July 10, 2009

Seeking the Face of the Lord

Fasting and abstinence can help us grow in holiness

Voluntary fasting from good things is countercultural in our materialistic, pleasure-centered milieu.

Of course, there are the myriad varieties of dieting that are a constant offering on television, but their intent is not usually to enhance one’s spiritual values or to promote holiness.

Some people are vegetarian by choice, both for health reasons and sometimes for spiritual motives.

In fact, voluntary fasting has a spiritual and moral value while also being wholesome physically if pursued with moderation and a spiritual motivation.

The fourth precept of the Church sets a minimal guide for the spiritual value of fasting and abstinence.

The United States Catholic Catechism for Adults describes the fourth precept of the Church: “You shall observe the prescribed days of fasting and abstinence. Fasting is refraining from food or drink to some degree. Abstinence is refraining from eating meat. The Church identifies specific days and times of fasting and abstinence to prepare the faithful for certain special feasts; such actions of sacrifice can help us to grow in self-discipline and in holiness” (p. 334-335).

The history of these sacrificial practices of the Church comes to us from the earliest days of Christianity. In fact, fasting was rigorously practiced in Judaism.

We know from the Bible that it was strictly practiced by John the Baptist and his followers. We also know from the synoptic Gospels that Jesus recommended fasting in his teaching, and in his own practice.

Citations can be found in the Gospel according to St. Luke (Lk 4:2), St. Matthew (Mt 6:16-18) and St. Mark (Mk 2:20). The Acts of the Apostles record that fasting was observed by the Twelve Apostles (Acts 13:2; 14:23). In the early Church, there were weekly fast days. The early record in the Didache identifies Wednesday and Friday as fast days.

Rigorous fasts identified with the 40 days of Lent waxed and waned through the centuries. In the earliest days of the Church, fasting meant entire abstention from food for the whole day or part of the day.

In our day, the only two remaining fast days in our Church are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Fasting is generally understood as having one main meal a day, and having only a light breakfast and lunch or supper.

Abstinence has generally been separated from fasting for some time. In an apostolic constitution, Paenitemini, of Feb. 17, 1966, the penitential days were reduced to Fridays, and specifically Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Abstinence is required from age 15 to age 59.

The endorsement and specification of practices were left to the local episcopal conferences. Almost universally, abstinence and some form of sacrifice on Fridays were no longer a requirement; rather, they were recommended and encouraged, but not required.

With the relaxation of the requirement for ordinary Fridays, acts of charity and piety were recommended as a replacement.

Abstinence on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday is required. The same is true for the Fridays of Lent.

Besides being a preparation for liturgical feasts, fasting and abstinence have other spiritual and moral values as well.

Saying no to things that are otherwise acceptable is a helpful way to build and strengthen the habit of saying no to what is not acceptable in a faithful moral life.

Sometimes it is useful to look on fasting from a different point of view; for example, as fasting from a particular sin.

Fasting and abstinence are effective ways to work at curbing selfishness; they can be a helpful antidote to self-centeredness.

Sometimes moderate fasting can be viewed as an act of reparation for sins against charity.

These purposes of fasting and abstinence are sometimes referred to as mortification. We don’t hear the word used very much lately. One of the dictionary definitions calls it the practice of asceticism by penitential discipline to overcome the desire for sin and to strengthen the will.

Food and drink are not the only things to give up. Curbing television time, and perhaps Internet time, might be wholesome spiritually and morally. An evaluation of our purchasing habits might suggest that there are some luxuries we can do without.

It is spiritually valuable to learn to do without whether this be for reasons of being environmentally conscious or simply a way to experience what so many people around us experience, often without a choice.

I admire those people who fast as a way of identifying with the poor and the hungry. Some religious communities, such as the Missionaries of Charity, founded by Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, observe a frugal life, including fasting, as an offering to God and as a way to be with Christ’s poor.

Fasting can serve as an unspoken gift offered for particular people. Fast and abstinence intended as gift-offerings add even more value to them. †

Local site Links: