How to Fast and Pray
It’s built up to be a climatic scene in The Fast and the Furious, the street race between our newcomer good guy and the established old guard bad guy. The cars take off and about half way through the race the new guy hits his nitrous oxide, his turbo boost, and jumps ahead. The old, experienced racer waits a second and then hits his nitrous and speeds ahead to win the race at the line. The scene is in every street racing movie, and it reminds me of the way some individuals view the relationship between fasting and prayer. You’ve probably heard similar descriptions as well: prayer is our progress towards the finish line, and the fasting is the nitrous. We hit it, and it provides a turbo boost to our prayer. We get to the finish line faster. But there is something wrong with this concept that makes me shudder every time I hear it used. It views fasting as something external to prayer, as something that we add to prayer from the outside in order to make our prayer more efficacious, rather than viewing fasting as something that is inherently part of prayer. Rather than looking at fasting as something extra we add to prayer, we need to look at it as an integral part of prayer and conclude that our prayer is actually not complete, is lacking something substantial, if it does not involved fasting of some kind. This article is going to touch on how to fast and pray.
In order to do this we need to look at four things: fasting in the bible, fasting in the non-Christian world, fasting in the words of the saints, and finally fasting in our lives today. By looking at these four things, we can get a larger picture than the simple turbo boost of prayer view of fasting and see that fasting is a key component, rather than an addition to, prayer.
Throughout both the Old and New Testaments fasting is present. If we look at a few key examples we can draw out some key lessons to be learned. Queen Esther and King David from the Old Testament and the words of Jesus himself from the New Testament provide the basis for the analysis.
Fasting and Prayer in the Old Testament
Queen Esther, the namesake of the Book of Esther in the Old Testament, is a Jewish queen married to the Persian King. During the reign of the King his advisor issues a decree ordering the destruction of the entire people of Israel. As the decree begins to be carried out, the leaders of the Jews come to the Queen and ask her if she thinks she will be immune from the decree because she is the Queen. They ask her to plead with the king to remove the decree. She agrees, but says that first she will have to prepare and asks the Jews to prepare with her. She removes her royal clothing and perfumes and fasts for three days before attempting to enter to see the king. Long story short, she has the decree lifted and the advisor who ordered the decree killed. But the lesson to gain from this Old Testament story is how fasting plays into the story. She did not fast after her request was made, the fasting occurred before the request. It was made simply in order that the request could be made. The fasting was part and parcel of the process of the request to the king.
Then we come to King David. King David has been seen as a type of Christ, especially the Kingship of Christ. This means that some of the things he does foreshadow what Christ will reveal in fullness in some way. We can look to King David as providing little hints about Christ. This is not to divinize King David, who was obviously not perfect. But, in Second Samuel, King David suffers through the pain of his child. As Second Samuel reads “And the Lord afflicted the child that Uriah’s wife bore to David, and he became sick. David therefore sought God on behalf of the child. And David fasted and went in and lay all night on the ground. And the elders of his house stood beside him, to raise him from the ground, but he would not, nor did he eat food with them.” (Sec. Sam 12:15-17) King David’s prayer consists of a few things- beseeching God on behalf of the child yes, but also fasting and laying on the ground. The way this is written we see that the fasting and laying on the ground (another penitential practice) is not seen by King David as something added onto the practice of prayer, but rather as part of the prayer itself. It is not done in order to provide a turbo boost of prayer, but rather as the prayer itself.
Fasting and Prayer in the New Testament
Turning to the New Testament we see the Pharisees challenge Jesus on why his disciples do not fast. In Mark 2: 18-20 we read “The disciples of John and of the Pharisees were accustomed to fast. People came to him and objected, “Why do the disciples of John and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” Jesus answered them, “Can the wedding guests fast while 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 is taken away from them, and then they will fast on that day.” We can gather a lot of information from this short passage. The first thing is that the practice of fasting has continued through the time between the Old Testament stories we looked at earlier and the time of Jesus. Both those who follow the law closely, the Pharisees, and even the disciples of John the Baptist fast. But the disciples of Jesus do not fast. But does this mean that we, as disciples of Jesus, also should not fast? The answer is a resounding no.
