From Embrace Your Renewal
Fasting isn’t the same as dieting. The purpose of dieting is to improve the health and beauty of our bodies. The purpose of fasting is to turn our attention to God, other people, and ourselves. Dieting means the regulation of food intake as a health measure – as in low-calorie, low-fat, or low-sodium foods. Fasting as we mean it in religion is to abstain from food voluntarily for a time and to eat sparingly as a spiritual exercise. Though both dieting and fasting can have physical benefits, only fasting gives spiritual ones.
Like mortification in general, the practice of limiting the amounts and kinds of our food and drink are forms of penance common to all great religions. People fast partly in order to overcome an indulgent spirit which seeks comfort and pleasure above all else. Thomas Merton wrote that the desires for food, drink, sex, and pleasure are like little children – insistent, constantly clamoring for attention. A real fast – the kind which truly honors God – is the kind of self-denial which, in the prophet Isaiah’s words, results in deeds of justice and compassion, in freeing the oppressed, in sharing one’s bread with the hungry.
Prosperous countries like the United States can perhaps benefit most from both dieting and fasting. With the exception of the population of a few Pacific islands, our citizens are the heaviest people in the history of the world – a nation of fat behinds and paunchy stomachs. Early in the 20th century, the principal causes of death and disability in the United States were infectious diseases. Today, many health problems are related to the overconsumption of calories. Overeating unsettles metabolism and increases the likelihood of chronic diseases like hypertension, coronary heart disease, some cancers, stroke, diabetes, and others.
In the year 2000, United States inhabitants spent $110 billion on “fast food”: more than on higher education, personal computers, software, or new cars – the main reasons being inexpensiveness and convenience. One writer said that McDonald’s golden arches are better known around the world than the Christian cross. Fast food is so processed and denatured that it’s necessary to manufacture much of the taste and aroma, a technological feat that’s performed in a series of large chemical plants off the New Jersey turnpike.
Pope St. Leo the Great wrote: “There is a great difference between the pleasures of the body and those of the heart. In carnal pleasures the appetite causes satiety and satiety generates dissatisfaction. In spiritual pleasures, on the other hand, when the appetite gives birth to satiety, satiety then gives birth to greater appetite. Spiritual delights increase the extent of desire in the mind even when they satisfy the appetite for them. The more one recognizes the taste of such things, the more one recognizes what it is that one loves so strongly.”
There’s something in many of us that seeks a reward of virtue. Napoleon is reported to have said, “men are led by such baubles.” George Patton said in 1918, “I’d rather be a second lieutenant with a DSC (Distinguished Service Cross) than a general without it.” In life, as well as in the military, people like baubles: ribbons, medals, certificates, trinkets. But maturity has to set that straight.
Jenny, a bright young teenager on the brink of maturity, was shopping with her mother when she spotted a beautiful imitation pearl necklace. She asked her mother if she could have it. Her mother said, “Well, it’s a pretty necklace, but it costs a lot of money.” Seeing how badly Jenny wanted this necklace, she added, “I’ll tell you what. I’ll buy the necklace for you and when we get back home we can make a list of chores you can do to pay for it. Okay?”
Jenny eagerly agreed. She worked on her chores every day until she finally paid off the necklace. She loved those imitation pearls so much that she wore them everywhere, even to bed.
Jenny’s father observed how much she loved her necklace and would from time-to-time ask her if she would be willing to give it to him. Each time she responded, “Oh, Daddy, not my pearl necklace. I love you very much, but I can’t give you my necklace. But you can have my very favorite CD album – or you can have my very favorite. . .,” to which her dad interrupted, “No, that’s OK,” and brushed her face with a tender kiss.
Then one day, expecting her dad to ask her for her pearl necklace again, with trembling lips she greeted him with, “Here, Daddy!” and held out her beloved necklace. She knuckled the tears from her eyes.
With one hand her father accepted the imitation pearls and with the other he silently pulled a blue velvet box from his pocket and handed it to her. When Jenny opened the box, her eyes went wide with joy. Nestled in the blue velvet inside was a string of genuine pearls, luminescent with beauty. Her father had been keeping them all along, patiently waiting for Jenny to give up the fake, cheap stuff so he could give her the real thing.
Our Heavenly Father is waiting for us to surrender the cheap stuff that our flesh so loves, so that He can replace it with the beautiful and eternal treasures of the spirit. Fasting corrects our faults, raises our minds to God, helps us to grow in holiness, and offers us the reward of everlasting life. As Isaiah said, “Would that today you might fast so as to make your voice heard on high!” (58:4) There are, in fact, many other good reasons for fasting. One is that voluntarily abstaining from food as well as other legitimate pleasures makes us less attached to things, more in control of our lives. Another is that, by giving things up, we might appreciate them the more: One who has to leave home for a while comes to an enhanced appreciation of home.
How to Fast
There are many ways to fast. The Pharisees of Jesus’s time used fasting for display – they whitened their faces and wore old clothes so people would know they were fasting and, they hoped, admire them. Jesus advised, however, “When you fast, you are not to look glum as the hypocrites do.” (Matthew 6:16)
The church asks all of us to abide by certain (really rather minimal) restrictions with regard to amounts of food and the abstention from meat. We can add others: skipping a meal occasionally, and donating the money we would have spent on it to the poor. Or at times – perhaps on a Friday here or there – we can engage in a “black fast,” consuming only bread and water for the entire day.
Perhaps we can move imaginatively into the experience of Jesus in the desert and confront our demons – those finite goods that most threaten to take the place of God in our life: power, money, esteem, sex, pleasure. St. Athanasius wrote: “Devils take great delight in fullness, and drunkenness, and bodily comfort. Fasting possesses great power and it works glorious things. To fast is to banquet with angels.”
When to Fast
One of the most frequently quoted texts of the Old Testament is the passage that begins, “There is an appointed time for everything.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1) The Christian calendar prescribes days and seasons of feasting and fasting. They interact: fasting makes feasting more joyous and feasting demands fasting to make it intelligible. For fasting, Lent is a very good time. Catholic sections of the world have gotten it right: they celebrate the joyful anticipation of Lenten fasting. The German fastnacht, mardi gras in the French tradition, and carnivale in the Italian custom are all celebrations in anticipation of the beginning of the Lenten season of fasting.
Some of John the Baptist’s disciples and the Pharisees were accustomed to fast, and Jesus’s disciples were not. When asked about this, Jesus used an analogy that people at that time would have understood well: a comparison of himself to a bridegroom, a figure John the Baptist had used (John 3:29). He was comparing his disciples to the “sons of the nuptial couch,” a picturesque Semitic term for the closest friends of the bridal couple who by their talk and songs saw to it that the wedding party went off with panache. The bridegroom, like most people of that time, worked hard and didn’t go away on a honeymoon; he stayed home amid continued rejoicing that lasted for a week. Wedding guests, who came and went during the week,were exempt from the rules of fasting. It was supposed to be the happiest week in anyone’s life. Fasting will be appropriate, Jesus says, when the wedding party of his physical presence is over.