Have you ever tried to explain the Catholic regulations on fasting to a Muslim, a Jew or a Hindu? Save yourself the raised eyebrows of incomprehension or the smirk that says, “You’ve got to be kidding!” Somehow “one full meal and two lesser ones not equaling it” doesn’t cut it in the eyes of adherents of other world religions, all of whom have an understanding of fasting that is closer to what your doctor has in mind when he tells you to fast before coming in for blood tests. Perhaps their response helps explain why the practice has lost currency among Catholics.
A return to the fundamental sources of our faith might help. There are three major themes in the history and practice of Christian fasting: mystical longing for fulfillment, liberation through discipline and the relationship of fasting to works of charity and justice. After taking a brief look at each, I will offer some characteristics that might point to a rediscovery of this valuable spiritual life practice in our time.
Mystical Union and Longing for Fulfillment
Jesus began his public life with a fast similar to that of Moses and Elijah: 40 days and 40 nights in a deserted place. This fact itself is significant, because Jesus taught as much by acts as by words. Yet he instituted no particular practice for his followers; in fact, once into his ministry, he “came eating and drinking,” so that some said of him, “Look, he is a glutton and a drunkard” (Luke 7:34).
On the face of it, both Jesus and Paul, while embracing the practice of fasting themselves, refrain from making it a requirement for their followers. Jesus explains this paradox in his response to a question about why his disciples don’t fast like those of John the Baptist: The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast (Matt 9:15).
Jesus’ words indicate that the way in which the reign of God is rushing into the world through his physical presence and ministry leaves room only for joy and thanksgiving. He has come as the bridegroom to establish a mystical marriage with God’s people. Before his death there was time for celebrating the nuptial promises, a time for announcing the good news: “The kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21).
But “the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” Fasting will then be a recognition of something new that is already set in motion though not yet completed: the reign of God in our midst. During this time, his faithful, in mystical union with their Lord, wait with quiet joy and busy hands in vigilant preparation and deep longing for his return and the fulfilment of his reign.
One might liken this discrete, mysterious joy to the quiet humming of a choir member earlier in the day of a concert, or to the anticipation of parents cleaning the house in preparation for the children’s return home at Thanksgiving or Christmas.
Liberation Through Discipline
Enter the penitential motif, which is probably what people associate most strongly with Christian fasting. Penitence is always oriented toward freedom and liberation, though this has not always been clearly grasped. In Christian faith, penitence is not about expiating sin, for acquittal has already been granted. We tend to think that God will love us if we change, but God loves us so that we can change. Penitential practices and disciplines enable us to appropriate and make real in our life the freedom given through grace. They help readjust priorities and remind us where our real treasure lies.
It is sometimes said that Jesus came preaching the reign of God, while Paul laid the foundation for the growth and development of the church. And Paul’s great theme is freedom: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, only do not use your freedom for self-indulgence but through love become servants to one another” (Gal 5:13).
It is Paul’s deepest desire that the followers of the new way benefit from the practices of the spiritual life as means without becoming enslaved to them. Paul gives no interdictions regarding food any religious significance. At the same time, he witnesses to fasts of his own and clearly recognizes the place of discipline and voluntary self-privation.
The entire tradition of monasticism bears witness that union with God usually presupposes a life of self-discipline rather than self-indulgence. Everything comes with a price tag, and a strong love is willing to pay the price. The normal path is pointed out by Jesus: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24).
The primary reason for asceticism is the call to liberating transcendence of the thousand little threads that form a rope to bind us, the call to become free for service in love.
Work of Charity and Justice
Jesus remained faithful to the traditional triad of practices that were his Jewish heritage: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. In fact, a whole section of his Sermon on the Mount (Matt 6:1-18) is structured according to that schema.
The relationship between fasting and almsgiving is a prominent theme in patristic literature. The Shepherd of Hermas, a second-century text, reads: “In the day on which you fast you will taste nothing but bread and water; and having reckoned up the price of the dishes of that day which you intended to have eaten, you will give it to a widow, or an orphan, or to some person in want, and thus you will exhibit humility of mind, so that the one who has received benefit from your humility may fill his own soul.”
The preaching of the church fathers is clear that whatever saving is realized through one’s fasting belongs to the poor. Thus Gregory the Great preached, “The one who does not give to the poor what he has saved but keeps it for later to satisfy his own appetite, does not fast for God.” Origen blessed those who fasted in order “to nourish the poor.”
For Augustine, fasting of any kind, if it is to elevate the soul, flies on two wings: prayer and works of mercy. The unbreakable linkage between fasting and works of mercy in Christian preaching and teaching finds contemporary expression in the call by the U.S. member churches of the World Council of Churches, in conjunction with its declaration of a decade (2001-10) to overcome violence, for an annual Lenten fast from violence.
The invitation is for all Christians to pray regularly the prayer sometimes attributed to Francis of Assisi (“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace...”); to examine one’s life and choose a fast that has personal and/or communal meaning, (for example, fast from violent television shows, movies, video games, from products manufactured in sweatshops, from financial investment in companies that produce violence); and to give over and above one’s regular offerings to support the work of programs that address the causes of violence, alleviate its consequences or work for peace and reconciliation.
