Archbishop Fulton Sheen once observed that Protestants think “First comes the feast, then comes the hangover,” while the Catholic attitude is “First comes the fast, then comes the feast.”
Few of us look forward to fasting. It forces us to relinquish one of life’s basic pleasures, it’s uncomfortable, inconvenient and unpleasant. Still, fasting is a fundamental Lenten practice that prepares us body, mind, and spirit for Easter, the holiest day of the liturgical year.
Catholics fast during Lent in memory of Jesus’s 40 days and nights in the desert, where he fasted, prayed, and withstood Satan’s temptations. Fasting helps us pray, focuses our minds, and disciplines our bodies as we prepare to celebrate Christ’s triumph over death.
Giving up meat on Fridays and fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday yields some surprising spiritual benefits, notes Suzanne Niles and Wendy Simpson Little in “Five Ways Fasting Can Change Your Life.” Niles and Little say that fasting and prayer can:
1.Help us hear God’s message
2.Reveal our hidden sins
3.Strengthen our intimacy with God
4.Teach us to pray, guided by the right motives
5.Intensify our faith
“When we fast and pray,” write Niles and Little, “we are taking time away from a meal or an activity to devote our entire being to focus on God. We find we are more sensitive to the voice of God, more attuned to hearing what He has to reveal to us. … As we repent, we no longer want to hide, but to praise and worship the very one who confronted our wrong.”
Intermittent fasting is a current fad embraced by many who want to lose weight. Yet Lenten fasting has nothing to do with dieting. It teaches us instead to embrace the essential virtues of self-denial and self-sacrifice.
Lori Hatcher’s article, “10 Tips for Successful Fasting,” can help us begin. To fast successfully, Hatcher recommends that Catholics:
- Fast from dinner to dinner
- Consider an alternate fast
- Drink water constantly
- Drink herbal tea with a little sweetener
- Set a timer
- Use a prayer guide for focus and direction
We also must recognize that while Lent requires us to fast from food, other types of fasting offer important spiritual benefits. Several ideas:
- Many of us cannot go more than a few minutes without checking Facebook. How many prayers could we say if we stopped spending so much time on social media?
- We might be in the habit of stopping by the local watering hole or coffee shop every day. How many decades of the rosary could we pray if we skipped the pub or Starbucks?
- If we habitually tune in to talk radio or sing along with the latest hits, can we try a commute devoted instead to Christian music, a Catholic lecture on CD, or Catholic radio programming?
- My feet are up in the recliner as I watch mindless TV every evening, but alternatively I can choose to watch a religious film, read my Bible, or silently contemplate the life of St. Catherine of Siena, my patron saint.
Our Lenten fast – abstaining from food, pleasurable activities, and worldly habits – ultimately forces us to prioritize on our No. 1 aim: Deepening our relationship with God, acknowledging Jesus’s abiding love for us, and beginning to understand the myriad ways we can grow closer to Him.