I hate fasting. To be completely honest, I’ve felt a little bit grateful that I’ve gotten out of the Ash Wednesday and Good Friday fasts for the last two years due to pregnancy and breastfeeding. Don’t get me wrong, I do a different kind of penance on those days, like abstaining from sweets or social media. But the two small meals that don’t equal a full meal and one regular sized meal fast…that’s a tough one. I’m a bit of a “grazer,” so on days when I have to forego my second and third breakfasts, my body echoes the words in Romans 7:24: “Miserable one that I am! Who will deliver me from this mortal body?”
Yet, as uncomfortable as fasting is, I do not want to be overcome by my fleshly desires, also known as concupiscence, and I try (sadly, I do not write this as an expert) to offer up my small suffering and unite it with Jesus on the Cross.
As St. Alphonsus Ligouri said:
He that gratifies the taste will readily indulge the other senses; for, having lost the spirit of recollection, he will easily commit faults.
I want to have a strong back-bone. I want to grow in self-mastery. I do not want to be a slave to my passions. I want to embrace the attitude of Saint John Chrysostom who said:
Fasting is wonderful, because it tramples our sins like a dirty weed, while it cultivates and raises truth like a flower.
Biblical Roots of Fasting
Again and again the Bible encourages the practice of fasting.
As early as the second book of the Bible, Exodus, (and the prophet Elijah in the book of Kings) we read about Moses’ fast in the desert. A time set apart in order to dwell in the midst of God’s glory on Mount Sinai as he wrote the Ten Commandments.
“So Moses was there with the Lord for forty days and forty nights, without eating any food or drinking any water, and he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten words.”
We also know that the Jewish people in the nation of Israel kept fast on the Day of Atonement, also known as Yom Kippur.
“For on this day atonement is made for you to make you clean; of all your sins you will be cleansed before the Lord”.”
The temptation the Israelites experienced in the desert foreshadows the forty day fast of Jesus in the desert.
“Remember how for these forty years the Lord, your God, has directed all your journeying in the wilderness, so as to test you by affliction, to know what was in your heart: to keep his commandments, or not.”
It’s not that the things of the world, namely food and drink, are bad. Everything that God created is good simply because He created it. Therefore, when we fast, we are not giving something up because it is bad, but rather we are giving it up because it is good. By giving up something good, we are practicing self control so that we can more easily say no to temptation. We are strengthening our will.
“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry.”
“Now those who belong to Christ (Jesus) have crucified their flesh with its passions and desires.”
“For if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
Spiritual Fruits of Fasting
Fasting Brings Governance
I recently heard a priest speak about fasting this way. He said that as humans, we have a rational soul which is made up of our intellect and our will. We also have freedom. We fast because by practicing looking at something we desire, like a piece of chocolate cake, and saying no to it, we are working out our spiritual muscles. We are using our God given intellect and will to say “no” to something good, so that when sin presents itself as something else we desire, we have the strength to say “no,” and to do so more easily.
We are then bringing honor and glory to God by using our intellect and will to govern our desires, therefore overcoming concupiscence.
Fasting Makes Room
For me, a challenging but very tangible way for me to refocus my gaze on Jesus is by fasting from my phone.
Have you ever forgotten your phone on your way to work or school and immediately panicked, but then later realized that not having your phone served as a kind of retreat? Too often I allow a little screen to suck me away from the beauty of the present. I look through a screen as an observer of someone else’s reality instead of seeing with my eyes the wonder of my own. In each moment when I notice the inclination to reach for my phone, I am reminded that I can use those few seconds to pray a Hail Mary or look out the window in gratitude for God’s creation.
When I turn to my phone I am left feeling scattered. When I turn to my Creator, I am left feeling more peaceful and at rest. Fasting from my phone makes room for more of my life and more of God’s life in my life.
When To Fast?
As Catholics, we are required to fast during the holy season of Lent. In addition, as she teaches us in the Code of Canon Law, we are also called to fast each Friday of the year.
In Canon 1251 it reads:
Abstinence from eating meat or some other food according to the prescripts of the conference of bishops is to be observed.
While the practice of fasting during Lent and on Fridays is laid out for us by the Church, we can practice this spiritual disciple at any time of year.
Fasting doesn’t always have to be an intense day of two small meals and one large meal. Fasting can include saying no to dessert or to adding cream to your coffee.
The way I have been fasting lately is by choosing to shut the pantry door as I am about to pour myself a bowl of popcorn. At the moment of reaching to grab the snack, I am focused on how my taste buds are about to be delighted. But then I think of a prayer intention on my heart and choose to say “no” to my flesh and offer it up for that specific person or prayer request.
Through these small acts of denying my passions, I notice I am calling my heart and mind to Jesus just a little more each time.
Is the Lord asking you to say “no” to something? Through this practice of self-denial He is calling you to Himself. What is He inviting you to wonder in?
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