Jesuit's fast shows care for creation

  • March 13, 2009
{mosimage}Eleven days into a 48-day fast, Jesuit Father John McCarthy was feeling pretty good.

“I haven’t noticed anything yet, other than a bit of weight loss,” McCarthy told The Catholic Register from Corner Brook, Nfld. “But in terms of energy level and everything else — well, it’s only 11 days.”

That is 11 days living on nothing but water and juice. McCarthy never liked V8 juice, but he’s acquiring a taste for the low-sodium variety. The most substantial thing he drinks is Sunkist strawberry and banana smoothies. He’s going through a fair amount of cranberry juice. He doesn’t have a blender.

From Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, McCarthy will go 48 days without solid food this Lent. Why?

“It’s God’s creation and my love of nature,” he said.

McCarthy first thought about fasting for Lent while he was working on his PhD in forestry ecology at the University of British Columbia six years ago. While it’s important to him that the fast remains a spiritual exercise, it’s also a public witness. He’s fasting in solidarity with God’s creation, in penance for all we have done to diminish the forests, wetlands, wildlife and ecosystems God called good through six days of creation in the Book of Genesis.

A water-and-juice fast through Lent is probably not medically dangerous, said University of Toronto professor of nutritional science Dr. Thomas Wolever.

“It’s not something you would necessarily be advising the general public to be doing, but it’s not absolute craziness,” Wolever said. “I’m a Christian myself, so I understand about Lent.”

Without doubt, McCarthy will lose weight. He may also suffer some vitamin B deficiencies at the end. But a healthy person can go three months without eating, providing they continue a good intake of fluids, according to Wolever.

McCarthy is keeping in touch with a doctor friend and promises he will stop the fast if it endangers his health.

For the ecologist-priest the fast is a way of fighting the frustration of working for something that is often neglected and sometimes misunderstood even in the church.

“You can have a growing sense of hopelessness, or even cynicism, because nothing seems to get done despite all our best efforts over the years,” said McCarthy.

McCarthy’s best efforts are considerable. He completed his doctorate in boreal forest ecology in 2004, and since then has co-chaired the Newfoundland Wilderness and Ecological Reserves Advisory Council. His published work includes research in ecological science and theology. He was the first-ever gold prize winner of the Environment Award in Lands and Forests from Canadian Geographic magazine. In his continuing scientific work, McCarthy is completing a survey of rare lichens in eastern Newfoundland.

“My studies in forestry, ecology and science, and field work, has really put me in touch with seeing Christ in creation,” McCarthy said. “That’s a strong theme in my own life and reflection as well.”

McCarthy has come across Catholics who dismiss any spirituality of ecology as pantheistic, watered-down Christianity with no sense of tradition.

“I don’t think they really fully understand the Catholic tradition at its heart,” said McCarthy. “Even just coming back to the basic Creed. On a Sunday we profess God as creator of all things seen and unseen. Very fundamentally, it’s at the heart of our faith. (We believe in) Jesus Christ, through whom all things were made — that is, if you pray the Nicene Creed. And then the Spirit, the giver of all life. It’s at the heart of our view of the Trinity. At the heart of our faith there is that creation-centred focus.”

And it’s not just Catholics or Christians who fail to see it, said McCarthy. There are plenty of voices outside the church who blame Christianity for the ecological crisis.

“So many people think the church or the Judeo-Christian tradition is almost this force behind our ecological crisis,” he said. “You see people talking about it all the time. They obviously haven’t reflected, or read widely, or spoken, or even know the different religious traditions.”

When people see this Jesuit fasting for 48 days, he hopes they come to understand that the church cares for creation.

“Our faith and care for creation are not separate. They’re one and the same,” he said.

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