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Bold Christian Fasting

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One of the greatest triumphs of the devil has been to convince many that fasting is an optional part of the Christian life -- and that rigorous fasting is a sign of psychological imbalance, a sort of spiritual anoxeria.

Father Roger J.

On Ash Wednesday, Jesus spoke about three elements central to a Christian plan of life: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. He told us, "When you pray," "When you fast," "When you give alms," not to do so to be noticed by others but exclusively in order to bring ourselves into a greater union with God the Father.

All three practices are essential to the Christian life. No one can truly heed Jesus' words to follow him without striving to imitate Jesus' constant prayer, his heroic fasting, and his giving of himself as alms for others' salvation. A Catholic who takes the faith seriously similarly prays, fasts and sacrifices for others.

It's fitting for us, therefore, as we consider the spiritual practices that are essential to a Catholic's training for holiness, to examine prayer, fasting and almsgiving, which are meant to be lived not only during the 40-day season of Lent but are meant to be a staple of Christian life throughout the year.

We've already pondered various aspects of Christian prayer -- the Morning Offering, the General Examination, Mental Prayer and the Mass -- and will consider others in upcoming columns. At the beginning of Lent, however, it's fitting for us to focus on the need for fasting, which we'll do this week, and almsgiving, which we'll take up next week.

Fasting is one of the most minimized and underutilized parts of a Catholic plan of life. There are many Catholics who fast only two days a year, on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and even on those days legalistically have one big meal and eat throughout the rest of the day just up to the limit of what would constitute a second meal. Others go beyond it, giving up, for example, chocolate, sweets or alcoholic beverages throughout Lent.

To a large degree, however, fasting in this way is the equivalent of praying for a few minutes a day or giving a few dollars away in alms -- they're good actions, but far from the heroism that forms saints. They frankly don't resemble at all Jesus' fasting in the desert or the fasting of the Ninevites after Jonah's preaching, of Esther and the Jews in Babylon, of Anna in the Temple, of the early Church in Antioch, of St. Paul and so many of the saints throughout the centuries.

One of the greatest triumphs of the devil has been to convince many that fasting is an optional part of the Christian life -- and that rigorous fasting is a sign of psychological imbalance, a sort of spiritual anoxeria.

The devil, of course, detests fasting. His first temptation toward Jesus in the desert was directed precisely against his fasting, trying to get him egocentrically to prioritize his material hungers and use his gifts to convert stones into bread. After exorcising a young boy of a demonic possession that the apostles were unable to expel, Jesus revealed to them that some demons are expelled "only by prayer and fasting" (Mt 17:21). The devil abhors fasting the way criminals loathe armed police.

That's because the evil one grasps why fasting is so important: if we can't control our physical appetites, he can use and physical, sexual and irascible appetites to control us. We can only hunger for "every word that comes from the mouth of God" when we're able to prioritize our spiritual hungers over our bodily. If we can't say no to our stomachs, we'll never be able to say a persevering yes to our souls. We'll never truly be able fully to follow Jesus, who insists that to be his disciple we have to "deny ourselves, pick up our Cross each day and follow him." Fasting is a crucial starting point of that spiritual self-denial that helps us to save our lives by losing them.

In the Gospel, Jesus makes two clarifications about Christian fasting that's key for us to fast appropriately.

First, he said that the "wedding guests" can't fast while the bridegroom is with them, but when he is "ripped way" then they will fast. This shows that the fundamental Christian attitude is joyful feasting, not gloomy fasting. When in Jesus' presence, we rejoice like groomsmen celebrate at a friend's wedding. Because Jesus is with us until the end of time, Christians are meant to be distinguished always by joy at his presence. At the same time, however, we are not always with Jesus, because whenever we sin, our communion with Jesus is ripped asunder, as when Jesus was ripped away from the apostles in Gethsemane. So we fast seeking to unite our whole existence to him.

Second, Jesus said we cannot sew new patches onto old cloaks or pour new wine into old wineskins. In other words, our fasting is revolutionarily different from the fasting of the Pharisees or John the Baptist's disciples, which was a fasting of religious discipline and duty meant to do penance for their sins and beseech God to answer prayers. Christian fasting, on the contrary, is meant to be motivated by a love for the Father that seeks to bring us to hunger for what he hungers for.

God hungers for us to hunger and thirst for holiness. God hungers for us to hunger to set the oppressed free, to share our bread with the hungry, to shelter the homeless, to clothe the naked, to care for our own, as he tells us through Isaiah. God wants us to be hungrier to care for the poor, needy and oppressed than someone who hasn't eaten for days would be for a piece of bread. Our fasting is meant to help us to starve for what God starves, until every cell of our body joyfully desires what he desires.

When people begin to take God's call to holiness earnestly, they recognize that they need to take fasting more seriously. But they often they fast impetuously and unwisely, in such a way that various unintended side-effects occur. We can and should fast boldly, but we need to avoid three pitpalls.

The first is pride, either trying to win others' esteem or inflate ourselves because of our improved self-discipline.

The second is irritability, fasting so much that our bodily state leaves us uncharitably grumpy or snappy.

The last is fatigue or distraction, such that we cannot do the work that we need to do because we don't have the necessary energy and concentration.

To avoid these pitfalls, I generally recommend most people in ordinary circumstances fast during Lent in a three-fold way: to drink only water (and diluted coffee if they really need the caffeine); to give up all condiments on food (salt, pepper, sugar, butter, ketchup, salad dressing); and to forsake all sweets and avoid snacks between meals.

This type of fast will often go totally unnoticed by others, will give us dozens of opportunities every day to practice holy self-denial, will convince us that we don't live on bread alone, and will help us to pray in the body a liturgy of the hours that will open our souls to grasp that every word that comes from the Father's mouth.

"Do not work for the food that perishes," Jesus told us in the Gospel, "but for the food that endures for eternal life." That's what bold Christian fasting enables as part of a Christian plan of life.

Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.

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