Last Updated:Friday - 09/24/2010
March 3, 2003
Fasting fasttracks your clarity
The season of Lent is the liturgical season where the Christian faith most stands in contrast with the ways of our society. Lent is the time we devote to prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
Our society can tolerate private prayer as a subjective exercise of people giving vent to their personal beliefs. It surely does no harm, in society's eyes. And almsgiving might even be a positive thing, one which benefits society by helping out its weaker members.
But fasting? Why would anyone want to deprive themselves of food or other good things for a religious reason? This makes no sense and might even physically harm a person.
Surely we ought to keep a close eye on these people who fast. They surely don't put a high enough priority on maintaining their energy levels so they can be productive citizens. Nor are they bowing low enough to the god of consumerism who decrees having a good time is what matters most.
Catholics, for our part, have put less emphasis on fasting in recent decades. It's true that traditional fasting practices often degenerated into legalism. We have tried instead to emphasize good deeds as a replacement for fasting from food and have placed a priority on Isaiah's injunction that a true fast is to do justice and bind up the wounds of the oppressed.
There is much to be said for this emphasis on building social justice as a form of fast. But when we downplay the "traditional" form of fasting and abstinence as an aid to personal piety, something valuable is lost.
In his 1966 apostolic constitution on Fast and Abstinence, Pope Paul VI wrote that even in the Old Testament, "external penitential practices are accompanied by an inner act of conversion. . . . One fasts or applies physical discipline to 'chastise one's own soul,' to humble oneself in the sight of his own God, 'to turn one's face toward Jehovah,' 'to dispose oneself to prayer,' to 'understand' more intimately the things which are divine, or to prepare oneself for the encounter with God."
Fasting aims, then, at the transformation of the person into a more loving, devout follower of God. It aims at true metanoia, a turning away from the endless desires of the flesh and a turning towards God.
It is fitting that the Church tells every year, on the first Sunday of Lent, the story of Christ's 40-day fast in the desert. It was through this fast that Christ made himself weak so that he would be strong enough in the spirit to forego the many allurements of the world.
In his book Disciplines for Christian Living, Father Thomas Ryan looks at fasting from an interfaith perspective. He concludes, "From time to time I can forget just which needs in my life are the most important, and my priorities can become all mixed up. Fasting is a discipline for restoring those priorities."
The Church asks very little of us in terms of fasting. We are to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and to fast for one hour before receiving Communion. Ryan recommends we go further. He suggests that we fast in times of penance for sinful behaviour, times of frenetic distraction and psychic clutter, times of grief and distress, times of fatigue, times of travel, before receiving the Eucharist and times of intercession.
And he gives us a prayer for use on regular days of fasting - a prayer which can help restore the true spirit of fasting:
"All praise be yours, God our Creator, as we wait in joyful hope for the full flowering of justice and the fullness of peace. All praise for this day. By our weekly fasting and prayer cast out the spirit of war, of fear and mistrust, and make us grow hungry for human kindness, thirsty for solidarity with all the people of your dear earth. May our prayer, our fasting and our deeds, done in the name of Jesus, give you glory and advance your reign in our hearts and in our world. Amen."
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