Sunday’s gospel took us into the desert with Christ, as He begins His forty days of fasting and prayer. Our forty days began last Wednesday, and I don’t know about you, but a lot of the momentum I experienced on Ash Wednesday with regard to the traditional Lenten practices of fasting, prayer and almsgiving is dissipating. The one I’m struggling with the most is fasting. I started off with a bang. In fact, my Lenten observance was an extension of what I had already discerned God calling me to do in my 2010. I was going to get in physical and spiritual shape. I began changing my eating habits in January, I started working out, and I had a complete physical with all the required tests to determine that my overall health was good. As I approached Lent, I was excited. I could now start getting in shape spiritually, starting with fasting. I was already on the way. I was just going to be a little more intentional. Guess what? What had been sailing along so beautifully for several weeks got derailed. I got sick, and I lost my energy. I was weak, and my lower calorie diet wasn’t helping. I was struggling to finish an important project that was overdue, and I was working long hours and not getting enough sleep. Once again I was reminded by our good and gracious God that what I intend to do will never be enough. I need Him. On my own power and strength I cannot do it.
As I gear up to begin this week anew, I want to share with you some of the Church’s teachings about the traditional Lenten practices, and offer some tips and insights to aid you in this journey through the desert. There will be setbacks. The key is to persevere, and to look to the One Who is looking at me.
The three traditional penances in the tradition of the Catholic Church are prayer, fasting and almsgiving. I would like to focus on the one that gets the least attention and is the most misunderstood: fasting. We have gotten away from the practice of fasting. There is a general understanding that this is something that the Catholic Church has cut back on since Vatican II, and so it’s not something that should concern us. Some people fear it can be harmful to your health if you’re not careful. True enough, so always fast with care. But contrary to what many believe, fasting does not mean going without food entirely, nor is it just eating bread and drinking water. Fasting is rooted in sufficiency –it is about eating what is sufficient, not what satisfies. The Church recommends that when fasting in Lent, you eat one full meal and two partial meals that don’t equal another full meal.
When you fast, the Church proposes that you eat what is sufficient for your situation. Thus, an offensive lineman on a football team would eat a lot more on a day that he is fasting than I would on an ordinary day. To fast is to eat in a healthy way, but only eating what you need to take in, not what you want or desire to eat. There is a radical difference between eating what is sufficient and eating what is satisfying. Fasting is not about eating nothing; it is about eating only what you need.
The Church requires fasting from us only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday (with exceptions regarding who is supposed to fast, for example, those between 18 and 60 years old), but recommends fasting and abstinence much more frequently. Why? Fasting provides us with an increased capacity to say “No” to the desires of the flesh. It gives us the strength to resist those things that want to move in and take over in our lives. When you begin to restrain yourself from things you want to indulge in, you will find those inclinations and desires come roaring back with ferocity. Fasting is a tool to tame the lion.
Today the traditional penances like prayer, fasting and almsgiving associated with growth in the spiritual life have been set aside. As a result, we lack spiritual power and growth. We are not advancing as we should in our spiritual lives. We are weakened in our ability to uproot sin and resist the draw towards evil deeds. Do you want to gain strength in your spiritual life and in your ability to resist the pull towards sin? Do you want to reach the heights of holiness? Try fasting.
Here are some benefits to fasting:
- You will enjoy increased health. By becoming healthier, you are honoring God, yourself, your spouse and your kids.
- You will enjoy increased energy, which will allow for more time and better focus on your life’s mission, both in work and in your personal life.
- You will come to realize solidarity with your spiritual brothers and sisters who have no choice about whether and what they will eat today. You can stand with those in desperate situations in Haiti, Iraq, Afghanistan and all the troubled areas where children and families suffer from hunger and deprivation every day.
- As you say “No” to your body, the life of the spirit will begin to emerge. Fasting is a form of spiritual training and asceticism. As you begin to experience the hunger for food, what will awaken in you is your desire for the Lord, for the desires of the Spirit that have been smothered by your excesses.
