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How a fasting retreat helped me process the loss of our child
After experiencing a period of intense emotional stress, Lisa Mainwaring booked herself into a fasting retreat in Germany. What happened next dramatically changed her outlook on grief and her relationship with God
People go on fasting retreats for two reasons: either to detox, giving a chance for the body to concentrate on repairing itself, or they do it for mental and spiritual reasons.
For me, it was the latter. In everyday life, the hunger of the soul can be mistaken for the need for food, and fasting offers us the opportunity to attend to our own spiritual needs.
When you go through a season of loss, the first thing you must do is release your grief, and fasting helped me to do that. After nearly ten unsuccessful years of trying for a family and five rounds of IVF (not to mention many operations), my husband and I looked at adoption. A tiny bundle of joy came into our lives in the summer of 2017, and we loved him fiercely. But our joy turned to despair when, just before his first birthday, and with little notice, he was reunited with his paternal birth family and we have never seen him again.
There are times in your life when there are no words to express how you’re feeling, and this was one of them. We were both stunned at what had happened and the shock overwhelmed us. A feeling of utter sadness enveloped me. Our experience lacked empathy and humanity. We were notified in a phone call, not even a face-to-face conversation. Goodness knows what the birth family had gone through behind the scenes. I missed him terribly. It is difficult for anyone to truly understand, as it is not a normal occurrence. You cannot comprehend anyone’s pain unless you’ve walked a mile in their shoes, but I was experiencing deep grief, as if someone had died.
I knew I needed a ‘wilderness experience’ to heal the battleground of my mind
I sank into depression, and my emotions caused a physical pain in my chest and in the back of my throat. I kept hearing him cry in the night, even though he was not with us anymore. I kept seeing him giggling around the house. I tried to think about going back to work and getting back to ‘normal’ again, but the truth is, I was emotionally burned out. I knew that I needed a ‘wilderness experience’ to heal the battleground of my mind.
I have thought a lot about the way our case was handled, and hopefully the lessons learned by social services, but this article is not about the changes I would like the government to make to improve early permanence adoption – this is about how fasting helped me.
That journey began hours after he was taken. While praying, I recalled an article I had read about the benefits of fasting; that it calms you, gives you clarity of mind, resonance of spirit and a sense of deep peace. As a journalist, I had interviewed people who had done month-long fasts and they had talked of the benefits. Personally, I just wanted to feel normal again. I intuitively knew that to feel balance of mind, body and soul I needed to retreat from the world and ‘just be’…to grieve, switch off, pray, seek God, process my feelings, work out my life’s purpose and walk along the path of rediscovering my identity.
Leaving for Germany
I researched retreats all over the world, including the UK, but ‘Fasting Retreats’ and ‘Grief Retreats’ have not really taken off here. I knew in my spirit that I needed to be in nature, away from the hustle and bustle; somewhere peaceful, being cared for by medics if I needed them. I found a Christian-run retreat in northern Bavaria. My husband thought I was nuts, but was supportive of me going.
I flew to Frankfurt Airport and within a couple of hours I arrived at the private Malteser Klinik von Weckbecker in Bad Brückenau, situated on the edge of a nature reserve. I checked in for 14 nights and was told that I would be doing ‘therapeutic fasting’, which consisted of consuming nutritious liquids, such as vegetable broths and juices. So, no solids. I was met by a kindly older Christian doctor for my initial consultation. We seemed to talk for ages and afterwards he hugged me. I cannot ever imagine my GP being allowed to talk about his faith. It was so alien to life in the UK, but a refreshing tonic.
I had stopped eating solids in the early afternoon the day before, so when I arrived, I was pretty hungry. I had been warned that fasting can bring out repressed emotions. I prayed fervently. Then, on the second night – bam! Just before my ‘dinner’ (the water from cooked vegetables), I broke down and cried. Not the sort of crying that you do when you are upset about something, but a more primal sound like the howl of a wounded animal. It was as if I was releasing something deep within me. That night I cried myself to sleep, and slept the longest and deepest I had in months. When I woke up, I realised I was no longer emotional and the deep pain in my chest had gone. Unbelievably, I did not feel hungry anymore either. But I didn’t feel sated. This unfamiliar feeling would remain for my entire stay.
Finding joy and peace
For the first couple of days I was tired, then I experienced a surge of energy coupled with a feeling of detached peace. My dreams were more vivid and I felt an ethereal sense of calm that I had not felt before. The still small voice of God broke through. With no distractions, no TV, no chatter, no gossip or judging, I listened. Over the coming days I learned how to tune in and hear the Lord with an internal tranquillity. My senses were heightened and I started finding joy in the simplest of things. Even just watching the wind catch a flower was awe-inspiring.
I would have periods of rest and then go on long hikes in the woods behind the retreat. I swam and went to the gym each day and I spent countless hours praying, reading the Bible and journaling. I did not want to be around people very much – although the people I met were fascinating. I soon found that everyone there had their own story that had brought them to the retreat. Some came for the physical benefits of fasting, to regenerate their cells and give their intestines a break, and others came for the psychological and spiritual benefits. Many Germans I met came for their ‘annual fasting detox’ and others had travelled far and wide, not always to fast, but to kick-start a health drive. One lady who had travelled from Saudi Arabia told me that she was sent by her husband for a month with instructions to “lose weight”. Another lady had come from Argentina to “de-stress”. I met various other people who each had their own story of brokenness and had come to experience the spiritual benefits of fasting.
