Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Spiritual Benefits of Fasting

Hot off the presses, this week's Catholic Telegraph includes my next column:

Why is it that a nice juicy hamburger always sounds better on Fridays of Lent than any other day? I can go weeks without craving this particularly American meal, but once Lent starts it seems that this is all I can think of! The Forbidden Fruit lures one into its trap.

Yet, during Lent we are called to a particular joy in fasting, as we hear on Ash Wednesday: “When you fast, do not put on a gloomy face like the hypocrites.” Rather, Jesus instructs us to “wash our faces, and your Father who sees in secret will repay you.” (Mt 6:17-18) So we are called to fast joyfully, but what are the roots of why we fast?

It actually starts at the very beginning of the Old Testament, as Adam is instructed in the Garden of Eden to eat freely of all the fruit that is present, except that of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is a divine command from God to help exercise our discipline in following His commands.

Fasting marks so many other aspects of life in the Scriptures as well. Whenever the People of Israel begin a journey, they are to fast so that they may rely on God’s strength, rather than their own, for the completion of the journey. Jesus begins his public ministry with a period of 40 days of fasting and prayer in the desert. His confrontation with Satan at the end of this time of purification gives us the answer to the spiritual dimension of fasting, as “one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God!” (Mt 4:4) Our discipline of fasting is to help our own purification process, so that following in the example of Jesus; we may do just what he instructs here.

These spiritual dimensions of fasting help to break the modern tendency to see the results in purely physical terms. It is good to lose weight, to have less of the self to carry around, but these are only secondary effects of the deeper spiritual reality that is shared in fasting.

But fasting is not the only aspect of Lent. The ‘three legged stool’ also includes almsgiving and prayer. But these are certainly informed by our fasting. Our experience of hunger, of thirsting for God’s presence while we fast, should also highlight the daily need of the poor among us. Pope Benedict remarks in his Lenten Message that ‘voluntary fasting enables us to grow in the spirit of the Good Samaritan, who bends low and goes to the help of his suffering brother.’ We give of our surplus so that those in need may experience the providence of God.

Ideally, our program of fasting, prayer and almsgiving is not something that we do only during Lent, but is a mark of the life of a committed Catholic Christian. We focus on these in specific ways during this time so that we might strive to turn vices that have crept into our lives over the last year into virtues that help to build the Kingdom of God. So in fasting from sarcasm, for example, we should also try to build up a virtue of praising and extolling our neighbors.

Finally, fasting turns our hearts toward God. We are to recognize through our sacrifice that all that we truly need is God’s loving providence. He will provide for those who step out in faith. As we are freed from our dependence on material goods, we can experience this providence on an ever deeper level. We come to a great communion with the God who loves us so much that He sent His only begotten Son so that we might have life through him.

During this time of Lent, let us strive to be unencumbered by the anxieties of this life, so that we might have freedom in the next.

For a family practice of Lent, see here:


Adoro said...

Thanks, Father.

Shannon Holtman said...

Fr. Kyle,
I really like the forty trash bag challenge. One of my practices for this Lent is to give up "clutter" and become less burdened with material things. I placed this under the pillars of 1) fasting (since I really like to accumulate things) and 2) almsgiving (by means of donations).
My husband expressed his opinion that this might be a bit of a stretch and did not think it was very penitential. Believe me, for someone who really likes to accumulate "stuff", this is hard! Thanks for backing me up!