Shortly after the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI surveyed the pastoral landscape and found a number of “grave and urgent” problems that plagued the Church. Among these problems was a laxity that had crept into the hearts and minds of the faithful with respect to the divine precept of fasting. St. John Paul II echoed Paul VI’s concern and called for catechesis on fasting in his 1984 Apostolic Exhortation on Penance and Reconciliation. Fasting is one of the three main pillars of the spiritual life along with prayer and almsgiving. For many, this third leg of the spiritual life has atrophied greatly making balance difficult. Therefore it is helpful to examine anew why the Church calls us to fast regularly.
Our Lord was once asked by the people why the Pharisees and the disciples of John fasted and His disciples did not. He responded that “as long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast” (Mk 2:18-22). Now that the Bridegroom has been taken away, Christians ought to be fasting and not just in Lent. Rather than viewing themselves as a fasting people, most Christians instead identify fasting with the followers of Mohammed or Gandhi.
In the Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas lists three reasons why fasting ought to be practiced: it bridles the lusts of the flesh, serves as satisfaction for sins and frees the mind for the contemplation of heavenly things. Because these three things lead to the fulfillment of our human nature, the Angelic Doctor says that the practice of fasting belongs among the precepts of the natural law. Despite the obligation to fast, its practice has diminished primarily because each of the goods attached to fasting has been threatened.
The first obstacle is related to the same reason that people have not fasted throughout the ages—the capital sin of gluttony. According to the CDC 36% of all American adults are obese. To combat this epidemic we have developed zero calorie drinks and food, gastric bypass surgery, diet pills, and diet plans that allow you to “eat as much as you want and still lose weight.” After all, if I can get zero calories by eating, why should I feel hungry while I am fasting?
But these are mere band aids. We fail to acknowledge the oversized elephant in today’s “super-size me” culture that prides itself on “all you can eat”. We are a bunch of gluttons. Back when gluttony was a sin the medicine was fasting. The remedy remains the same today.
Because of our fallen nature we often find that our gods are our stomachs. Through its medicinal effect fasting helps to break the chains to our senses. In this way it combats the other capital sins of the flesh; sloth (more on this in a moment) and lust. It serves as the foundation of the virtue of temperance. This much needed virtue not only moderates our eating and drinking but also the particularly dangerous vice of lust. Our Lord suggests that some demons only come out through prayer and fasting and the demon of porneia is one of them. With the rise in pornography addiction, fasting offers both a remedy and a shield against it. By fasting we gain greater control of our passions and emotions and by this increased in self-possession we are more able to give ourselves to God and others. This is why St. Thomas listed calls fasting the “guardian of chastity.”
The second obstacle that the practice of fasting encounters is the loss of a sense of sin. For many people using fasting to atone for sin is akin to using an extra blanket to protect you from the boogeyman. Sin, like the boogeyman, does not exist and the Church simply uses the idea of sin to keep us in line. In a 1946 radio address to members of the US National Catechetical Congress in Boston, Pope Pius XII declared that “the sin of the century is the loss of the sense of sin.” Recognizing this, John Paul II thought that restoring a proper sense of sin is the first way of facing the grave spiritual crisis looming over man today. This loss of a sense of sin has become a major evangelical obstacle. If we do not accept the “bad news” of our sinfulness then we have no need for the “good news” of the Gospel. The Gospel is reduced to just “news” which we already have plenty of. Fasting helps to restore the lost sense of sin. It serves as a reminder that our desires have gone astray.
This is why most people see fasting merely as a disciplinary regulation that is “suggested” by the Church rather than something that belongs to the natural law. With the widespread disdain for ecclesiastical authority many simply choose to ignore what the Church has to say about fasting.
Finally, the practice of fasting has been threatened because man has lost the desire to raise his mind to the contemplation of heavenly things. Classically understood, this is the vice of sloth or acedia. St. Thomas defines acedia as “sadness in the face of a spiritual good.” Oftentimes sloth is confused with laziness and then summarily dismissed because we are “busy.” But sloth is not laziness. Many of the busiest people are also the most slothful because they suffer from a “roaming unrest of spirit” as St. Thomas says.
Sloth seems to be ever-present in our culture and it most clearly manifests itself through its first-born daughter, curiosity. Curiosity is the desire to know simply for the pleasure that it brings and not in order to understand the nature of things. Our information hungry society is driven by curiosity. The voyeurism of reality TV shows, the popularity of social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and a growing addiction to smartphones all exist to feed our curiosity. They simply serve as distractions from contemplating heavenly things. Our minds are made to rise to heavenly things and when they do not the result is a pervasive boredom.
St. Thomas compares curiosity with the virtue of studiousness. Studiousness serves as a check on our curiosity by studying first those things which are most important and relating what we discover to God. It is a most necessary virtue in developing the habit of contemplation. The studious person develops the habit of seeing all of creation through a sacramental paradigm. Fasting helps to cultivate this virtue by reminding us that man does not live on bread alone and excites his intellect to investigate those things that truly bring life to man.
Practically speaking, how do we fast and how often should we do it? There are two kinds of fasts. There is a total fast which means abstaining from all food and drink (this is linked to the Eucharist) and a partial fast which is penitential in nature. While there is no one “right” way to observe a partial fast, the Church suggests that it consists in one normal sized meal and two small meals that are the equivalent of the first meal. The idea is not to starve ourselves, but to stir just enough hunger so as to have to fight the temptation to break the fast. One normally finds that they cannot stop thinking about eating when they first start this practice. That is to be expected when we do not yet have the virtue of fasting and will diminish over time. What also normally happens is that the bodily hunger awakens in us a certain amount of spiritual sensitivity so that we find great pleasure in both prayer and receiving the Eucharist.
As far as frequency, most spiritual masters would suggest once a week either on Friday (in union with Our Lord’s Passion) or on Saturday (with Our Lady on Holy Saturday). One could easily however find ways to fast daily by not eating between meals, always leaving the table a little bit hungry or always eating what is placed in front of you. Again it is not so much the how, but the spirit in which one fasts. The intention ought to be as penance for sins and as an offering for favors from God.
While climbing Mount Purgatory, Dante encounters a group of emaciated penitents in the ring of gluttony. Because the gluttonous abstain from the “gratification of the palate” as part of their penance, Dante sees that the “sockets of their eyes seemed rings without gems. Whoso in the face of men reads OMO would surely there have recognized the M.” For those who know Italian, they will recognize that OMO is a variant of the Italian word for “man”, uomo. What the poet is suggesting is that the inner form of man is restored through fasting. Following his lead, we too should include fasting as part of our regular spiritual diet and stand on all three spiritual legs.