The conversation starts as Ash Wednesday approaches: “What are you giving up for Lent?” Over the years I’ve heard people respond, “I’m not giving anything up this year. I’m doing something extra.” I used to be one of them – that is, until I realized that isn’t enough. That “something extra” can be a great way to enter into the season, but it isn’t fasting.
Catholics have traditionally celebrated Lent with three practices: fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. “Something extra” might mean adding in daily mass or special prayers for Lent. It could be weekly adoration or confession, or Stations of the Cross. It could also take the form of service projects and works of mercy. These are all great “extras”; extras that fall into the categories of prayer and almsgiving. Adopting any of them is a beautiful spiritual practice, a conscious way to increase virtue and deepen your walk with the Lord. Just as these practices each shine a different facet of the diamond of your soul, so too does fasting.
Why have Catholics always considered fasting an essential part of the spiritual life? Well, first, because we follow the example of our Lord. Jesus fasted in the desert, and he didn’t even have any sins to offer penance for. Fasting is a spiritual disciple, a way of teaching our souls. Below are some thoughts on fasting to clarify the practice and why explain we should incorporate fasting into our lives.
What Fasting Is Not
You probably already know that fasting is not dieting. Although we often give up food or something we enjoy, fasting is not meant to serve our physical health, our waistline, or any other self-focused purpose.
Fasting is not abstaining from something bad. You can’t “fast” from sin or unkindness. In the Catholic life, we have seasons – seasons of fasting and seasons of feasting. To fast is to sacrifice that which we embrace with joy during seasons of feasting. When we fast, we abstain from what is good as a sign of our belief in that which is greater.
What Fasting Is
Fasting is a spiritual exercise meant to strengthen our souls. In particular, it strengthens the virtue of temperance. When we practice saying, “No,” it increases our spiritual freedom.
Fasting from food in particular allows us to feel bodily the reality of hunger. Hunger reminds us both of our desire for God, and of the needs of the poor. But we can also fast from non-edible things. The point is that we give up something we are attached to so that we feel the cost of the sacrifice we make.
Lenten fasting provides us with a solemn period of reflection, a journey through our inner desert. It helps us remember the suffering and sacrifice of our Savior, that the freedom and joy of Easter came at great cost. Through fasting, we enter into and honor the Paschal Mystery, that God brings new life out of darkness and suffering.