Why Catholics Should Fast Outside of Lent and How To Do It?
In the past, Catholic households could be easily spotted by what they ate on Fridays. Many Church Fathers recommended the practice, as did saints from the Middle Ages, the Reformation & Counter-Reformation era, and every age since. Since Vatican II, however, fasting has ended up being only associated with Lent. The latter part of the 20th century was a pioneering age, it turns out, since fasting was a long-standing, year-round practice for centuries upon centuries. Throw in the cultural upheaval of the 1960s and that makes a perfect recipe for leaving fasting behind. Then mix together a fallen human nature and its fallen appetites together with a self-indulgent, secular culture. Our culture values entertainment and pleasure, and fasting is low on the entertainment scale and even lower on the pleasure scale.
There’s no question that non-lenten fasting has disappeared from American Catholic culture for the last fifty years. The reasons vary, but they all start from the same point. First and foremost, humans are fallen creatures and we struggle against the inclination to constantly satiate our appetites. St. Thomas Aquinas defined our appetites much more broadly than hunger for food and drink. He defined them as all forms of internal inclination. That covers anger, sex, the desire for power, the desire for material things, and much more.
It’s important to note that our inclinations aren’t sinful in themselves. Our entry point into sin or virtue is what we do with our appetites. Having a temptation to blow up in anger and restraining it? That is virtue. Giving into anger and actually blowing up? That is sin. The difference between the two is not the appetite but the will. The appetites require constant exercise of the will to keep them at bay. We can’t be so foolish as to think our appetites are benign and naturally controllable. Make no mistake: if we do not control our appetites, they will control us.
With that background, let’s turn to reasons why fasting is good for us, some practical suggestions for fasting, and goals for fasting.
Theological Reasons Why We Should Fast
The nature of the human being is spiritual and physical
So much focus on holiness is on the interior life, and rightfully so. Ordering our minds; coming into a moving, meaningful encounter with Christ; praying; reading Scripture; praying the rosary and the chaplet of Divine Mercy; and so much more. It’s a long list of things to focus on in the interior life—sometimes it’s overwhelming. And it can be easy to forget that our bodies have a large part to play in our spiritual life! Our spirit and will need to be honed, yes, but our bodies do as well. “We are not pure spirits or pure wills, and the body has to be trained, and sometimes in a negative fashion.” (Fr. Jonathan Robinson, Spiritual Combat Revisited, pg. 141). A spiritual life that neglects the body is only half of a spirituality.
Jesus sanctified everything He touched. Bl. John Henry Newman pointed out that “we fast by way of penitence, and in order to subdue the flesh. Our Saviour had no need of fasting for either purpose. His fasting was unlike ours, as in its intensity, so in its object. And yet when we begin to fast, His pattern is set before us.”
Jesus didn’t have to become man, but He did. Similarly, Jesus didn’t have to fast, yet He did. He frequently withdrew to a deserted place to fast and pray—or at least tried to, as the crowds often tracked Him down. He didn’t have to withdraw, He could’ve made Himself invisible or transported to an unreachable place. Why didn’t He take the easy road with those things? Jesus always acted in perfect accord with the fullness of His human nature and the fullness of His divine nature. If Jesus fasted without needing to, we who need to should do it as well.
Pratical Suggestions for Fasting
Fasting has far-reaching benefits: it builds our will against our appetites, helps us grow in virtue, and it super-charges our prayers. Here are some practical tips about fasting:
1) Before getting into specific ideas on how to fast, it’s important to note what fasting is not. Fasting from gossip isn’t actually fasting—it’s not sinning, which we’re supposed to do regardless. Also, fasting can’t be done for vanity or attention. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us: “an evil end corrupts the action, even if the object is good in itself (such as praying and fasting ‘in order to be seen by men’)” (#1755). Finally, fasting should make us uncomfortable to a certain degree, but it it’s not meant to harm us. Pregnant women and nursing mothers shouldn’t go on a bread and water fast; diabetics shouldn’t go for a day without food.
2) If fasting is a new addition to your spiritual life, get some assistance. First and foremost, prayer should be a part of any new practice of fasting. I also recommend the help of a spiritual director in this area. That person could help discern what struggles are good (e.g. the difficulty in fasting from coffee) and what struggles are harmful (e.g. terrorizing coworkers and family members because you’re fasting from coffee).
