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The Lost Art of Fasting


Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” ~ Matthew 9:15

The topic of fasting takes center stage in both today’s 1st Reading (Isaiah 58:1-9) and Gospel (Matthew 9:14-15) so let’s talk about it....what it is and what it isn’t.

Bishop Barron points out that we fast because we have a hunger for God, which is the deepest hunger. We’re meant to get access to that hunger. We’re meant to feel it so that it can direct us toward God. Every spiritual master recognizes the danger of allowing the superficial hunger of our lives to dominate: we never reach the deepest hunger. Thomas Merton once observed that our desires for food and drink are something like little children in their persistence and tendency to dominate. “Unless and until they are disciplined, they will skew the functions of the soul according to their purposes,” Merton concluded.

Fasting is a way of disciplining the hunger for food and drink. It is a way of quieting those desires by not responding to them immediately, so that the deepest desires emerge. I touched upon this briefly in yesterday’s reflection. When all of our cravings are satisfied, it’s difficult if not impossible to determine that which truly rules our heart. Fact is, unless you fast you might never realize how hungry you are for God.

Fasting in this way can lead to other powerful, grace-infused changes in our life as well. Saint John Chrysostom once said "The fast of Lent has no advantage to us unless it brings about our spiritual renewal. It is necessary while fasting to change our whole life and practice virtue. Turning away from all wickedness means keeping our tongue in check, restraining our anger, avoiding all gossip, lying and swearing. To abstain from these things; herein lies the true value of the fast."

An email I received just the other day caught my attention. It offered creative suggestions for enhancing the Lenten journey. “Don’t give up chocolate for Lent” the headline proclaimed, saying that in order to experience this time of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving more deeply, one should instead fast from hurtful words, anger, impatience, selfishness, and a few other less than flattering personality traits.

But the very notion of giving up sins as part of a Lenten resolution can confuse the purpose of fasting, which is to deprive oneself of a good for the sake of a greater good. In doing so it draws us into closer union with God. “Fasting” from sin during Lent would imply that we intend to delve back into this disordered behavior on Easter Monday.... But have no fear; with another Lenten Season always looming, we can give up these same sins for another 40 day window the following year. You get the idea.

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Going back to Saint John Chrysostom’s quote, fasting can proactively help one to bring an end to habitually sinful behavior. That’s the long term and permanent change we must instead desire and pursue. To that point, fasting is a habit we can and should continue long after Lent. It is a tradition that dates back 1,500 years in our Church. Some of you who are reading this may remember a time when Catholics fasted every Wednesday and Friday. It is a discipline that has, for the most part, been long abandoned... perhaps to our detriment.

Growing in obedience is a valuable byproduct of fasting, but more importantly it is a tool that can shape our hearts to be more like Jesus. We take on his way of seeing and acting. It quickly becomes a living and tangible act of love that become part of our routine long after Lent is over.

I plan to write in greater detail about the practice of fasting as the Lenten Season unfolds, so please check back as we dig deeper into this holy practice.

Temper all your works with moderation, that is to say, all your abstinence, your fasting, your vigils, and your prayers, for temperance sustains your body and soul with the proper measure, lest they fail.”’~ Saint Hildegard of Bingen


Patrick44 (author) on March 14, 2020:

Thank you...

manatita44 from london on March 01, 2020:

You have given it Faith and a spiritual basis, so that way it's not to bad. We don't fast much on our Path. The teaching is like one or two days a month, if... and that means just water for 24 hrs, which is different from a Ramadhan fast. It has benefits if not overdone.

Still, I'm just saying what we do. The Marathon Monks of Japan, fast for ten days, using water only and have to be carried out of the Temple by the 7th day, as there is a daily programme of exercise and worship. They then do something like a 1000 marathons in flat shoes and a few more austerities. But again, the faith in Enlightenment or Salvation is intense. Lovely Hub.

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