“Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And he fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was hungry.” (Matthew 4:1-2)
With this Lenten season being upon us, I have found myself wondering more about fasting. You may find yourself wondering about the same thing, or asking yourself questions about it – What’s the point? Why do it? Is this all some fancy, “be a good Catholic” exercise where we fast for 40 days and then indulge like crazy afterwards, going back to our regular, non-fasting selves? I know it is supposed to draw us closer to Jesus and all, but how? What is the significance of fasting? Why fast? Why not just pray or worship to get close to God. That should be enough, right? . . .
I have been very blessed to have received, for a Christmas gift, a copy of The Sermons of St. Francis de Sales For Lent. His first sermon is on, you guessed it, fasting, and it has changed the game for me, given me a whole new understanding of why we fast, what it is all about.
St Francis said, “to treat of fasting and of what is required to fast well, we must, at the start, understand that of itself fasting is not a virtue.” Why, you may ask? The reason is simple – both the good and bad observe it, pagans and Christians alike.
So, what makes fasting different for us? What is it that makes it virtuous and meritorious? St. Francis says that, “fasting is a virtue only when it is accompanied by conditions which render it pleasing to God.” Our fast will not be profitable to us if we do not fast both exteriorly and interiorly, the fast of the body accompanied with the fast of the spirit.
He provides to us three important conditions which enable us to fast well.
1. Fast with your whole heart.
What St. Francis is talking about here is fasting with all aspects of our being, body, mind, spirit. He shares with us St. Bernard’s words about fasting, who says that “fasting was instituted by Our Lord as a remedy for our mouth, for our gourmandizing and for our gluttony. Since sin entered the world through the mouth, the mouth must do penance by being deprived of foods prohibited and forbidden by the Church, abstaining from them for the space of forty days.” St. Bernard adds that, “as it is not our mouth alone which has sinned, but also all our other senses, our fast must be general and entire, that is, all the members of our body must fast. For if we have offended God through the eyes, through the ears, through the tongue, and through our other senses, why should we not make them fast as well? And not only must we make the bodily senses fast, but also the soul’s powers and passions – yes, even the understanding, the memory, and the will, since we have sinned through both body and spirit.”
Basically, we need to be keenly aware of and keep tabs on all those things that keep us from loving God completely. Just as we should fast with all aspects of our being, we should love God with all aspects of our being. Let this fast, involving our whole selves, aid in our remedy of concupisence, so that as Jesus says in the Gospel of Mark 12:30 “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”
2. Fast with humility.
St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, “If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,- but do not have love, I gain nothing.”
For fasting to be pleasing to God, one must also fast in humility and charity. They go hand in hand. King David was very wise when he said in Psalm 51, “16 For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased. 17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” This is the cry of a heart that loved God.
So, how are we supposed to fast with humility?
St. Francis puts it very well when he says that “it is never to fast through vanity,” and that one of the many ways that we can be vain is by fasting through self-will. Jesus said, “And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:16-18). We must not fast so as to be seen and thought highly of by others.
In the Rule of St. Augustine, written for his religious, he warns not to be more virtuous than others by practicing more fasting than is prescribed to them, and to be content in what they are ordered to fast from. Even though other penances may be good, if they are not practiced by the whole order, the individual will stand out, and it is in that way that there would be some vanity, even in the possibility of feeling holier than the others for doing more penance. This applies to all of us.
3. Do everything to please the Lord.
We must fast and live our entire lives to please the Lord and give nothing less than our all. This means no deliberations either.
St. Francis relays a story of St. Pachomius, in which he had to go away for some time to the great abbey of his order, and he left in the care of his Brothers a number of young religious who had come to him under the inspiration of growing deeper in holiness. He left his Brothers with specific instruction for the young religious to “take recreation and eat cooked herbs.” The older religious at the monastery were satisfied with eating raw herbs, and thinking that making cooked herbs for the children would be a waste of time, since they would be the only ones eating them, they did not follow the particular instruction of St. Pachomius. Upon his return, the children came to him, telling him that they had not eaten cooked herbs since he had left. St. Pachomius immediately spoke with the cook, who gave his reasoning for not following the instruction given. Additionally, he advised St. Pachomius that he had chosen to make mats (which was a custom of their order), instead of taking time to rest.
St. Pachomius gave the cook a good, public correction, and then commanded that all the mat that he had made in that time be thrown into the fire, as it was necessary to burn all that was done in disobedience. St. Francis notes that “this is how those who forget the orders and commandments of God and who make their own interpretations, or who wish to reason about the things commanded, place themselves in the peril of death. For all their labor, accomplished according to their own will or human discretion, is worthy of the fire.”
May your fast be whole and entire. May your fast be in secret. May your fast give all the glory to God and may your fast be obedient to God and the Church.
“Let us therefore discover anew the humility and the courage to pray and fast so that power from on high will break down the walls of lies and deceit: the walls which conceal from the sight of so many of our brothers and sisters the evil of practices and laws which are hostile to life. May this same power turn their hearts to resolutions and goals inspired by the civilization of life and love” [Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 100].