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What is the role of fasting in spiritual formation?

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Fasting is an ancient practice that has helped many people over the centuries come closer to Christ.

The ascetical practice of fasting teaches us to deny ourselves of the things of this world in order to grow in our detachment from them in favor of a more supernaturally oriented life. Fasting also imparts a sense of discipline upon our lives, which helps us to develop greater self-mastery when faced with temptation. Finally, it allows us to partake in the mortifications endured by Christ through his own fasting, thereby allowing us to become imitators of him, as well as allowing us the opportunity to offer our acts of self-denial in a spirit of reparation for our sins and for those of the world.

If the sales pitches and holiday parties have left the impression that the weeks leading up to Christmas are a time for indulgence, it may be good to remind oneself that, for ages, Christians have thought of Advent as a “little Lent.”
Advent – a time of preparation for the Nativity of the Lord – is a time of prayer, penance, and closer reading of Scripture. This is also a time when the serious Christian can also benefit from the traditional practice of fasting (the cookies and eggnog notwithstanding).

Fasting is not solely a Christian practice, of course, and the self-denial of food for a greater good has a long history. As St. Francis de Sales points out, “The good and the bad, as well as Christians and pagans, observe it. The ancient philosophers observed it and recommended it” (Sermon for Ash Wednesday, February 9, 1622, in The Sermons of St. Francis de Sales for Lent, translated by the Nuns of the Visitation, edited by Father Lewis S. Fiorelli, O.S.F.S., TAN, 1987). “They were not virtuous for that reason, nor did they practice virtue in fasting. Oh, no, fasting is a virtue only when it is accompanied by conditions which render it pleasing to God. Thus it happens that it profits some and not others, because it is not undertaken by all in the same manner.”

According to Norbertine Father Thomas Nelson, National Director of the Institute on Religious Life, fasting is an essential part of Christian spiritual formation “because our Lord himself fasted…. He was challenged that his disciples did not fast, and his response was that the Bridegroom is in their midst. But the day will come when he will be taken away (namely, Good Friday), and then they will fast. That’s a very clear statement from our Lord that fasting is an essential part of discipleship.”

St. Francis de Sales said that Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, tried to teach his Apostles how fasting must be practiced: “He knew that to draw strength and efficacy from fasting, something more than abstinence from prohibited food is necessary. Thus he instructed them and, consequently, disposed them to gather the fruits proper to fasting. Among many others are these four: fasting fortifies the spirit, mortifying the flesh and its sensuality; it raises the spirit to God; it fights concupiscence and gives power to conquer and deaden its passions; in short, it disposes the heart to seek to please only God with great purity of heart.”

But isn’t this only for monks? We have to live in the world, after all.
Pope Benedict XVI addressed all Christians when he spoke of the value of fasting: “We might wonder what value and meaning there is for us Christians in depriving ourselves of something that in itself is good and useful for our bodily sustenance,” he said. “The Sacred Scriptures and the entire Christian tradition teach that fasting is a great help to avoid sin and all that leads to it…. Since all of us are weighed down by sin and its consequences, fasting is proposed to us as an instrument to restore friendship with God” (Message of His Holiness Benedict XVI for Lent 2009, Dec. 11, 2008, Vatican.va).

Indeed, the Holy Father recognizes that in our time, fasting is popular if it is done as a form of physical self-improvement. “Fasting certainly brings benefits to physical well-being,” he notes, “but for believers, it is, in the first place, a ‘therapy’ to heal all that prevents them from conformity to the will of God.”

Monks in the early Church took up the practice to fast five or six days a week, eventually settling on Wednesdays and Fridays. In time, the Church expected all her faithful to at least abstain from meat on Fridays as a way of practicing penance in accordance with the monastic tradition.

How can it help?
Denying ourselves food, Pope Benedict explains, “nurtures an interior disposition to listen to Christ and be fed by his saving word. Through fasting and praying, we allow him to come and satisfy the deepest hunger that we experience in the depths of our being: the hunger and thirst for God.” Fasting, the Pope says, “represents an important ascetical practice, a spiritual arm to do battle against every possible disordered attachment to ourselves. Freely chosen detachment from the pleasure of food and other material goods helps the disciple of Christ to control the appetites of nature, weakened by original sin, whose negative effects impact the entire human person.”

