Sacred Scripture provides a number of reasons for fasting. They include: an expression of mourning (2 Samuel 1:12), an expression of contrition (1 Kings 21:27), an expression of solidarity with the poor and the hungering for justice (Isaiah 58:6-7), a preparation for a spiritual mission (Matthew 4:1-11), a way to awaken a spiritual hunger for the Lord (Matthew 9:14-15), a way to mortify one’s appetites and achieve greater self-mastery, and as a way to participate in the passion of Christ (Colossians 1:24).
Some have remarked that due to his emphasis on the goodness of the body, Venerable John Paul II’s Theology of the Body would be against many traditional Lenten practices such as fasting, abstinence, bodily penance, etc. That would be untrue. JPII did not exalt the body but provided the context of the body in relation to the whole human person. He provided an anthropological framework to understand its intended place in God’s plan. He taught us that in the salvific plan of the Father, which culminated in the life of Jesus and the sacrifice of Christ crucified, that the body can be redeemed in light of the paschal mystery. Finally, he summarized the Church’s teaching on eschatological man – the purpose of the body in the beatific vision. His own life attests to his belief in mortification – even utilizing the ancient practice of “the discipline” or flagellation.
The world, having practically made dialectical materialism the universal religion, rejects mortification and, for the sake of this post, fasting as unnatural because the spirit does not exist. On the flip side, others see fasting as a necessary means to free the spirit. However, the Christian view of fasting and other penitential practices is not rooted in a suspicion of the body or a Manichean notion of liberating the spirit from the body. It is rooted in the truth that since the fall of humanity, the human being suffers from concupiscence and, thus, the flesh continues to assert itself against the intellect and the will in order to reign supreme by dictating its desires and actions.
But it was not so in the beginning! As JPII teaches us, we were in a virginal state – a state of perfect unity with the body, mind and spirit. The Father intended that the flesh gather sensory information, present it to the intellect and then, the intellect would inform the will on the best decision to make. Since the fall, the flesh attempts to override the intellect and will with a flood of emotions which in the beginning were meant to confirm and support our decisions. Due to our wounded humanity, we are no longer integrated and the various powers of the flesh and the spirit daily wage war on each other. Christ, though, won for us the grace that “re-integrates” us. We were saved for holiness and wholeness.
We must cooperate with grace, though. That means we have certain ascetical disciplines to assist us in this area of re-integration. Among all our ascetical practices, fasting holds pride of place. The Catechism teaches us that we fast to
prepare us for the liturgical feasts. (CCC 2043)
Only a person who knows how to fast understands the feast. It also teaches us that sensory and bodily mortification
helps us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart. (CCC 2043)
If feeling our hunger can awaken that sleeping giant known as the spiritual senses, then never experiencing hunger emaciates and darkens them.
Unfortunately, we must admit that we live in a world of extremes. It is easy to see that most do not fast except when mandated. The Lenten fast has become more of a time to give up chocolate or coffee. I know they could be good mortifications but, typically, once Easter morning arrives we find that all the bad habits are back on the menu! Additionally, we live in a time fraught with eating disorders. Fasts and bodily mortification can be a challenge because they are an excuse to lose weight or avoid what you didn’t want anyway. Men, we really need to key an eye on this for the sake of our sons and daughters (wives too!). St. Francis de Sales addresses this when he speaks of moderation being the key to a disciplined life:
At all times a constant habitual moderation is better than occasional excessive abstinence, alternated with great indulgence. The discipline has a surprising effect in rousing the taste for devotion, if used moderately. The body is greatly subdued by the use of the hair shirt, but it is not fit for ordinary people, married persons, those who are delicate, or who have to bear considerable fatigue. On certain days of special penitence it may be used, subject to the counsel of a judicious confessor. (Source: Introduction to the Devout Life, Part III: Containing counsels concerning the practice of virtue, 23. On Bodily Mortification)
That being said, there is a place for fasting and it remains a staple of our ascetical tradition. A balanced approach – with a slight edge – may be found in St. Peter of Damaskos book, Treasure of Divine Knowledge in the chapter entitled, The Seven Forms of Bodily Discipline:
The second form of bodily discipline consists in moderate fasting. We should eat once a day and then not to the point of satiety. We should eat one kind of simple and readily accessible food – if possible, the kind of food that we do not relish particularly. In this way we can overcome gluttony, greed and desire, and live without distraction. But we should not refuse any kind of food completely, lest thereby we wrongly reject things that, being created by God, are ‘wholly good and beautiful’(Gen. 1:31). Nor should we gulp everything down at once, indulgently and without restraint; but each day we should eat one kind of thing, with self-control. We should use all things for the glory of God, and we should not refuse anything on the grounds that it is evil, as the accursed heretics do. We may drink wine when appropriate: in old age, sickness and cold weather it is most helpful, but must be drunk only in small quantities. When we are young and in good health, and the weather is warm, water is better, though we should drink it as little as possible. For thirst is the best of all bodily disciplines. (Source: Philokalia, Vol. III, p. 90)
The Church also has built checks and balances to manage extremes. Sundays are never fast days…nor are Solemnities. Some would say that I am just making excuses for a lesser Catholic to set aside the fast on those days and not living the “spirit” of Lent. I am okay with that. I have been called worse. But our Mater et Magistra knows what she is doing. She recognizes that fasting takes a toll on the body and that the body is prone to extremes. Thus, by relaxing the fast on Sundays and Solemnities, the body repairs itself and weans itself from those indulgences instead of going cold turkey (which 99 percent of the time does not work).
More importantly, it provides a litmus tests for those who are prone to extremes and scrupulosity. It ensures they have not crossed the line. If you cannot relax the fast then something is disordered or potentially could become disordered. Most hagiographers applaud St. Francis of Assisi for his delicate care of St. Clare. In directing her, he discovered that her fasting had become twisted so he forbade her to fast. The obedience to his command became her fast. We should also remember that St. Francis, at the end of his life, recognized his abuses and repented for the harsh disciplines against “brother ass”. This valuable discipline needs to once again become part and parcel for our Catholic lives. Dads, you can help by giving witness to the power of fasting and help moderate it for your family. With your help, we can once again discover the power of the Lenten fast and truly experience the joy of the resurrection at the end of our 40-day journey.