Why should you fast?
Oddly enough, that’s a fairly unusual question for Catholics to ask. If you Google “fasting and Catholic tradition,” most of the hits in the first few pages have to do with specific regulations. When do we have to do it? What exactly is it? Can I have bread? Do I have to fast all day? What happens if I eat something?
In other words, we focus on what we might call the minutiae of fasting, putting the cart well before the horse. Before you learn how to do something, you need to understand why you’re doing it.
One good reason is that the Scriptures call us to fast. Jesus clearly expected it of his disciples: “When you fast,” he said, “do not look gloomy like the hypocrites” (Matthew 6:16). He said “when” you fast—not “if.” The Old Testament is filled with examples of God’s people fasting, and the first thing Saint Paul did upon his conversion was—you guessed it!—fast.
And yet fasting has slipped between the cracks, as it were, of our present-day traditions.
I’d like to suggest we rethink our approach. Fasting, more than any other discipline, doesn’t let you forget for one moment what it is you’re doing. You’re hungry. You feel deprived. Your body is reminding you something is different, uncomfortable, and that discomfort enables your spirit to focus.
In a sense, fasting isn’t about food itself as much as it’s about abstinence; you could, theoretically, fast from anything you love consuming or doing; Pope Francis even has some alternate suggestions here. So why choose food? Well, have you noticed how you feel after a large meal? Sleepy, possibly uncomfortable, lethargic, distracted. Notice these are all feelings that go against the spirit of Lent, which is a spirit of penitence and prayer.
Fasting is what enables prayer: it’s an incessant reminder of our need for help… and the need for action. “When a man begins to fast,” writes St. Isaac the Syrian, “he straightway yearns in his mind to enter into converse with God.” Fasting is what sets the process in motion; it gives intentionality to our prayer. Growth and change never come from a place of comfort, and fasting keeps us uncomfortable, forcing us to think about consumption and privilege.
Fasting is an aid to open our eyes to the situation in which so many of our brothers and sisters live. In his First Letter, St. John admonishes: “If anyone has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him—how does the love of God abide in him?” Voluntary fasting enables us to grow in the spirit of the Good Samaritan, who bends low and goes to the help of his suffering brother. By freely embracing an act of self-denial for the sake of another, we make a statement that our brother or sister in need is not a stranger. (Pope Benedict)
We live in a culture of fast food, instant gratification, and self-centeredness. Fasting forces us to think intentionally about the foods we eat, the goods we consume, and the ways in which we are privileged. Fasting forces us to consider what it is like to go without.
There are many different ways to fast, and a good place to begin is by asking God for discernment: what kind of fast are you being called to this Lent? The Bible gives examples of one-day, three-day, seven-day, and forty-day fasts. But you’re not required to follow any of those: you can fast on Fridays, on Wednesdays and Fridays, or (in a modified way) every day.
So what do you do instead of eating? Use the energy of fasting. That may sound counterintuitive: it’s food that gives our bodies energy, so how can we be energized by fasting? Yet time and time again, in various religious traditions, people report that fasting brings them clarity of mind. An experiment at the University of Chicago showed an increase in mental alertness and better schoolwork performance when participants were fasting. So take advantage of that clarity and focus to open yourself up to new ways of being with God.
- You spent time preparing and consuming the meals you’re giving up. Use the gift of time that the discipline has given you in spiritually constructive ways. You might want to spend that time in Eucharistic Adoration or other prayer; in reading Scripture; in organizing a Lenten discussion group.
- You also spent money on the food you’re not consuming anymore. That money could well be spent this Lent on people less fortunate than you: donating it to a local food bank or soup kitchen will help you address the needs of those for whom fasting is not optional, for whom the feeling of hunger is all too familiar.
And, honestly, what better way to understand those who are hungry than by… going hungry?
text by Jeannette de Beauvoir, whose greatest joy is working in the Media Department of Pauline Books & Media
image by Jonathan Pielmay for Unspash