In these modern times, we don’t seem to hear much about fasting and abstinence anymore. That’s a shame because the doctrine of self-denial is crucial to our becoming fully satisfied. Many of today’s Catholics associate fasting and abstinence only with the season of Lent and that’s a shame too. Let’s review the Church’s traditional disciplinary law regarding Fasting and Abstinence:
Additionally the entire season of Lent is a penitential time and our attitude and behavior during this season should be marked by some sort of self-denial. (Pope Clement XIII offers some wise spiritual reflection as well.) The season of Advent is also a penitential season, but of less severity, and we should also mark this season with some form of self-denial, even if it is less than that practiced during Lent.
That’s it! And so many of us complain and wait for the clock to tick down to midnight so we can have a ham sandwich. We need to turn our thinking around because out of control appetites only become more hungry and insatiable. That is why there is a mryiad of “miracle” diets and weight loss programs on the market that promise results without effort. Well, there is only one source of miracles and that is God. He has already provided us the ultimate diet program if we will but listen to him.
As you can see, “to fast” generally means to significantly reduce the consumption of food or to forego it altogether for short durations. Abstinence is generally seen as avoiding the eating of meat. But both acts are forms of self-denial. More broadly speaking, self-denial is the act of giving up something that is good, be it food or some other “good” for the purpose of deepening our spiritual life and making acts of reparation for our sin or the sin of others. There is a long history of the Catholic practice of fast and abstinence dating all the way back to the time of Christ. Our culture often incorporates these practices into our everyday language. For example, the word breakfast is formed from two words, “break” and “fast” meaning simply that the first meal of the day breaks the fast from our last meal of the previous day. Another example, although this has nothing to do with fasting, is our word for the celebration of Christ’s birth which is formed by two words, “Christ’s” and “Mass” or Christmas.
The Church speaks of the three pillars of Lent—Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving—because there is a strong connection, or there should be, between the three. Fasting and other forms of self-denial, as spiritual practices of materially subduing and controlling the physical appetites of the body, helps us, by God’s grace, to enable the soul to more perfectly and freely pray. This leads to a deeper union with God and thus we become better stewards of the gifts God has given to us, freeing us to more effectively care for our neighbor, especially those in need. Also, by willingness to give up for God what is good as well as what is bad, we affirm and practice attachment to God and detachment from created things, even created things that are lawful in themselves. Like soldiers training for war, we practice doing without and denying ourselves, in part to strengthen our capacity to choose to do without and deny ourselves when it counts.
God gave our first parents, Adam and Eve many gifts and blessings that were in a sense before their nature and, therefore, before ours too. We know that Adam and Eve possessed Sanctifying Grace, infused with the supernatural virtues of faith, hope and charity. This is what is meant when you hear the phrase, “Adam and Eve were created in a state of original justice.” They were created for a supernatural end or purpose … to attain heaven and an everlasting communion with God. They were also given certain gifts, called preternatural gifts, that would enable them to continue their “walk with God”—(1) bodily immortality, (2) integrity, and (3) infused knowledge.
But they were also allowed by God to be tempted by the devil, not so that they would sin, but so that they could freely choose to love God who created them freely and in freedom. Their free will would not have been free at all if there was never an opportunity for them to choose anything other than the Good which is God. If they had chosen God over the serpent, these gifts would have been passed on to us as our inheritance, but we know they sinned and lost these gifts; therefore, we, their descendants, could not receive what they no longer possessed to pass on.
To understand what all of this has to do with our practice of self-denial, we have to understand what we lost when we lost the preternatural gift of integrity. Do you ever feel like you just cannot do what you want, or rather know you should want to do, but instead find yourself doing that which you do not want to do? St. Paul speaks of this in his Epistle to the Romans: “For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold under sin. For that which I work, I understand not. For I do not that good which I will; but the evil which I hate, that I do.” Each of us can relate to St. Paul’s words.
The Church teaches that one of the effects on us of the Fall of Adam and Eve is that we suffer from concupiscence—the inclination of man to sin. There are two types of concupiscence. In simple terms they are: bodily concupiscence and concupiscence of the soul. Bodily concupiscence is the tendency of our will to choose to indiscriminately satisfy bodily appetites, to choose things which appear to bring pleasure, even if reason would tell us not to. Concupiscence of the soul is an unreasonable self-absorption that disregards right and wrong in apparent favor of self.
