Monday, September 20, 2010

chapter 16: Fasting

Chapter Sixteen


OK, so let’s think about this in a stepwise fashion. If it’s true that man cannot serve two masters (as evidenced in the Gospel this past Sunday), then it follows that there is no gray area in belief. I either believe or I don’t believe in God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I either choose to do God’s will or I do not. If I choose to believe in God, then every action and choice I make either brings me closer to him or further away. Again, there is no gray area here. So my spiritual life, then, is subject to incremental movement both closer to and further away from God - a direct result of every choice and action I take.

Spiritual growth is dynamic. It either is on the increase or the decrease. There is no stagnation or steady state in spiritual development. The choices I make either strengthen my spiritual growth or stunt it. There are no neutral positions.

And when we choose to sin, the effect on our soul is lasting – even after we receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation. We must engage in penance of some sort to reverse the effects of sin on our souls. While prayer is essential, sometimes something more is needed.

A most simple and potent vitamin or supplement that we can employ in the growing and strengthening of our spiritual life is the practice of fasting. Fasting helps restore the soul to its intended beauty and resist the tendency toward sinful motives or actions. It can even decrease our appetite for sin in the future. If there is a question in my life --- fast and ask God to guide me. He will. If I have a persistent sin, a habitual sin, one that I know of that I cannot shake or root out of my life ---- fast, prayerfully fast. With humility and trembling, fast. Jesus, Himself, explained that some demons can only be cast out with prayer and fasting. “Fasting is radically counter-cultural, but so is true Christianity.”

As with prayer and almsgiving, fasting is a spiritual exercise. It is done with humility, in secret, with the assurance that God will discern our true poverty and provide all that we need.

As a spiritual exercise, fasting tames the body so that the soul may reign. Prayer alone cannot achieve this nor can an act of human will or works of charity. This taming of the flesh is a task for fasting (and other acts of penance). In a perfect world, fasting and other penance would be part of everyday life. It would be in the smallest of things done with great love. It would not be in anything performed out of a ritualistic superstition or out of legalistic motives. Fasting is something nobody notices. It’s a habit in that it becomes an attitude, a way of daily life. I love coffee, so I with intent switch to tea every once in a while. I don’t enjoy getting caught on the phone with a neighbor, but I make a point of calling her when I’m sitting in carpool line at school. My grandmother is no longer in her right mind but I go and visit her and hold her hand or brush her hair even though I don’t really have the time. You get it. And if things are in crisis mode, I don’t eat from sun-up to sun-down. Every time I begin to stress and worry about said crisis, I feel the hunger in my stomach and I’m reminded to pray.

Fasting – it’s the new “Ensure” for the soul.

