By Emily Stimpson
What's so great about fasting?
Nothing coming to mind?
Well, perhaps you're not thinking hard enough. After all, fasting is more than giving up cookies and candy for 40 days, more than feeling pangs of hunger on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, more than a stumbling block to St. Patrick's Day revelries. Heck, it's more than a Catholic thing altogether. Fasting is one of the great spiritual practices of all time, a natural instinct of the religiously minded since days immemorial.
The Book of Job recounts the woebegone Job rending his garments and going without sustenance while his friends offer cruel comfort. Later the Israelites followed suit, fasting both as a nation according to the Law of Moses -- that is, on the feast of Yom Kippur -- and in reparation for their own transgressions against Yahweh.
Long before the sons of Jacob made their way into the land of the Pharaohs, Egyptians wanting to serve the gods abstained from food as part of their priestly formation. A little later, on the other side of the globe, the Incas fasted to appease their gods.
In ancient Greece, the pagan philosophers practiced and preached culinary asceticism, believing that forgoing food purified the body. Similarly, in the Far East, before Buddha became Buddha he feasted on one grain of rice and sesame seed per day, hoping such sumptuous dining would lead to enlightenment.
Today, the spiritual children of these religions and more do as their ancestors did. The Jewish people keep the Day of Atonement. Muslims fast from before sunrise until sundown throughout Ramadan. Buddhists seeking enlightenment keep ritual fasts, as do the Hindus, the Baha'is, the Mormons and even a few pagans.
The Christian tradition of fasting, of course, takes its inspiration from Christ, who fasted 40 days and nights in the wilderness, as well as from our spiritual ancestors, the Jews. Christians took that lead early, fasting from the first days of the Church.
Accordingly, the Acts of the Apostles recounts Paul and Barnabas fasting and praying for conversions (see 13:3), as well as fasting with those they converted (see 14:23). A century later, the Didache, a collection of the teachings of the Twelve Apostles, counseled Christians to fast on every Wednesday and Friday.
Also in the second century, Christians began fasting for several days before Easter. By the fourth century, those several days expanded with the emergence of Lent. Other days of communal fasts soon worked their way into Christians' liturgical year, including Advent, Ember Days and vigils preceding great feasts of the Church.
Even when the whole Church wasn't fasting, individual Christians were, particularly in the early and medieval Church. The Desert Fathers led an austere life of self-discipline and fasting, some existing only on raw vegetables, others merely on cabbage leaves.
Later, many of the female medieval mystics followed the lead of their desert counterparts. St. Catherine of Siena famously lived for years on the Eucharist alone.
Most Religious communities counseled less extreme measures, but the forsaking of meat, animal byproducts and cooked food, not to mention wine, sugar and other luxuries, was par for the course in more than a few monasteries then as now.
Today, Ember Days have fallen out of fashion and the ancient practice of fasting on Wednesdays is kept by only a few, but the Church still counsels Christians to abstain or fast during Lent, Advent and on Fridays throughout the year.
Which, of course, brings up that pesky question again: What's so great about fasting?
The reasons, throughout the centuries, have been legion. Some, such as the neo-Platonists' insistence that food drags the body down into the nasty material realm, are thoroughly un-Catholic, rooted in a problematic dualism that divides body and soul.
Other reasons, particularly those given by the Church Fathers and Doctors are much better.
There is, for example, St. Augustine's rationale, that by forsaking food, we free up resources for the poor. Not only do our neighbors benefit from that act, he wrote, but so does Christ: "The hungry Christ will receive that from which the fasting Christian abstains."
Others described fasting as a means of disciplining the body's appetites, taming the demands of a rebellious spirit by first taming the demands of the flesh.
Many particularly linked the practice of fasting with the virtue of chastity. "It is impossible to extinguish the fires of concupiscence," wrote the monk John Cassian in the fifth century, "without first restraining the desires of the stomach."
Heeding the words of Christ, who warned that some evils could only be overcome "through prayer and fasting" (Mt 17:21), Christian teachers stressed fasting to help prayers travel to God's ears with greater urgency.