Integrity helped us make acts of will in our freedom that were reasonable and sound in governing the appetites of the body and lower reaches of the soul. Integrity helped us balance body and soul to our good. In our fallen state, even once redeemed, practicing the virtues, particularly moderation (the virtue of temperance), helps us to replace bad habits with good habits (replace vices with virtues). Going further, voluntarily denying the body even good things is a form of spiritual training for that same end, much like a musician becomes a better musician by giving up good things in order to practice his instrument or like an athlete giving up food and time in order to train his body to excel and endure under physical and mental strain. This is pure Gospel teaching, the giving up of those things, including good things, that tend to be obstacles to our sanctification and deepening relationship with the Lord … giving up things that hinder and obstruct our supernatural end; life everlasting in heaven. We can become so attached to even the beauty of the world God created that these attachments become our “gods”. And this is where Fasting and Abstinence in their broader meaning help us to become truly and fully satisfied. For God alone, not the things of this world, can satisfy the deepest hunger of man’s soul.
There is no better place to start than to follow the example of the True God-True man—Jesus Christ, Son of God, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. Traditionally we mark the Sign he worked at the Wedding Feast at Cana as the beginning of his public ministry. But before that day, however, Jesus submitted himself to John’s baptism in order to “fulfill all righteousness” and the heavens were opened and the Trinity manifested! St. Matthew’s Gospel records what occured.
Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to the Jordan, unto John, to be baptized by him. But John stayed him, saying: I ought to be baptized by thee, and comest thou to me? And Jesus answering, said to him: Suffer it to be so now. For so it becometh us to fulfill all justice. Then he suffered him. And Jesus being baptized, forthwith came out of the water: and lo, the heavens were opened to him: and he saw the Spirit of God descending as a dove, and coming upon him. And behold a voice from heaven, saying: This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
Then Jesus was led by the spirit into the desert, to be tempted by the devil. And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterwards he was hungry. And the tempter coming said to him: If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread. Who answered and said: It is written, Not in bread alone doth man live, but in every word that proceedeth from the mouth of God. Then the devil took him up into the holy city, and set him upon the pinnacle of the temple, And said to him: If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down, for it is written: That he hath given his angels charge over thee, and in their hands shall they bear thee up, lest perhaps thou dash thy foot against a stone. Jesus said to him: It is written again: Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God. Again the devil took him up into a very high mountain, and shewed him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them, And said to him: All these will I give thee, if falling down thou wilt adore me. Then Jesus saith to him: Begone, Satan: for it is written, The Lord thy God shalt thou adore, and him only shalt thou serve. Then the devil left him; and behold angels came and ministered to him.
Nothing at all that was recorded in Sacred Scripture that Jesus did was unimportant. To prepare for his public ministry, Jesus submitted to be baptized, even though he had no need to do so. We begin our life in Christ through the Christian sacrament of Baptism, the work of God by which we receive Sanctifying Grace and become justified. Unlike Christ, we are in need of baptism which cleanses us from all sin, original and actual. We read that the Spirit then led Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. In overcoming these temptations, Jesus recapitulated the life of Israel and accomplished what God’s Chosen People had failed to do. The grace of Jesus Christ makes it possible for Christians to do the same.
But what one must understand is that before Jesus was tempted, he fasted for 40 days. To prepare for these temptations of the will, Jesus weakened the desires of the body. The bible tells us that after fasting, Jesus was hungry … then he was tempted. What he shows us is that the hunger that we experience after denying the body its “wants” no longer has the same power over our appetites as it did before. Although Jesus was incapable of sin, we are, but our following his example equips us, by his grace, to resist temptations. So we too should fast in order to prepare for our public ministry, our Christian life.
Many of our non-Catholic brothers and sisters will agree that fasting and abstaining are good things to do; that doing so follows Christ’s example and equips us for the Christian life. But they will argue that it is not necessary for one’s salvation. Strictly speaking, that would be correct since salvation is a free gift that can not be earned through our own initiative. But Christ expects the Christian, once he is justified, to cooperate with his grace in order to grow in holiness so as not to lose the grace of justification. Jesus teaches that such cooperation must include self-denial.
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For he that will save his life, shall lose it: and he that shall lose his life for my sake, shall find it. For what doth it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his own soul? Or what exchange shall a man give for his soul? For the Son of man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels: and then will he render to every man according to his works.”
