There is a beautiful hymn that Maronite Catholics sing during Lent which connects two things that people don’t normally associate with each other: joy and fasting. The hymn proclaims, “Go to meet this fast with joy.” The idea of rejoicing while fasting runs contrary to our popular culture which often mistakenly associates pleasure with joy, and happiness with maximizing pleasure.
In our popular culture, the idea of asceticism is viewed with suspicion and mistrust. Movies and television promote the idea that any kind of denial of pleasure and natural goods runs contrary to the goal of happiness. Furthermore, it is presented as being “unhealthy.” Popular perception is that asceticism is a past superstition connected with the idea of a vengeful God who demands a kind of cruel and strict justice.
The truth about Christian asceticism couldn’t be more different.
There is certainly the idea of reparation for sin which is connected to fasting, but there is also the idea of growth in virtue. This aspect of asceticism argues that through denial and discipline one learns to master the interior life and grow in self-control and moderation. In terms of scripture, think of St. Paul’s use of the imagery of athletics to describe the path of holiness. The early Christians viewed asceticism as a kind of moral training, in which one is strengthened by fasting and penance that they might overcome temptation. The goal of this asceticism was not just to endure as much pain and suffering as possible, but rather to create the conditions for authentic love.
One of the problems with love is that we are often attached to our emotions and created goods in ways which prevent us from being happy and loving unconditionally. Our interior life is disordered by sin, and is need of being “educated” by the use of reason and self-control. Fasting helps with this struggle for interior freedom by strengthening the will.
In terms of the question of happiness, I would argue that true happiness always involves a degree of suffering. The Positive Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalymakes a distinction which is helpful in this regard. In his book on human flow and optimal performance, he distinguishes between pleasure and enjoyment. In and of itself, pleasure does not lead to human growth. Things like eating chocolate and watching TV don’t built character traits such as courage or perseverance. In contrast, enjoyable activities are those that pose a challenge and which can be mastered by the subject. These activities require real effort and successful outcomes are not guaranteed. In the long run, the more people find enjoyment in the challenges of life, the more happy they are.
I would put fasting in that category of activities that can be enjoyable. Sure, there is pain and discomfort involved. However, I think that when we successfully spend a day fasting, and do so with patience and love, we can feel a sense of accomplishment and triumph. We have a sense that we are greater than our biological drives, and we can have psychology energy to conquer other trials. Even more profound is that when fasting, we learn to love in situations in which we don’t “feel” like being nice. Fasting makes our faults rise to the surface easier, but it can also prove a graced moment in which we love despite our hunger and irritation.
In closing, I hope you have a joyful Ash Wednesday (or Ash Monday for those in the Maronite Rite).