In His Grip,

Francis of A


  1. Francis, I must say that Mr Kelly should have hired YOU to write this chapter for him. Excellent post! Your deep understanding as to what fasting is for surely makes your fasts far more spiritually fulfilling than the rest of ours often are (After all, demons don't eat, but they don't pray either).
    A few comments: Kelly is right that fasting is primarily a discipline. (Askesis - asceticism = self-control) And as Francis points out above, fasting truly helps tame the body so that the soul may reign. Try it sometime. And I don't mean fish-fry Friday. Abstain from (all) food for a little longer than you think you can (hint: get through that first intense hunger on the first day. It gets easier for a little while). Then notice the little changes in your heart. Lustfulness fades quickly, so does greed for other things. (obviously you've taken care of gluttony for a moment!) Notice how hunger reminds you of Christ, and of His sacrifices. Unfortunately, it takes a better spiritual athlete than I am for my fasting to diminish my anger or pride (being proud of oneself for making it through a whole day is kinda counterproductive), but one can see that with increased training, all of those "7 deadly sins" might fade substantially. (In the East, by the way, we add an 8th - Despondency). With control of those sinful aspects of our nature, we can begin that process of dying to the world and living in God.
    The section "History of Christian Fasting" made me sad. I truly believe that Roman Catholics these days are missing out on the wonderful spiritual experience that is Corporate fasting. In the time of Pope Leo in the 5th century, not only did fasting limit the faithful to eating 1 meatless meal a day and only after sunset on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Lent, but also included 3 other seasons of fasting and penitence - Advent/Nativity, The Apostle's fast in June, and the Angel's fast in September. In the East, this rhythm of the Liturgical year continues (although our 4th fast commemorates the vigil before the Virgin Mary's death on August 15). I used to dread these seasons, but have come to look forward to them; there is nothing like the expectation that one will fast to encourage one to actually do it. I have no objection to the spirit of Pope Paul VI's encyclical, but I am uninpressed with the USCCB's application of them here (Even in Canada (!) the specials of the day in restaurants on Fridays are always fish...). As Kelly points out, it has really just led to the loss of fasting as a Catholic discipline. And with the loss of that discipline, the quest for holiness (the point of his book) becomes much harder indeed.
    One last comment. I must take objection to a sentence at the bottom of page 236: "Only you can decide what is right for you in this area." Huh? This is an utterly non-Catholic statement, and directly contradicts his earlier criticism of Individualism. No, you are NOT the only one who can decide what is right for you in this area - the Church is your spiritual authority on earth, and what She says goes. If you have difficulty complying with the "medicine" She prescribes, discuss it with your "physician" - the priest or bishop. He might prescribe something else tailored to your needs. The idea that neither the Church nor her representatives have say-so about one's spiritual needs is a Protestant one. And therefore in so many Protestant denominations, Sacraments become optional and things such as birth-control, gay marriage, abortion, etc become "personal decisions".
    Please forgive me a sinner if I have offended anyone with this post.


  2. Great post and comments! I knew Patrick would come through for us! From my perspective we in the Roman Church are, for the most part (and I am really talking about myself here and generalizing myself to other Catholics), really wimps when it comes to fasting. Dropping meat on Friday? Really, how tough is that? And how many even bother to do that? Fasting, like many of the other items on the list of the "cafeteria catholic" is often tasteless, served lukewarm and often not even put on to the food tray! We forget about it and have all sorts of excuses why we cannot do it! But do it we should. More often and with more enthusiasm and intensity. Were we to do this as St. Frances and Patrick suggest it might have more impact! Not just on us, (remember, tough as this thought is, is not all about us!) but on the world in general and on the object of our prayers and fasting.



  3. Boy, that tough. I know no meat on Friday isn't that hard but it makes it difficult to hide penance.
    Canon 1251
    Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
    So our bishops have given us a choice to perform other acts of penance or good works on Fridays. So where it might not be "tough" to drop meats on Friday, I choose another form so that my "fasting" does not appear unto all.
    What say you Luke?

  4. "When thou fastest...wash thy face that thou appear not unto men to fast" (Mt6:17-18). I suppose that is what "anonymous" is speaking of. Brings up 2 points, one of which I would love to hear an answer on.
    1st) In light of Jesus's quote, why do Roman Catholics take the ashes on Ash Wednesday? I get the Old Testament penitential allusions, but with Christ's message, it seems to be one of those many OT customs that no longer appiies in NT times. Would love to be enlightened by ye smart folks out there!
    2nd) and in direct response to Anonymous: fasting has involved restrictions upon food from OT times until 1964 (or so). Letting control of one's belly be a means to obtain control over other passions is fine. Fasting is no excuse to avoid penance or good works. Abolishing Holy Tradition in this matter (as if one could do such a thing!), however, is another thing. Obviously, as a non-Roman Catholic, I am at greater liberty to criticize the USCCB's judgement in this matter than the rest of you. Nobody has to see you fasting. But even if someone notices your not eating lunch, it's to me just a golden opportunity to share one's beliefs, and teach them of one's practices. I may feel like saying "woe is me! I'm hungry! feel sorry for me!" (and please forgive me if my countenance shows it!), but I know that in silent suffering I receive Grace, and a heart a little more open to the Holy Spirit.
    So anonymous, do what your bishop tells you to do, but examine yourself before deciding whether it is enough.

    God Bless you all.