The sin of pride is the gateway to the other deadly sins. The justified person must humble himself and control his disordered wants and desires to grow more secure in the Lord. We must decrease so that He can increase in us. What form did Jesus show us that it takes to subdue our disordered appetites? Fasting (in the wilderness of this life). Our Lord used many parables to teach us the Way. One powerful example is recorded in St. Luke’s Gospel:
And whosoever doth not carry his cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple. For which of you having a mind to build a tower, doth not first sit down, and reckon the charges that are necessary, whether he have wherewithal to finish it: Lest, after he hath laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that see it begin to mock him, Saying: This man began to build, and was not able to finish. Or what king, about to go to make war against another king, doth not first sit down, and think whether he be able, with ten thousand, to meet him that, with twenty thousand, cometh against him? Or else, whilst the other is yet afar off, sending an embassy, he desireth conditions of peace. So likewise every one of you that doth not renounce all that he possesseth, cannot be my disciple. Salt is good. But if the salt shall lose its savour, wherewith shall it be seasoned? It is neither profitable for the land nor for the dunghill, but shall be cast out. He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.
Jesus does not tell us that it is a good idea to take up one’s cross, he says we cannot avoid it if we hope to be successful in our journey.
Our prayer should be humble and our humility prayerful. All that we do should be prayerful and that includes our penance. Fasting and other acts of self-denial should be joined to prayer and so become prayer.
Who, wheresoever he taketh him, dasheth him, and he foameth, and gnasheth with the teeth, and pineth away; and I spoke to thy disciples to cast him out, and they could not. Who answering them, said: O incredulous generation, how long shall I be with you? how long shall I suffer you? bring him unto me. And they brought him. And when he had seen him, immediately the spirit troubled him; and being thrown down upon the ground, he rolled about foaming. And he asked his father: How long time is it since this hath happened unto him? But he said: From his infancy: And oftentimes hath he cast him into the fire and into waters to destroy him. But if thou canst do any thing, help us, having compassion on us. And Jesus saith to him: If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth. And immediately the father of the boy crying out, with tears said: I do believe, Lord: help my unbelief. And when Jesus saw the multitude running together, he threatened the unclean spirit, saying to him: Deaf and dumb spirit, I command thee, go out of him; and enter not any more into him. And crying out, and greatly tearing him, he went out of him, and he became as dead, so that many said: He is dead. But Jesus taking him by the hand, lifted him up; and he arose. And when he was come into the house, his disciples secretly asked him: Why could not we cast him out? And he said to them: This kind can go out by nothing, but by prayer and fasting. And departing from thence, they passed through Galilee, and he would not that any man should know it. (Mark 9:17-29)
While the words “and fasting” are not in all manuscripts, they are in many, including the Protestant King James Version. Prayer is strengthened by fasting. St. Paul speaks to this in regards to both prayer of intercession (for others) and prayer of petition (for oneself):
“Who now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for his body, which is the church …” (Colossians 1:24).
“Know you not that they that run in the race, all run indeed, but one receiveth the prize? So run that you may obtain. And every one that striveth for the mastery, refraineth himself from all things: and they indeed that they may receive a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible one. I therefore so run, not as at an uncertainty: I so fight, not as one beating the air: But I chastise my body, and bring it into subjection: lest perhaps, when I have preached to others, I myself should become a castaway” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).
Joined to his prayer, St. Paul’s sufferings and bodily mortifications aid both his own salvation and that of the whole church. Our suffering is necessary—it is redemptive when joined interiorly, out of love for Christ, to the sufferings of Christ for our spiritual well-being and the spiritual well-being of others. Read his powerful witness to the Romans:
Therefore, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh, you shall die: but if by the Spirit you mortify the deeds of the flesh, you shall live. For whosoever are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God. For you have not received the spirit of bondage again in fear; but you have received the spirit of adoption of sons, whereby we cry: Abba (Father). For the Spirit himself giveth testimony to our spirit, that we are the sons of God. And if sons, heirs also; heirs indeed of God, and joint heirs with Christ: yet so, if we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified with him. (Romans 8:12-17).
And finally, should one argue, even in the light of St. Paul’s teaching, that such acts of self-denial are not necessary after the Cross, listen to what Jesus answered when asked why his disciples did not fast:
“And the disiples of John and the Pharisees used to fast; and they come and say to him: Why do the disciples of John and of the Pharisees fast; but thy disciples do not fast? And Jesus saith to them: Can the children of the marriage fast, as long as the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. But the days will come when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them; and then they shall fast in those days.” (Mark 2:18-20)
Did the New Testament Church practice fasting? You bet they did. Let’s look at just one, final biblical example:
“Now there were in the church which was at Antioch, prophets and doctors, among whom was Barnabas, and Simon who was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manahen, who was the foster brother of Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. And as they were ministering to the Lord, and fasting, the Holy Ghost said to them: Separate me Saul and Barnabas, for the work whereunto I have taken them. Then they, fasting and praying, and imposing their hands upon them, sent them away” (Acts 13:1-3).