Skip to main content

On the Importance of Fasting

For nearly two thousand years, Catholics have read, re-read and reflected upon the great passage in the sixth chapter of the gospel of Matthew in which Jesus lays out the three essential practices of Christian life: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

Every Ash Wednesday around the globe, in lavishly tiled basilicas, in wood planked chapels, in modest oratories with dirt floors, in carpeted suburban parishes, and in the great multiplicity of sizes, shapes and styles of Catholic houses worship, the Catholic imagination is called to attentive reflection on these prescriptions from Our Lord:  When you pray; When you give alms; When you fast.

When Ash Wednesday Mass is finished, the next forty days – all of Lent- is observed in the context of this passage. This happens every year without fail. These three essential practices of Christian life are brought to our attention and emphasized. You would think that we Catholics would get the point.

But do we?

How many Catholics understand the normal Christian life to be composed of a healthy dose of all three? Sure, we’re supposed to pray. Everyone believes that.

Giving alms – once we get past the archaic word, is also commonly accepted. We live in a society where giving to charities and doing service work is considered a normal part of our civic life. It takes no great faith commitment to do this.

But fasting?

Who fasts? And if we do fast, isn’t that just obedience to some minimal Church norms during Lent?

But where does Christ say that fasting was to be done exclusively during Lent? And where does He say that it is exclusively penitential? Yet somehow, in our collective consciousness, that is precisely what most of us think.
As Catholics, we are called to imitate Christ in all things. He is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. We are called by Him to take up our cross everyday and follow Him. So shouldn’t we pay close attention to what He actually said and did?
For instance, what was the final stage of His preparation for His public ministry? Forty days of fasting in the desert! Is fasting important? Consider this. When the devil appeared to Jesus to try to thwart his mission, what was the VERY FIRST thing he tried to get Jesus to do?  Look it up (Matthew 4:1-4) He tried to get Jesus to break his fast! Yes, fasting is just that powerful and the devil understood this profoundly.

I believe that the Lord has led me to focus attention on the power of fasting as a regular part of the Christian life. To pray is good. To give alms is good. But fasting is the glue. To fast is to combine prayer and almsgiving. It is to pray with your body. It is to give spiritual alms. In striving for holiness, prayer lifts you up. Almsgiving coupled with prayer is a selfless movement of love that powers you higher.

But fasting? Fasting allows you to soar to supernatural heights virtually unimaginable. This is not because you yourself are in control, but because fasting is an abandonment of control, a radical letting go that, along with sacramental confession, allows all barriers to your acceptance of God’s love to be broken.

Did you know that none other than St. Paul himself received his mission after a three day absolute fast? Yep. He was knocked off his horse, made blind, and then led to Damascus. Then for three days he was unable to see, and he neither ate nor drank. (Acts 9:9) When the Lord sent Ananias to Judas’ house to lay hands on Saul (his pre-conversion name), he found Saul in the midst of intense prayer and fasting. The rest is history.

Is fasting important for the spiritual life?

The very first pope, St. Peter, the rock upon whom Christ built his Church, the man to whom Christ gave the keys to the kingdom, also received a very important message at the end of what appears in scripture to be a fast. It is well known that after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus into heaven, Peter initially favored Jewish Christians. He saw the Jewish people as the rightful heirs to Christ’s actions and message. But we can learn much from Peter. Even an apostle needed to learn and grow in submission to God’s will. In Acts 10, it says that while he was still hungry and people were making preparations to feed him, Peter received a revelation that would alter the future of Christianity. The gospel was for not exclusively for the Jews, it was for everyone! A pretty important insight gained while being hungry.

Fasting is like one of the three legs on the stool of Christian life. Without all three legs, the stool cannot stand as it should. I believe that fasting, as an ordinary practice of Christian life, must be recovered if we are to live any kind of balance. Fasting pulls together and amplifies all other acts of piety. It gives prayer and almsgiving a power and a vitality that might come to you as a great surprise. I’ve been surprised by fasting and there are many stories to tell.

It is my belief that if the average Catholic understood the intimacy possible with Our Lord through fasting, if he understood the power it has in the spiritual realm, he would desire it so passionately that he would pursue it at any cost. The astonishing secret is that price is not really very high. In fact, it is absolutely free.

A threefold cord is not quickly broken.  Ecclesiastes 4:12

Sr. JosephMary f.t.i.

Author Sr. JosephMary f.t.i.

Our Lady found this unworthy lukewarm person and obtained for her the grace to enter the Third Order of the Franciscans of the Immaculate. May this person spend all eternity in showing her gratitude.

More posts by Sr. JosephMary f.t.i.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.