It's gratifying to know that I'm in tune with the pope.
A day after I did a post on our blog, osvdailytake.com, about fasting, Pope Benedict XVI released his message to Catholics for Lent -- and it has a strong focus on fasting (which along with prayer and almsgiving is one of the three penitential practices that are associated with Lent).
Granted, my post sprung off a recent Los Angeles Times article that looked at a growing body of data suggesting that occasionally skipping meals has health benefits (in addition to the spiritual ones). It's receiving new attention because a number of people are turning to it to lose weight.
"Called intermittent fasting," the Times explained, "this rather stark approach to weight control appears to be supported by science, not to mention various religious and cultural practices around the globe. The practice is a way to become more circumspect about food, its adherents say. But it also seems to yield the benefits of calorie restriction, which may ultimately reduce the risk of some diseases and even extend life."
In his message, Pope Benedict noted, in fact, that most discussions of fasting we hear today are marked by our cultural concern for "a therapeutic value for the care of one's body."
"Fasting certainly brings benefits to physical well-being," he said, "but for believers, it is, in the first place, a 'therapy' to heal all that prevents them from conformity to the will of God."
The pope sketched the tradition of fasting in our tradition, all the way back to the Garden of Eden -- after all, God told Adam and Eve "not to eat" the prohibited fruit.
In the New Testament, he said, Jesus sheds light on the true motive for fasting; not simply a pharasaically scrupulous observance of the law, but to be enabled to do God's will.
The pope also traced the tradition of fasting in the early Church, where it was recommended by Church Fathers and saints as a way to avoid sin and grow in intimacy with God through prayer.
"Denying material food, which nourishes our body, nurtures an interior disposition to listen to Christ and be fed by his saving word. Through prayer and fasting, we allow him to come and satisfy the deepest hunger that we experience in the depths of our being: the hunger and thirst for God," he said.
At the same time, he said, fasting is a way to open our eyes to the plight of our poorer brothers and sisters.
"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," he said.
The pope urged parishes and "other communities" (families?) to make fasting a key part of their Lent. I sure am going to try.