This year, consider fasting not only as a Lenten discipline in preparation for the feast of Easter, but as a time-honoured means of growing closer to God and neighbour… writes Marilyn Rodrigues
Are you doing any fasting this Lent?
A good friend of mine who is Coptic orthodox is undergoing his annual great Lenten fast – which is mainly a very light vegan diet until their Easter Sunday. Each year my family is invited to his parents’ house for their Easter lunch with family and friends. It is a true feast around a table groaning with piles of gorgeous food and it’s always a very joyous occasion. I’m grateful that I get to enjoy the feast with them without having to do the very demanding fast with them!
Fasting has always been an important part of the spiritual life in the Christian and Jewish traditions, viewed as an indispensable pillar of the spiritual life alongside prayer and almsgiving.
For many it has been a highly-prized means of growing in every kind of virtue – a short cut to holiness if you will.
“There is both a physical and a spiritual fast. In the physical fast, the body abstains from food and drink. In the spiritual fast, the faster abstains from evil intentions, words and deeds. One who truly fasts abstains from anger, rage, malice, and vengeance. One who truly fasts abstains from idle and foul talk, empty rhetoric, slander, condemnation, flattery, lying and all manner of spiteful talk. In a word, a real faster is one who withdraws from all evil.” St Basil (329-379 A.D.)
But largely in the West we have forgotten that fasting is for our own physical, mental and spiritual health and to promote concern for people who are forced to live more simply than ourselves. Many of us have also forgotten the joy of a feast, when most of the foods we like to eat and other consumer goods are plentiful or at least a short drive away.
Through hundreds of thousands of years of evolution humans were hard-wired to not only survive but thrive through cycles of fasting and feasting. Winter and spring were lean seasons when crops were limited or just being planted and grown, while summer and autumn were times of plenty. Hunters and gatherers would have their own seasons of supply and scarcity which needed to be accommodated for.
Now with our society’s rising affluence and a global economy we have constant availability of whatever we want to eat whenever we want it. At the same time more than half of us are overweight or obese with a consequent rise in problems such as diabetes and heart disease. One theory even links an increase in immunological disorders such as Crohn’s disease with the drastic change in the eating habits of developed countries within the past two generations.
While we have food in abundance, our society is obsessed with food and dieting, including fasting, as a means of losing weight, sometimes for health but mainly in the pursuit of looking good. Some of us refrain from purchasing food or other consumer items for ethical reasons if we know it’s been manufactured using slave or child labour, which is one of the more authentic forms of fasting we see around today.
The Eucharist & Freedom
Monsignor Charles Murphy, author of The Spirituality of Fasting distinguishes total fasting from food and drink for a limited time in preparation for the Eucharist, from partial fasting such as that prescribed during Lent, which is “penitential and therapeutic”.
He recommends regular partial fasting by skipping one meal every week of the year, using that time to pray instead, and giving the savings to a charity. “It means we don’t have to structure our whole day, every day around eating. We have the freedom to create a new structure to organise our time,” he told Catholic TV recently.
In other words, partial fasting can raise our minds from our monotonous routines of eating and working to other things we deem important for our life and time.
Prayer, almsgiving and fasting are the three pillars of Lenten observance, and it’s not too late to start if you haven’t already, or begin again if you’ve fallen off the wagon!
Fasting, as it’s traditionally prescribed by the Church for healthy adults during Lent, usually means giving up meat (abstaining) on the Fridays, and fasting or eating very lightly plus abstaining on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
We may also choose to give up things such as self-pity, criticism, blaming, gossiping or a favourite activity or habit, while feasting on being kinder, more generous, more thoughtful or more cheerful.
Fasting, Ego and Humility
Through fasting we learn to give credit to the one who is responsible for the times of feasting – God.
“Fasting can be a painful admission that I am not free, that my life is enslaved, obsessed or addicted to external things such as food, drink, co-dependent relationships, sex, television, privacy and the like.” Albert Haase
It’s not about white-knuckled self-discipline so much as getting our own ego out of the way and making room for others, especially God. It’s recognising that everything God gives us is good and meant to be enjoyed, but not without remembering that they are gifts from God, that we don’t enjoy what we can and forget about God.
Fasting in any area of our personal life fosters humility and gratitude, virtues which brings us much closer to God and to each other. And the time of feasting then brings us closer to each other as well in celebration, renewed and refreshed by the experience of our fasting.
Authentic feasting is a joyful communion with each other and with God, acknowledging God as supreme while enjoying the good things of life.
Suggestions for Fasting and Feasting
Fast from discontent; feast on thankfulness.
Fast from worry; feast on trust.
Fast from anger; feast on patience.
Fast from self-concern; feast on compassion for others.
Fast from unrelenting pressures; feast on unceasing prayers.
Fast from bitterness; feast on forgiveness.
Fast from discouragement; feast on hope.
Fast from media hype; feast on the honesty of the Bible.
Fast from idle gossip; feast on purposeful silence.
Fast from problems that overwhelm; feast on prayer that undergirds.
Sources and Links
- The Case for the Restoration of Fasting in Religious Life. www.religious-vocation.com/fasting
- Holiness and Fasting; interview with Mons Charles Murphy. www.youtube.com
This article featured in the March 2012 edition of the CathFamily e-Magazine
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