Fasting is one of the three hallmarks of Lenten practice, including prayer and almsgiving. Today’s epistle, the Letter of St. John, reminds: “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?” The hallmarks of Lent — prayer, fasting and almsgiving — are in fact works which help us in our faith journey. What is the principle of fasting, and why is fasting so essential to developing a strong foundation in virtue and growing in our faith?
The Catholic Facts on Fasting
The basic fast for Catholics is the canon that prohibits food one hour before receiving the Eucharist. During Lent, fasting involves degrees of food restrictions. On Ash Wednesday (coming up March 5th) and on Good Friday, Catholics 18 and older are to eat one full meal while fasting through the rest of these days. We can have smaller amounts of food for the two other meals, but those smaller amounts cannot together add up to another meal. There are no restrictions on the intake of liquids, and you can have meat-based broth as well. On Fridays in Lent, Catholics age 14 and older cannot eat meat; not eating meat is called abstinence, not fasting because we simply abstain from one food group. Many Catholics avoid meat all year on Fridays or offer a Friday sacrifice of some food item.
The Spiritual Benefits of Fasting
Why the focus on food as fasting? While we should always work on fasting from anger and impatience, along with all the bad-habit vices, there is something about controlling the physical appetite that lies at the heart of pursuing a life of virtue. In brief, self-restraint provides the threshold to all the virtues.
Prudence requires us to resist impulses and think through our actions in light of the past and future and to apply right principles to appropriate action in the present.
Justice requires us to give to each his due; this requires restraining from what our prejudices, affections or anger — our instincts — may entice.
Fortitude requires not giving up even though our weak wills falter before challenges.
Temperance requires us to act with moderation in relation to our instinct to pursue pleasure.
Faith requires us to obey God and his Church rather than our feeble instincts.
Hope requires us to trust in God and not indulge in the instinct to cower before life’s challenges.
Charity requires us to restrain our selfish instincts and lift up the good of others at all times.
Restraining our impulses is the precondition for virtuous living. Our most base instincts involve our bodily appetites. Therefore, learning how to tame our physical appetite gives us practice in self-control.
The broader principle involved in fasting is learning how to sacrifice. Resisting the instinct to gratify our wants is essential preparation for the further sacrifices that life requires. This concept of sacrifice is an endangered principle in modern life. The crisis among young adults has been linked to the fact that young adults have come to identify pleasure with happiness and pain with misery. Those without solid faith formation lack the ability to embrace suffering as essential to life, and they often crumble when life gets hard.
When Jesus fasted for 40 days in the desert, following his baptism and preceding the beginning of his ministry, he reminds the devil that Scripture requires: “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Learning to resist temptation starts in the appetites. If we can resist the instinct to fulfill our appetites, then we have the stuff that enables us to persevere in the spiritual life.
It is also true, as the witness of the saints, martyrs and hermits relate, that fasting provides an opening to spiritual enlightenment. Our body and spirit become more open to spiritual insights on an empty stomach than on a full stomach. Countless testimonies in the Church confirm this. St. Peter Damian, whom the Church honors today, was distinct in his austere practices — constant fasting, wearing a hairshirt, living the life of a hermit, etc.
Plan Your Lenten Fasting
Prudence requires us to look back to the past, what has or has not worked, and plan for the future in order to act well in the present — and this applies to preparing for our Lenten fast. What has your history with fasting been? This can be a challenge area for me, and writing this blog post helps me to get my plan in order as well.
Think about what is not just doable, but a stretch for you. We should feel the pinch of Lent in order to meet the level of a sincere sacrifice in our Lenten offering. Offer this sacrifice to God in the Mass; write it on the fridge in the context of prayer. Formalize the sacrifice by explaining your decision to your family. Increase your commitment and accountability. See the spiritual gains you yield, and watch your progress in leading a life of virtue and holiness.
Ultimately, the only way to fulfill the promise of our baptism is sainthood. Let’s start with a plan for Lenten fasting.