And, like King David mourning his dalliance with Bathsheba, other Christians endorsed fasting as reparation for sins, mortifying appetites in penance for wrongs committed in the Body of Christ.
The reasons the Church fasted in the days of old are still the reasons the Church fasts today.
We fast in petition and praise. We fast in sorrow, making an offering to God for sin. We fast to learn discipline, to learn how to do things that are difficult. We fast to vanquish obstacles between us and God. We fast so that others might eat. We fast in solidarity with Christ who hungers for souls. And we fast in obedience to the Church to whom Christ entrusted his Body and Blood.
And when we fast for those right reasons, with no pride or praise-seeking, the rewards are many, including a purer heart, greater devotion, stronger resistance to sin, firmer inclination to virtue, reparation made, gifts of sacrifice accepted, clearer spiritual vision and a victory over the demands of the ego.
And if fasting still doesn't strike you as that great, bear this in mind.
In the Catholic Church, every fast is followed by a feast.
Which really is great.
No spiritual director at hand to consult about your Lenten fast? No worries. OSV asked one of our favorites for you, Father Edward B. Connolly, co-host of the marriage prep DVD series "Road to Cana" and pastor of St. Joseph Church in Pottsville, Pa. Here are some of Father Connolly's tips for how we should be fasting this Lent.
Why we fast: "It subdues our egos. Egocentricity is one of the greatest barriers to charity. Fasting is necessary so that we can see ourselves, God and other people with the right perspective."
What to fast from: "I advocate the old-time fasting, not exclusively that, but still, giving up candy, ice cream, luxuries in general, as well as meat on Fridays . . .To say it's juvenile to give up sweets or other luxuries is a surrender to dualism, the great granddaddy of all heresies. It's saying what our bodies do is not important, that disciplining our appetites is not important. Of course, our primary fasting year-round should be performing works of mercy and doing things like fasting from cynicism, giving other people the benefit of the doubt."
Who should not fast from food: "Persons for whom fasting of any sort could present a risk to physical health or emotional well-being."
Who should fast: "Almost everyone else. Even the elderly and children, can fast from something like sweets."
How not to fast: "Do not do deliberate harm to your body. Don't fast to the point where you get sick. Don't fast so that people will think well of you. If you're deriving too much ego satisfaction out of your fasts, rethink what you're doing. If you want to sit on top of a pillar for Lent, consult a spiritual director."
How to fast: "Be prudent and humble."
While the Church's practical rules for fasting have softened through the centuries, the spiritual rules have not.
We must not, as Jesus instructed, make a fuss: "When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting" (Mt 6:17-18).
We must also, as St. John Chrysostom warned, not think fasting is a one-way ticket to holiness, because "Christ did not say, 'Come to me because I fasted'. . . But 'because I am meek and humble of heart.'"
In addition to fasting from food, we should also attempt to fast from uncharitable words and deeds. "For what can it profit if the mouth rejects food, while the tongue lapses into mendacity?" asked Alan of Lille.
Then there's the need to be wary of any creeping legalism -- putting voluntary penances before charity or putting the letter of the law before the spirit of the law. St. Thomas Aquinas had some particularly strong words for Christians who abstained from all the that Church told them to abstain from -- that is, meat on Fridays -- but ate otherwise sumptuous meals on fast days.
And unless Christ has personally shown up to betroth himself to you (a la St. Catherine of Siena) or you've taken to a nunnery and are under obedience to superiors, it's generally unhealthy and unwise to put yourself in contention for fasting events in the spiritual Olympics.
So, keep the Ash Wednesday and Good Friday fasts. Abstain from meat on Fridays. Give up sweets, dare not darken Starbucks' door, keep the wine corked or pass on salt. Just remember to always play nice and act prudently, lest every great thing about fasting fly out the window.
Emily Stimpson is a contributing editor to Our Sunday Visitor.
Please note: Comments left online may be considered for publication in the Letters to the Editor section of OSV Newsweekly.
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