3) A very good way to fast is from food, a favorite food, or sweets. This can be done in multiple ways: skipping a meal, not eating between meals, or giving up a favorite food. For an extra boost, donate money from your skipped meal or the bypassed mocha to the poor.
4) Fasting is not just from food, however. We can fast from all sorts of things: social media, occupying ourselves on a smart phone while waiting in line, not watching television. That doesn’t deal with the body per se, but it does develop our will power. Physical mortification can combine with fasting, for example: not using the air conditioner in the car, not using hot water in the shower. Physical mortifications follow the same rules and shouldn’t be harmful (e.g. passing out from a non-air-conditioned car).
Maintaining a Fast
Fasting carves out some space for God to work—and make sure you’re filling it with God. There are multiple goals that we can shoot for when we fast:
1) Sanctification. Fasting shows us in a small way how much we depend on God. It turns our eyes off of ourselves and focuses them on God, which is a key step in the way of holiness.
2) Penitence. We don’t have to wait to go to confession to get a penance. Penitential acts got a bad rap in past decades, but such acts undertaken in love can bring great healing from sin.
3) Intercession. Remember the dreaded “offer it up” that you heard as a kid? If we can get past the eye rolling associated with it, it has a lot of wisdom. Fasting for an intention supercharges the accompanying prayer.
4) Spiritual warfare. Anyone who’s struggled against sin and vice knows that it’s wearisome in fighting the good fight. In fasting, however, we have one of our greatest weapons. In Mark 9:14-29, Jesus’ disciples try unsuccessfully to cast out a demon. Jesus told them that “this kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting.” (v. 29). A spiritual war rages around us and in us, and fasting is one of our most effective weapons. Have you had a stubborn bad habit or inclination toward sin that you can’t overcome? Attack it with fasting. St. Cyril of Jerusalem noted that “when the way grows narrow, the corpulence that comes of gluttony is a great hindrance. Keep down the waves of inordinate desires. Repel the tempest of evil thoughts... But we shall have the fast for a groundwork and instructor in all these things.” Don’t trust your will to stand firm on its own. Give it extra muscle with fasting.
5) Physical health. When our bodies are wrestling with stress and anxiety, we turn to any number of things to cope with it. They range from the seemingly benign eating and sweets, to more blatant vices like lust and anger. Sometimes, the best medicine for stress and anxiety is exercise. The same applies to fasting: the practice imposes a certain amount of stress/anxiety on the body. When the temptation comes to break a fast, our bodies scream out for those donuts in the break room at work. Caving and eating a donut isn’t the only way to get your body to stop demanding to break the fast: exercise is an effective way to give the body something else to worry about than hunger.
6) Perseverance. This is key to the entire practice, and persevering through a fast will have residual effects on the rest of our lives.
Maintaining a Fast with Exercise
When our bodies are wrestling with stress and anxiety, we turn to any number of things to cope with it. They range from the seemingly benign eating and sweets, to more blatant vices like lust and anger. Sometimes, the best medicine for stress and anxiety is exercise. The same applies to fasting: the practice imposes a certain amount of stress/anxiety on the body. When the temptation comes to break a fast, our bodies scream out for those donuts in the break room at work. Caving and eating a donut isn’t the only way to get your body to stop demanding to break the fast: exercise is an effective way to give the body something else to worry about than hunger. It doesn’t necessarily have to be vigorous exercise; it could be as simple as taking a brisk walk.
It’s a common complaint of our modern world that it’s noisy and materialistic. What better way to light a candle in the world than to join in fasting and prayer? If fasting feels uncomfortable, that’s an even better reason to start it. Making fasting a regular part of the spiritual life will bring transformation with it. Immerse yourself in the wisdom of the saints and the call of Jesus Himself: “Jesus' call to conversion and penance, like that of the prophets before him, does not aim first at outward works, ‘sackcloth and ashes,’ fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion. Without this, such penances remain sterile and false; however, interior conversion urges expression in visible signs, gestures and works of penance.” (CCC #1430)
Give fasting a try and see how your spiritual life takes off!