- As you put to death the desires of the flesh you will see the desires of the flesh diminishing. You will then see other desires in your life for things that aren’t godly will begin to diminish.
- Fasting is a weapon of the powerless to release God’s power. When you are faced with worldly situations and spiritual attacks that are beyond your strength, fast. When you do, God’s power will become manifest and clear a path to freedom for you.
Why would we not fast? We want to grow in holiness! Fasting will help us remove those blockages in our lives that prevent us from growing in the spiritual life, and keep us from coming closer to God. But let’s be clear – You will not understand the power of fasting until you fast. Reading about it will never suffice. You will not be convinced of the strength of those attachments to food and know how weak you are to resist them until you fast . . . and fail. You will not realize that by satisfying your desire for food, you cover over and sometimes smother your deeper desires for God and for spiritual things.
To help you in your Lenten journey, and to encourage you to try this very effective aid in growing in the life of the spirit, I’ve included some insights and practical tips to successful fasting:
- Don’t be surprised if on the first day of fasting, your body is complaining by lunchtime (if you even make it that far!) even if you haven’t made much of a change in your eating for the day. A lot of what happens in fasting is in your head as much as your body.
- Choose to fast in a way that involves a real sacrifice or challenge, but not one that will weigh so heavily that it’s too much for you. For example, if you’re a coffee drinker, on a day of fast, drink tea rather than coffee. Or if you take cream and sugar in your coffee, drink it black. If you eat breakfast, choose something that will nourish you with satisfying you – oatmeal instead of a bagel with cream cheese or a donut.
- Fast intentionally, that is, with a plan. Don’t just float into your day of fasting. Think through and plan when, what, how much, where and with whom you are going to eat. Don’t set yourself up for failure!
- Replace some of the time you would have spent preparing more elaborate meals and in eating, with prayer, especially reading your Bible. When Jesus was tempted in the desert by the devil after fasting for 40 days, He said that man did not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God. Consider the reading of Scripture as a form of nourishing your spirit. Fasting is traditionally connected with prayer.
- Take the money and time you save through fasting and put it at the service of a good cause. This connects your fasting in some way to almsgiving. We do this in Lent when we put the money we’ve saved from eating differently into a special collection for those who are poor and hungry in the world.
- Don’t stay up until midnight on a Friday in Lent and then eat a large meatball sub with chips and a coke. I speak as one with authority, because I did that one year. As the clock struck midnight, I took the largest bite I could manage of that sub. Let’s just say that this was not a good example of correct fasting. I followed the letter of the law, but missed out on the spirit of it, and got a big stomach ache to boot!
- Don’t expect fasting to ever get easy, but expect that the difficulties you face in fasting will become acceptable. You will see over time that your ability to restrain yourself from eating increases.
- While I have only mentioned fasting from food, fasting can also take on many other forms: fasting from talking negatively, watching television, using the internet, playing video games.
- You might also fast from choosing what is easy or comfortable. This might involve little acts of penance like sitting up straight rather than sitting back comfortably in a chair.
- Fast as a means of addressing a social evil like abortion. Fasting is the weapon of the powerless. God moves in power when we fast and pray.
- If you are serious about incorporating fasting into your spiritual life, seek out good counsel, preferably from a trained spiritual director. Don’t let the world know you are fasting, but do let someone who is spiritually mature know, so you don’t rely on your own discernment about what is healthy and appropriate.
- Whatever form of fasting you engage in, please remember that the key to all acts of penance are that they are to be done in union with Jesus Christ. All of our acts of satisfaction are to be offered up and drawn into His perfect act of satisfaction, His death on the cross.
The fruit of all this? A deeper desire to know God. Growth in holiness. A closer relationship with the One Who, at every moment and in every place, draws near to us. (cf. the Catechism of the Catholic Church, § 1) Who wouldn’t want that?