This week, Catholics are going to hear many homilies on how Lent is about more than giving up chocolate and how we should “fast” from those behaviors which are bad. Most homilies will imply that you do not have to fast for lent outside of the bare minimum. The key is to focus on being a good person and trying to “fast” from all those behaviors that keep you from being a good person.
Although being good is not necessarily wrong, and in the end there is a lot of truth to these homilies, we need to recognize that one of the greatest aspects of ascetic discipline is being lost in the midst of our contemporary discussions. We have so gotten into the habit of calling all our endeavors to avoid sin “fasting” that we have failed to grasp the central reality that is at stake.
Fasting is about…. being hungry and missing one or multiple meals. Simply put, it is a restriction on our diet in which we go without food for a set period of time. The irony is that in a time when Catholics are desperately trying to avoid the basics of fasting, there is a lot of research that suggests that fasting can be beneficial. Although medical research is always on-going and takes time to establish, there are many studies and books that point to the benefits of fasting.
In addition, in classical thought, which includes Christian thinkers, our emotional life is viewed as tied to the body. For this reason, the great thinkers of Western civilization saw fasting as a way to gain a kind of gentle mastery over our interior life in which we no longer become the slaves of our disordered impulses. So when people say that they avoid fasting because it makes them irritable, I might suggest they fast so they learn to deal with their irritableness.
Thus, instead of avoiding the discomfort and desolation that fasting brings, we learn to accept suffering in our lives. Furthermore, we learn to love despite how we “feel.” Fasting, like any part of our lives, takes time and patience to master. The first time we fast, we must confront a whole series of sensations and ruminations which are unpleasant and difficult. This is normal. In time we learn to see such disorders as opportunities to grow.
Fasting helps us to nurture detachment from the sensible world so that we can come to a place of greater freedom. Such detachment does not lead us to despise all the comforts and pleasures that food has to offer. Rather, it gives us the freedom to experience sense pleasure in a way that truly strengthens us to do God’s will.
So, this Lent I have a simple suggestion to make. Fast. Maybe it will not be anything major (maybe missing a meal here or there). The key is not so much the amount of fasting that you do, but the basic principles that are at stake. You should be hungry (and thus face all the things you fear about hunger), and you should intentionally restrict your diet.
For the sake of health, such restrictions should be done in consultation with a doctor, if necessary, and you should plan to compensate for the deficiency at other times. For those with medical issues, consider options in which you make your food bland and simple. You will soon discover that much of your cravings have nothing to do with nourishment, and more to do with love of sugar and salt.
So this Lent, consider some concrete steps you can take to fast, not just in terms of eliminating behaviors and habits, but in the sense of consciously restricting your food intake for set periods of time. In this way, we can take steps to experience greater freedom both in our relationship with sense pleasure, but also in our interior lives.
Yes, fasting is good. Last year a priest read the homily by St Peter Chrysologus: prayer knocks, fasting obtains, mercy receives. Fasting and mercy are interrelated, they cannot be separated (according to the homily). You have probably read it, but if not I highly suggest it.
Think, too, of all the saints that have gone before us who have stressed fasting. I find this more obvious in the Orthodox saints (vs. the Roman Catholic), but that could certainly just be a result of my limited reading!
Ultimately, I think it is tied with uniting our suffering to Christ’s, and offering our small sacrifice to Him.
To my knowledge there was never a saint who did not fast.