Adam Shoalts was hungry. For four months in the summer of 2017 during his four-thousand-kilometre adventure alone across Canada’s Arctic, he admitted that he was constantly hungry.
Even though he was able to consume over three thousand calories a day mainly by eating energy bars and freeze-dried meals on the fly, his extreme physical labour meant he was still losing weight and craving even more food.
He had to learn to live with it.
Feverishly paddling his canoe sometimes seventy kilometres a day across Great Bear Lake, poling his canoe against the strong currents on the great Mackenzie or Coppermine Rivers in the far north, hauling his canoe over giant rapids, or carrying all his gear through muddy swamps for up to forty-kilometre portages burned every calorie and more that his body stored.
And he had to keep moving. Most of the Far North is encased in ice and snow for nine months of the year. He had only a narrow window of time in which to make this impossible trek. Once he had to pass on fishing for seventy-pound lake trout off the north shore of Great Bear Lake in order to keep his torrid, exhausting pace to make it across in time.
But it was even before his journey began where he shows his discipline to learn to live with and accept his hunger. Friends were driving him and his gear up the Dempster Highway in the Yukon towards Fort McPherson. They stopped at an old inn on the gravel roadway near the Arctic Circle. The hosts offered to cook up anything on the menu. His friends ordered the chili. They encouraged Shoalts to eat the chili as well, since in the next four months his staple would consist of a more meagre fare.
Instead, Shoalts calmly chose one oatmeal cookie, without thinking more of it. He knew that should he pig-out on his last meal he would not wisely manage his stomach for success, for the long grind ahead.
While reading again the traditional Gospel story for this First Sunday in Lent – Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness – I paused at the part where the devil tempts Jesus to eat.“He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.” So, this was quite a temptation Jesus overcame when he denied the devil’s baiting.
In order to walk in the way of Jesus, it’s also traditional in Lent to give something up – a favourite food or other unhealthy habits. Why do we do this? One reason, is we want positive change in our lives. Eating less chocolate, watching less TV or abstaining from meat will make us better, healthier people, we believe. Transformation is another word for it.
Transformation in the way of Christ often comes from first letting go of something. The changes we yearn for – the new thing which we envision and to which we aspire – can’t happen without first loosening our controls, certitudes and compulsions.And living with the pangs of hunger for a while.
Our ego will resist. Because on the surface we don’t want to go without. We don’t want to be uncertain about the outcome of our labour. We don’t want to confront our cravings, and ‘feel’ hungry. We compulsively want more and more, instant gratification.
It almost feels scandalous to say – especially to privileged people that we are – that God created us to know hunger, to know this yearning for food, material and spiritual. What is the good about feeling this hunger?
Being hungry exposes what we really believe, deep down, what we really think. This awareness can lead to a re-consideration and revision of long held assumptions. Going without also forces us into a deeper listening to what is going on around us. As we suffer the pangs of any kind of hunger, our egos have less energy to get in the way, and we listen more, we receive more and we accept more. We learn what it’s like to let go.
That’s why fasting has been a common tradition in Lent. It is at this point in the experience of the journey where the seed of transformation is born and out of which true growth emerges.
The kind of Lenten discipline that attracts my attention are those commitments that connect doing without with giving more. So, for example, when people eat less and the difference from what they would normally have consumed they donate or give in some way to others in need. The inner discipline of letting go is inextricably linked to an outer discipline of blessing the world.
There are almost a billion people on this planet who go to bed hungry every night. There are around thirty thousand Canadians who don’t have their own ‘home’ and sleep on the street. During this COVID winter we are advised to ‘stay home’; but, indeed, what if you don’t have a home? Jesus identifies with those who go hungry. God knows how it feels, in our humanity, to be hungry, to have no home and be without.
In the end, the story about Jesus’ temptation in the desert is a story about God’s intention to be human and identify fully with our humanity. God will go the distance, will experience what it’s like to do without, will feel the pangs of hunger – a hunger for us, a hunger for relationship, a hunger to be in communion with everyone and everything.
God will identify not just with the part of ourselves that we wish everyone will see, but also with that part of us that hungers, that is lacking in us. God’s vision of love is set on the hungering stomach and the hungering soul. That’s where God goes, into the desert wildernesses of our lives. Will we?
I haven’t yet finished reading the book about Adam Shoalts’ incredible journey. But I assume he survived and reached his end goal on the shores of Hudson Bay, since he lived to write about it. And I suspect he is all the better a person for reaching his goal, and grateful, for having paid the price of being hungry for a while.
God bless you on your journey of Lent.
Adam Shoalts, Beyond the Trees: A Journey Alone Across Canada’s Arctic (Toronto: Penguin, 2020).
Mark 1:13; though Matthew and Luke provide more detailed descriptions of the Temptation of Jesus. See Luke 4:2 and Matthew 4:2.
Richard Rohr, The Wisdom Pattern: Order, Disorder, Reorder (Cincinnati: Franciscan Media), p.84.