“Why do Catholics have to fast?”
The question came from a non-Catholic Boy Scout in my son’s troop. We had spent a long, soggy weekend in the middle of the woods. And now, Sunday morning, the adults announced that breakfast would be delayed so that the Catholics could keep the Communion fast. He was not a happy camper.
His question comes to mind again as Lent begin, because fasting is the most distinguishing practice of the season. On two days in Lent, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, Catholics limit their eating to one full, meatless meal. On all the Fridays of Lent we abstain from meat.
Why do Catholics fast? Our reasons find firm grounding in the Bible.
When we fast, we follow holy example. Moses and Elijah fasted forty days before going into God’s presence (Ex 34:28, 1 Kgs 19:8). Anna the Prophetess fasted to prepare herself for the coming of the Messiah (Lk 2:37). They all wanted to see God, and they considered fasting a basic prerequisite. We, too, wish to enter God’s presence, so we fast.
Jesus fasted (Mt 4:2). And since He needed no purification, He surely did this only to set an example for us. In fact, He assumed that all Christians would follow His example. “When you fast,” he said, “do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting” (Mt 6:16). Note that He did not say “IF you fast,” but “when.”
And WHEN is now. In Lent the Church extends the idea of fasting, beyond the minimal skipping of meals, to a more far-reaching program of self-denial. Jesus said: “If any man would come after me, let him deny himself … daily” (Lk 9:23). So we “give up” something that we’d ordinarily enjoy: sweets, soda pop, a favorite TV show, or the snooze alarm.
Fasting has its health benefits, but it’s not the same as dieting. Fasting is something spiritual and far more positive. Fasting is a spiritual feast. It does for the soul what food does for the body.
The Bible spells out specific spiritual benefits of fasting. It produces humility (Ps 69:10). It shows our sorrow for our sins (1 Sam 7:6). It clears a path to God (Dan 9:3). It is a means of discerning God’s will (Ezr 8:21) and a powerful method of prayer (8:23). It’s a mark of true conversion (Jl 2:12).
Fasting helps us to be detached from the things of this world. We fast, not because earthly things are evil, but precisely because they’re good. They’re God’s gifts to us. But they’re so good that we sometimes prefer the gifts to the Giver. We practice self-indulgence rather than self-denial. We tend to eat and drink to the point where we forget God. Such indulgence is really a form of idolatry. It’s what St. Paul meant when he said, “their god is the belly … with minds set on earthly things” (Phi 3:19).
How can we enjoy God’s gifts without forgetting the Giver? Fasting is a good way to start. The body wants more than it needs, so we should give it less than it wants.
St. John of the Cross said that we cannot rise up to God if we are bound to the things of this world. So we give up good things, and gradually we grow less dependent on them, less needy.
All of this is part of our preparation for heaven. For we’re destined to lose our earthly goods anyway. Time, age, illness and “doctor’s orders” can take away our taste for chocolate, our ability to enjoy a cold beer, and even the intimate embrace of a loved one. If we have no discipline over our desires, then these losses will leave us bitter and estranged from God. But if we follow Jesus in self-denial, we’ll find a more habitual consolation in the ultimate good — God Himself.
How is it that some people are able to remain serene and cheerful amid extreme suffering and even when facing imminent death? It’s not just a matter of temperament. They’ve prepared themselves for the moment by giving up the things of this world, one small thing at a time. They’ve grown so accustomed to small sacrifice that the big one isn’t such a stretch.
No one says that fasting is easy. In fact, says Benedictine Father Thomas Acklin, author of The Passion of the Lamb: God’s Love Poured Out in Jesus. “Fasting can seem very hard, and it can seem that if I do not eat I will become weak and will not be able to work, or pray, or do anything.
“Yet there is that marvelous moment,” he adds, “when, after some hours have passed, my stomach has stopped growling and I’ve even forgotten what I’ve given up, when there is a lightness, a freedom, a clarity of the senses and a brightness of attitude and feeling, an incomparable closeness to the Lord.”
Lent is a special season, but God wants these forty days to have a lasting effect on our lives. So, in a sense, fasting is for always. Father Rene Schatteman, an Opus Dei chaplain in Pittsburgh, says that he received this lesson directly from a canonized saint. “I learned from St. Josemaria Escriva, whom I had the privilege of knowing personally, that a person should make some small sacrifice at each meal, always, and not just during Lent.”
Fr. Schatteman emphasizes the importance of little things, and the big effect they can have: “We should all feel the need to help Christ redeem the world by practicing self-denial in everyday, ordinary eating and drinking … to take a bit less, or a bit less of what we like most, to avoid eating between meals, to skip a snack or dessert, etc., without making a big deal of it.”
A Pittsburgh businessman (who asked for anonymity) told me of his longtime practice of fasting on Fridays, “a 12-15 hour fast from food, water-only.” He said, however, that this can be difficult to carry out, not because of the hunger, but because it can disrupt family life. “It’s very hard to sit at the family table and not eat. It’s not so much a question of resisting the temptation of the food. I always felt like I was breaking fellowship. My fasting actually felt selfish, like I was taking something away from our time together as a family.”
He has since modified his fast, “to be broken at the family dinner in the evening.”
Why do Catholics fast? Our anonymous businessman put it well: “It’s medicine for my biggest problem — selfishness and lack of self-control. To force myself to curb my appetites, to not satisfy my desires — even for a short period of time — this is a good thing. To offer up the little sacrifice to God, for my family, for people who are hungry through no choice of their own, this I think is also good.”