Pope Paul VI, in his apostolic constitution Pænitemini, found several scriptural reasons for fasting in the Old Testament: to "humble oneself in the sight of his own God" (Daniel 10:12), to "turn one's face toward Jehovah" (Daniel 9:3), to "dispose oneself to prayer" (ibid.), to "understand" more intimately the things which are divine (Daniel 10:12), or to prepare oneself for the encounter with God (Exodus 34:28).

“This exercise of bodily mortification…aims at the ‘liberation’ of man, who often finds himself, because of concupiscence, almost chained by his own senses,” the Pope wrote. “Through ‘corporal fasting’ man regains strength, and the ‘wound inflicted on the dignity of our nature by intemperance is cured by the medicine of a salutary abstinence’” (Pope Paul VI, Pænitemini, Feb. 17, 1966, Vatican.va).

Do I have to go without food for a long time?
One might fast for a day or several days. Or one might simply skip a meal during the day. Spiritual writers also note that there are ways of fasting that do not necessarily involve food. An ancient Christian hymn for lent points out this fact: “Let us use sparingly words, food and drink, sleep and amusements. May we be more alert in the custody of our senses.”

St. Bernard of Clairvaux said that while fasting from food is a penance for the way sin entered the world — Adam and Eve’s disobedience to the command not to eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil — one also can fast by keeping custody of the eyes (because sin often occurs by looking intentionally at certain things), the ears (because they often listen to vain talk) and the tongue (which so often is the instrument of sin through “defamation and gossip, from vain and useless words”). “Without such fasting, all other fasting is rejected by God,” St. Bernard said in a 12th century Lenten sermon.

According to Father Nelson, “The biblical fast, understood in divine revelation, is that you don’t eat all day until the sun sets. Christians understood that to be until the 3 o’clock hour, when our Lord died. It was customary in the first millennium. Most people didn’t eat more than once or twice a day anyway. They didn’t have refrigerators, microwaves; it was quite an ordeal. Now it’s our custom to eat three times a day. So the Church has said, given the difficulty people would have, that on a fast day, you have one meal, but the other two meals must be cut in half at least.”

What attitude should I have when fasting?
Although the Church requires most of us to fast only on two days of the year (Ash Wednesday and Good Friday) and to abstain from meat on penitential days (Fridays in particular), it’s up to us whether we want to do more than that. The important thing is the attitude we take. St. Francis de Sales counsels, “It is not enough to fast exteriorly if we do not also fast interiorly and if we do not accompany the fast of the body with that of the spirit…. We must fast with our whole heart, that is to say, willingly, whole-heartedly, universally and entirely.”

This wisdom extends to our own day. Pope John Paul II noted that one of the meanings of penitential fasting is to help us recover an interior life: “The effort of moderation in food also extends to other things that are not necessary, and this is a great help to the spiritual life. Moderation, recollection, and prayer go hand in hand” (Pope John Paul II, Lenten Angelus address, March 10, 1996).

The motivation that the Christian must have for fasting is the imitation of Christ, says Father Nelson, “uniting oneself to the paschal mystery, and in a certain sense uniting oneself to the risen Lord, who himself does not eat, thereby engaging in a perpetual fast. It’s a way of letting the risen life take root in your body so that you might have a prelude to what eternal life would be.”

He adds that this motivation for fasting is “allied very closely with chastity. In the monastic world, we give totally to the Lord the procreative faculty. When you fast you’re giving to the Lord the nutritive faculty, which is even more foundational. It has to do with (sustaining) life.”

The weeks leading up to Christmas have become a time for excess in modern Western society. Beginning with “Black Friday,” consumers are barraged with commercial messages, making them feel almost obliged to shop for friends and family. Holiday parties abound, encouraging overeating and overdrinking. Alcohol-related traffic incidents are more of a concern at this time of year. Meanwhile, people who are at risk of suffering depression have a harder time during this season, while so many others are making merry.

The National Conference of Catholic Bishops, precursor to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, saw this trend beginning when it wrote in 1966: “Changing customs, especially in connection with preparation for Christmas, have diminished popular appreciation of the Advent season. Something of a holiday mood of Christmas appears now to be anticipated in the days of the Advent season. As a result, this season has unfortunately lost in great measure the role of penitential preparation for Christmas that it once had” (Pastoral Statement on Fasting and Abstinence, National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Nov. 18, 1966). What better opportunity than to begin a practice that can help us be “in the world, but not of it,” and which has been a key part of the spiritual lives of saints for centuries.

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