Besides the fact that Jesus says that his disciples will fast in the future, we have to look at the reasoning of Jesus provided to answer his critics. We see the difference between being called to fast and feast in this passage. When Jesus Christ is among us, when the fullness of God’s glory is revealed to us, we are called to feast. Thus, the analogy used most frequently for heaven is a wedding feast. The feast is not simply tangential to the wedding analogy but has significant meaning. We feast in the presence of the fullness of the Divine Logos. At all other times, we fast. This is not simply an addition to our prayer, but is part of the prayer, part of actually the command of Jesus Christ from this passage. This, in the deepest sense, is how to fast and pray. For we live in a time now in which we are awaiting the second coming. Until Christ comes again we are in the time when Christ says that we shall fast. And why do we fast? This question might be the most important.
We fast as an eschatological sign. This is a fancy term that means that we fast as reminder that there is something greater than this world. There are great things in this world, food being one of them. But of all the created things in this world, there is something greater awaiting us- heaven. Thus we must be willing to give up even the good things of this world for heaven. This is why a priest or religious sister gives up the greatest created good- marriage- for heaven. Their sacrifice is a larger sacrifice that we are also called to take part in; a sacrifice of something good and real for something even better and even more real.
This is what separates Christian fasting from fasting done in other religions around the world. The recognition that this world is created good, contains good things, and that creation can point us towards God is something unique to the Jewish-Christian tradition. Other religions have varying views of this world, of creation. Fasting, for many other religions, involves realizing that the created world is, in fact, not good. However, for the Christian we realize that the created world is good, in fact is very good in the words from Genesis. But as good as it is, there is something better. Heaven is better and in order to realize this, we fast from the goods of this world for something better.
Encouragement in How to Fast and Pray
This is seen over and over again in the words of the saints. Here are just a few of my favorite quotes from the saints about fasting, revealing again how to fast and pray—the relationship between these two practices. Also, please note that in addition to providing inspiration in our own fasting, these words also continue to drive home my point that fasting must be part of our prayer rather than something we simply add on top of our prayer.
St. Francis DeSales says of fasting,
If you are able to fast, you will do well to observe some days beyond what are ordered by the Church, for besides the ordinary effect of fasting in raising the mind, subduing the flesh, confirming goodness, and obtaining a heavenly reward, it is also a great matter to be able to control greediness, and to keep the sensual appetites and the whole bodysubject to the law of the Spirit; and although we may be able to do but little, the enemy nevertheless stands more in awe of those whom he knows can fast.”
We will speak about days required by the Church in a little bit, but that the ability to fast is listed as an ability that the enemy, Satan, fears should draw our attention. For what does Satan fear but holiness? Thus fasting is equated here with holiness.
St. Pope John Paul II says,
Today, especially in affluent societies, St. Augustine’s warning is more timely than ever: ‘Enter again into yourself.’ Yes, we must enter again into ourselves, if we want to find ourselves. Not only our spiritual life is at stake, but indeed, our personal, family and social equilibrium, itself. One of the meanings of penitential fasting is to help us recover an interior life. Moderation, recollection and prayer go hand in hand.”
Here we see another benefit of fasting- the ability to turn into ourselves and recover an interior life. We see that fasting (called moderation here) is listed as going hand in hand with prayer, not as some extra thing added onto prayer.
And finally, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI says,
It seems abundantly clear that fasting represents an important ascetical practice, a spiritual arm to do battle against every possible disordered attachment to ourselves. Freely chosen detachment from the pleasure of food and other material goods helps the disciple of Christ to control the appetites of nature, weakened by original sin, whose negative effects impact the entire human person. Quite opportunely, an ancient hymn of the Lenten Liturgy exhorts: ‘Let us use sparingly words, food and drink, sleep and amusements. May we be more alert in the custody of our senses.’ Since all of us are weighed down by sin and its consequences, fasting is proposed to us as an instrument to restore friendship with God.”
This is nowhere near an exhaustive list of the sayings of the saints on fasting, but merely scratching the surface. Almost every saint linked fasting with holiness.
We all know the bare minimums of fasting in the Christian life, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. But I would encourage us to take a look at our lives and see if there might be some way we can add more fasting than simply the bare minimum. Do we really want to strive for the bare minimum in our faith lives? One way this has been done throughout history is through abstaining from meat on Fridays, the day our Lord died, and to abstain from food before receiving the Eucharist so that we might be able to feel physical hunger to attach our spiritual hunger for Christ onto. These are all good practices and are all well within the tradition of the Church. But I would encourage you to speak with a spiritual director, or a holy priest, about what type of fasting you might be able to incorporate into your own life, in order that you may begin to view fasting not as a turbo boost to add onto your prayer, but rather as something substantial to your prayer life.