“Do you fast?” This is a question I sometimes ask of penitents. The answer is usually, though not always, some variation of “not really.” I usually follow that with another question: “Would you be willing to fast for your penance?” I must admit, I am pleased that the answer is generally “Yes, Father” and that it is often said with some level of enthusiasm. Perhaps I am imagining it, but I get the impression that the invitation to fast resonates with something in the back of their minds as if the question recalled a distant memory. I really believe that this is the case; that the mere mention of the act of fasting often provokes the gift of faith within them, causing them to recognize it as a part of that faith, even if only a dim and vague way.
What do you think? Are Catholics known for the habit of fasting? Having been gone through 15 years of formal Catholic education (Middle School, High School, and Seminary), I feel pretty safe in saying… no. Outside of Lent, I don’t get the impression that many people discuss or think about fasting as an ongoing thing. Yes, I often hear a dim sense of recognition when it is brought up, but why is that sense dimmed and that memory vague? No, I’m not here trying to lay guilt on all the non-fasters out there, as if they aren’t even worthy to call themselves Catholic (honestly, who is?), but I am trying to ask this question: what happened to our culture of fasting?
Fasting is one of those practices that belongs to what I sometimes call the “Big Three;”almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. They are imminently biblical and a staple in living out our Catholic Faith. In times past, the idea of fasting as a standard part of living your faith was more prevalent. There is so much to say on the history of fasting, that I can’t really give it a fair treatment here, but I can at least point to Christ’s own words that his disciples will fast “when the bridegroom is taken away from them” (Lk 5:35) and to chapter 8 of the Didache (c. 100 A.D.), which tells Christians to fast every Wednesday and Friday. And that was at the same time that being Christian could very well equate to being executed by the Roman Empire. Certainly that is no longer the case, but the value of fasting should not be lost on us. Today, the Church does still require fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and abstinence from meat on Fridays throughout the year. It is a common misconception that this applies only to Fridays in Lent, but Canon Law in fact says every Friday. Yes, the United States’ Bishops did get permission to slightly alter the requirement for Fridays outside of Lent. We can eat meat on Fridays if and only if we offer some alternative penance or act of charity.
Things like visiting the nursing home, praying an extra rosary, or abstaining from some other food or drink that you normally have. Some seem to think that they did this to make life easier for us, but their stated reason for this change is that “to many in our day abstinence from meat no longer implies penance, while renunciation of other things would be more penitential.” In other words, they want us to give up things other than meat because it could be more penitential, not less. Nonetheless, the Bishops do continue to hold up abstinence from meat as the natural first choice.
Despite these teachings and guidelines, however, it is a rare thing to hear Catholics talk about abstinence and fasting outside of Lent. Why? Loss of the habit. With fasting required only twice a year and the misunderstanding of abstinence, it is a perfectly natural conclusion that such penitence is extraordinary – that it is outside the ordinary routine of life. But this should not be the case because it can help us to forget how intrinsically unsatisfying this world is. We are a body-soul unity and we live out a very incarnational faith. Just as with the ancient Israelites, our Catholic faith is often very physical. God took on a human nature with a body, we have sacraments that use physical things to cause spiritual effects, and we weekly profess that our bodies will be a part of our eternal fate. This kind of physical-spiritual integration applies also to the less pleasant aspects of our faith: like the fact that this world is fallen and will pass away. Especially in an affluent society like the United States, it is incredibly easy to forget that this world will not satisfy us. And, simply reading about it or hearing it from the pulpit is not enough. We have to feel it.
One of the best ways to make an idea or a belief seem real to someone is to let it affect their food. A habit of regular fasting, even in slight ways, helps us to really experience that satisfaction is not to be had in this life. It also trains us in self-control and moderation. A culture riddled with pornography, obesity, and regular binge-watching is in desperate need of a little austerity. There are a variety of ways to fast and you don’t have to look far to find great articles on the value of fasting from different form of media and noise, but its hard to beat the original. Obviously, serious health concerns should be taken into account, but I urge as many people to fast as possible. I’ll even go as far as saying in all seriousness that a Christian who rarely or never fasts is stunting their spiritual growth.
That being said, here are just a few tips on fasting:
– Start with the minimum: It’s fine to offer an alternative penance to not eating meat on Fridays, but be conscientious about actually offering the alternative.
– Make it regular: Preferably weekly. Wednesdays and Fridays are traditional because of Spy Wednesday and Good Friday.
– Don’t overreach: Start with small/short fasts and build up.
– Beware Pride: Try to pick meals or days where no one will notice that you aren’t eating (e.g. skipping a meal that you normally eat alone).
– Have something to look forward to: its customary to fast before special feast days (Like Lent before Easter) to help you look past the hunger in the same way that Christ “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross” (Heb 12:2).
– Find community in fasting: Its a good idea to find a few friends who can join you in committing to some set fast each week. This gives support and helps with not thinking too much of yourself. Pair this with the point above and share the goal as well as the trial (e.g. a Saturday Breakfast together after a Friday evening fast).
– Have a specific intention: I recommend that spouses fast for each other, parents for their children, etc.
– Do not fast on Sundays, major feasts, or even on other non-religious special occasions.
So, do you fast?