act of being satisfied. This is well captured (though in a different form) by the bride in the Song of Songs and her relentless quest for her beloved. Describing this happy state Saint Bernard explains that when the soul happily finds [God], its holy desire is not quenched but kindled. Joy will be fulfilled, but there will be no end to desire nor therefore of seeking.
And so as we judiciously prepare to ease up on some of our Lenten penitential practices, let us keep alive that deep grace-induced hunger for what alone can satisfy our still unredeemed hearts. May we never succumb to the temptation to try and sate this hunger with anything but the Bread come down from Heaven—the one who gives himself as food in this Eucharist, and so gives us a true foretaste of that heavenly banquet of Eternal Life. To that end, let us heed Bernard’s exhortation: He who hungers, let him hunger still more, and he who desires, let him desire more abundantly, because as much as one will be able to desire, just so much shall one receive. … O truly happy and glorious satiety! O holy feast! O most desirable banquet, where there never will be any anxiety, never any weariness, because satiety will be full and [yet] have from within plenty of desire.