While, at a secular level, therapeutic enticing diet and fasting proposals are flourishing, where do we stand as Christians in terms of fasting practice ? Could it be the great forgotten practice in our contemporary Western societies ? Fasting is an unsuspected strength that gives life to all dimensions of man : body, soul and spirit. There are many testimonies of physical, psychological and spiritual healings. It is a force of liberation, of purification, of sanctification « Fasting heals the sick, it shoves back the demons and throws out the unsound thoughts. It makes the spirit clearer and purifies the heart. It sanctifies the body and lifts man on the throne of God. Fasting is a great strength. ». St Athanase.
According to Hippocrates, father of physicians, fasting is even the oldest medicine. The latest scientific discoveries have shed light on the benefits of fasting in the treatment of so-called « civilization ailments » or even certain cancers. We also know that our belly is our “second brain” since 100 to 200 million nerve cells can be found in it …
It is surprising how difficult fasting in our materialistic and atheistic society turns out to be. Overconsumption has certainly made our society obese and satiated. At the mere idea of fasting, we already feel faint … The fear of missing out awakens, the fear of being tired or of not being able to carry out our duties. But the fear of suffering is much more unbearable than the suffering itself. Once this fear is unmasked, much of the combat is eliminated. It is then a question of will and faithfulness the resolution once taken. One thing can help us considerably : to associate our fasting with a prayer intention that is dear to One can, of course, fast for peace in the world at large, but fasting for the peace of the heart of a person in distress is quite another thing. So let’s start with a particular intention and our hearts will gradually expand to allembracing ones.
In the Old Testament, fasting is part of the rites of penance (cf. Lev.23,27 ; Jl 1,14 ; Jon 3,5) and mourning (cf. 2 S 1,12). It is often a collective religious experience since fasting is « prescribed » for all the people. Besides, when the Community is in danger, it fasts in order to obtain victory. (cf. Jg 20,26 ; 1 S 14,24). The hebrew word « tsom » has the same root as « tsama » thirst. Fasting fosters a happy spiritual experience for a better relationship with God, the most important being, of course to abstain from injustice and sin. We certainly have a thousand and one reasons not to fast : we are willing to pray but it is so difficult to fast… Yet Jesus clearly tells us : fasting and prayer are inextricably linked (cf Mc 9,29) Jesus himself practiced it and it was a moment of intense communion with the Father : « My food is to do the will of He who sent me and to accomplish His work » (Jn 4,34) and he teaches us to do the same : « wash your face » (be true) « anoint your head » (offer gladly) « in secret » (without ostentation) (cf. Mt 6, 16-17). Certainely we can fast on anything that is dear to us but fasting on food will always be the most powerful because it touches on an ontological and vital need.
Benefits of fasting
Many are the benefits of fasting for our souls. Here are some. This list is not exhaustive:
Awareness. Mourning fasting as practised on Ash-Wednesday and Good Friday reminds us that, deprived of seeing our Beloved, we shall stay awake in expectation. Such attitude of awareness is basic.
Happy weakness. Fasting makes us experience our smallness and dependance on God, in order to go into a greater freedom of heart. It is to discover again this spiritual reality « When I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Co 12,10) We are immersed in the paschal logic : One must die in order to live.
Self-control. It is an asceticism, selfdiscipline which increases our ability to resist temptation, which involves us and strengthens us in our self-control, focusing our attention on the presence of God. We abstain ourselves, we control our body so that we are not controled by it, experiencing some restraint which frees us from consumerism.
Presence to God and offering. Fasting is also to free some time in order to pray more : to create a space God only can take up and fill. The people who fast regularly have besides a very special spiritual sensitiveness and are more open to the motions from the Holy Spirit. Fasting makes obvious that we are called to offer all our life to God like a living sacrifice. Giving our body is a real gift.
Sharing. Fasting is an act of communion and fellowship which broadens our heart with the most deprived who do not eat their fill everyday and should be lived through love, restraining onself for the other, without hiding onself from one’s own flesh (cf. Is.58,6-7) Saint Leon the Great urges us so : « Who has received much should give much. May the fasting of the believers become food for the poors ».
Spiritual fight. To purify our body is also to purify our soul. Fasting brings our sin into light and uproots it. It is a mighty weapon in the spiritual fight although it is not used much, it is a place of purification, of forgiveness, to find again the lost unity. Saint Leon the Great taught : « The prayer of fasting pleases God and frightens Satan. It contributes to our salvation and the others . There is nothing more effective to draw us closer to God. Do not neglect this powerful mean, this effective therapy for our wounds » . Fasting chases the demons because it is costly for us.
Eucharist. Then, fasting before eucharist, prepares us to receive the Real Presence of the Risen Christ. In Medjugorje, fasting with bread and water is advocated because it digs in us the hunger for Eucharist.
Repentance. The Virgin does not stop urging us to practise fasting, in her most recent apparitions. « Penance, penance, penance » she said in Lourdes and Fatima. The stake is crucial because it is a call to repentance and conversion. Finaly, the hardest is not to be hungry but to row up the stream of the spirit of the world which advocates comfort and easiness. But christianism without asceticism and without cross is the religion of the world. Let us fast with the heart and the body and our life will be transfigured and renewed in fervour.
« Fasting purifies the soul, lifts the spirit, subdues the flesh to the spirit, makes the heart contrite and humiliated, shatters the clouds of covetousness, puts out the fire of passions, makes really shining the light of chastity. It really makes you enter inside yourself. » St Augustine
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Find the previous articles in our “Life of prayer” series.
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