Why Did the Church Change Earlier Practice?
Many factors made it necessary to revamp the approach to fasting in the Catholic Church. Among them were: a juridical approach that had gradually smothered the mystical spirit at the origin of the practice; a dualistic conception of the body and soul resulted in fasting being seen as mirroring the combat of the spirit against the body; the erosion of personal and communal faith in an increasingly secular society; an intellectualization of faith incapable of supporting practices like fasting and prayer, which flow from deep dispositions of the heart; the overturning of traditional customs, mental frameworks and life rhythms in a technological society.
For Roman Catholics, the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) relegated the regulation of fasting to national episcopal conferences. The U.S. bishops’ 1966 Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence remains a source of inspiration and guidance:
Friday itself remains a special day of penitential observance throughout the year.... Friday should be in each week something of what Lent is in the entire year. For this reason we urge all to prepare for that weekly Easter that comes with each Sunday by freely making of every Friday a day of self-denial and mortification in prayerful remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ....
Fridays, please God, will acquire among us other forms of penitential witness which may become as much a part of the devout way of life in the future as Friday abstinence from meat.... It would bring great glory to God and good to souls if Fridays found our people doing volunteer work in hospitals, visiting the sick, serving the needs of the aged and the lonely, instructing the young in the faith, participating as Christians in community affairs, and meeting our obligations to our families, our friends, our neighbors, and our communities, including our parishes, with a special zeal...born of living faith.
But alas, the “invitatory” (as opposed to the obligatory) approach has not taken hold. I think it would be fair to say that Western Christians today have by and large lost the sense of fasting, no longer know how or why or when, and are at a loss as to how to reconnect meaningfully with the tradition. But if our present circumstance is the occasion for rediscovering treasure tried and true, reappropriating it and integrating it into our lives with new appreciation for its value, then there is a hidden grace in the moment.
Reclaiming the Best Elements
In every age the church must interpret the old truths in new, fresh forms. The climate of spirituality in our age is incarnational. Practices are embraced because of their liberating, life-giving potential, rather than being aimed at punishing the body or compensating for guilt. It is the goodness of creation that is emphasized, rather than the transitory quality of life or the pervasive presence of sin. A healthy contemporary Christian asceticism will not attack or deny what has already been redeemed.
Here are 12 characteristics that could mark a rediscovery of fasting as a valuable spiritual life practice among Christians today.
1. It is freely embraced out of a personally perceived value. The point at which our human freedom reaches its peak is when we, having experienced in our daily lives the abundant love of God for us, move freely and spontaneously to return God’s love.
2. Its two “wings” are prayer and almsgiving. This approach deepens one’s relationship with the Lord and strengthens the community.
3. It is sensitive to and follows the Spirit’s lead. This prevents it from becoming a technique taken on solely for health purposes or expanded consciousness.
4. It is not just for Lent but for the entire Christian life. If prayer, fasting and works of justice form the core of Christian life and are inextricably linked, how can any one of them be quarantined to just one season of the liturgical year? They are all essential elements of Christian living throughout the year.
5. It accords priority to that day in the week when Jesus revealed God’s immeasurable love for us: Friday. A valuable point of reference is the pattern in the early Christian centuries: Fasting was generally understood as abstinence from food until evening, or one meal a day, which was to be as simple as possible.
6. It finds meaningful expression in preparation for receiving the Eucharist. Forgoing whatever meal precedes Sunday worship creates a psychic as well as physical space within. When something or someone greater is coming our way, we are generally willing to put the eating on hold.
7. Its approach is holistic. I am not body and soul (two things); I am enspirited flesh, one reality. What is good for my soul is good for my body, and vice versa.
8. Its characteristic virtue is humility. We are created from nothing, and God wants us to recognize that we are always utterly dependent on our Creator for all good things.
9. It is marked by moderation. Like everything else in the spiritual life, it is not about doing it all or doing it right; it is just about doing it in a spirit of faith and love.
10. It often has traces of quiet joy within it. It is only when fasting is experienced as a “body language” of spiritual communication (mystical union) with the risen one and longing for future fulfilment that we can understand why it is characterized by quiet joy.
11. It stays close to its mystical inspiration. For so many, Christianity is a moral matter, whereas in fact it is a mystical matter. “Mystical” here refers to our participation in the very life of God by our being “in Christ.” When we get the relationship part right, the moral living follows naturally.
12. It is a flexible instrument of the spiritual life that can be used creatively. Unity in the Holy Spirit, together with great diversity, has characterized the life of the church in its healthiest eras. The choice is between a variety of realizations, united in spirit, and conformity without spirit—which is a sin against and extinguishes the Holy Spirit.
In every culture and religion in history, fasting has been an instinctive and essential language in human communication with God. Let us not be the ones who forget the reasons, the rituals and the words.