Fasting calmed me and helped me hear God’s still, quiet voice
Each week a local minister would come to preach at the chapel onsite. Despite spending much of my childhood living in Germany, I could not understand the sermons, so I joined the meditation classes instead or went to the sauna. I was actively encouraged to use the sauna. It was explained to me that it challenges our blood circulation system as well as our immune system, as it increases the function of leukocytes, which are responsible for the body’s defence against potential illnesses. I remember feeling so at peace in the sauna, and when I was too hot, I would walk outside into an area at the foot of the forest and ‘forest-bathe’ for a while. I had never heard of forestbathing before. A German lady explained that it originates from Japan, and the calmness of standing barefoot in nature reduces stress. I do this now in the garden each day and I think it works.
The effects of fasting
After eight days of fasting I started to feel unwell. By day nine I had developed small lesions in the roof of my mouth and I ended up on an intravenous drip of powerful vitamins. The doctor said that my natural body stores of vitamins and minerals had been depleted much more quickly because of the prolonged period of stress that I had been under prior to entering the retreat. It transpired that I had high levels of the stress hormone cortisol. So, I finished the fast early and slowly started to reintroduce solids. At first it was a thicker soup and by the time I left I was eating scrumptious, healthy meals. I stood on the scales and I was surprised that I had lost 14lbs. I curtailed my stay and left two days early because as soon as I started reintroducing food again, my emotions came back with a vengeance that really surprised me. For days I had felt an almost cathartic sense of peace. I was in the world, but not fully. It was like my spirit was elsewhere. My mind felt protected when I fasted and I found it easier to control my thoughts. But when I started eating, my mind started wandering onto loss, anger and fear. I think it is because I had not addressed the root of the issues that were causing me to feel these emotions, and among the noise in my mind, I heard God telling me to grieve. I realised in that moment that there is no bypassing grief, and when the waves come, you need a life raft – and mine, my dearest husband (the only person who truly knew what I was going through), was hundreds of miles away.
The main legacy of the fast is that it has deepened my faith. The quietness of the surroundings allowed me to meditate, accessing a higher level of consciousness and deep inner healing. Friends say to me: “The adoption experience must have rocked your faith.” But no, it didn’t. Quite the opposite, it drew me closer to God. Fasting calmed me and helped me hear God’s still, quiet voice. He gave me a touch of light to revive my heart and showed me that my future was bright. Looking back at my journal from that time, I have underlined the important things I heard in my spirit. He told me to take risks, trust him and pray for bigger vision in my life. And most importantly, he urged me not to look back, but keep my eyes fixed on him. I have greater discernment since attending the retreat centre and I have started using my prophetic gift much more. Rather than ignore what he told me on the retreat, I obeyed. I quit my job with nothing to go to. It was all rather scary, but I just knew that he wanted me to take a leap of faith. He had told me to quit two years prior, but I had ignored his voice and chose comfort over courage.
Journeys through the darkest valleys do not last forever
I think the discipline of fasting has helped me gain strength of character and I have learned to control my appetite too. I have tried different ways of fasting and now do daily intermittent fasting, eating within a twelve or eight-hour window to give my gut a rest and regenerate the microbiome in my digestive system. Biologists say that when we fast, ‘autophagy’ is promoted in the body and old cells are slung out and new ones grow; from mircobiome to brain, heart and skin cells. I feel so much better for it. Conversely when I have an unusually big appetite, I know that it is because my soul is hungry and I need to meditate, pray, listen to worship music or be in nature, rather than eat the contents of the fridge. Rather surprisingly I gave up red meat. I have always been a lover of lamb, steak and chorizo, but after the fast, the thought repelled me. I thought it was because I was feeling a little unwell, but it persisted. I have always been a keen environmentalist; I recycle, walk or cycle, take public transport rather than the car and compost to do my bit. But after the fast, my spirit was telling me I could do much more to help the planet and, given the way most cattle is currently raised, one of the most effective things I could do to reduce my carbon footprint was to eat less meat.
It has been ten months since my fasting retreat. It was a tough period in my life, but our pain is never wasted. The main thing it has taught me is that journeys through dark valleys do not last forever and light eventually shines through. But you have to armour up and draw close to God. He held my hand, he guided me and showed me the path of hope, peace and joy.
When I was ending the fast, a ‘still small voice’ kept telling me to “capture my thoughts”. I did not understand at the time what that meant practically, but now I do. Thanks to the help of Christian neuroscientist Dr Caroline Leaf, whose teachings I accessed online, I am no longer as emotional and angry. Leaf has taught me to be conscious of every thought that enters my mind and capture it before it takes root. I ask the Holy Spirit to show me the root of the thought and stop any toxic thoughts branching out before they become a feeling that impacts my mood, my actions and, eventually, my circumstances. Leaf says that we have the “mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16), so according to science and scripture, we are able to think and choose well. We also have the Holy Spirit to guide us as “we bring all thoughts into captivity to Christ Jesus” (see 2 Corinthians 10:3-5). Now whenever I have a negative thought about anything, I question where it has come from and ask the Holy Spirit to guide me and replace it with positivity. I do not know why things happened the way they did last year. Perhaps I will never know. You cannot control the events and circumstances of life or what other people think and choose.
I do not know what the future holds, but I do know that God is more interested in shaping our character, than necessarily changing our circumstances here on earth. And when one door closes, another opens and new adventures begin. After leaving my job, I set up my own business, which God has blessed abundantly. Of course, I would love to have my own family, but, for whatever reason, this is not my path.
Always seek medical advice before embarking on prolonged periods of fasting. Generally, fasting is not recommended for children, pregnant or breastfeeding women, diabetics, those with some pre-existing medical conditions or those who have a history of eating disorders.