When the Second Vatican Council called for a renewal of religious life, the Church foresaw certain deficiencies within religious communities that needed to be corrected--or at least updated--and consequently laid down a general principle of renewal, that is; to return to the “spirit of the founders”, as well as restore those “sound traditions” that were so closely identified with religious life.
|The Case for the Restoration of Fasting in Religious Life
Shortly following the Council, Pope Paul VI issued an Apostolic Constitution on Fasting and Penitence (link) in which he clarified that among such traditions, fasting and penitence are of primacy concern, so much so, that he declared them to be “among the grave and urgent problems which summon our pastoral concern”, and reaffirmed “its necessity with particular urgency”. The Holy Father went on to clarify that while the new 1983 Code of Canon Law on fasting (link) abrogated the 1917 canon, it by no means changed or modified the rules or constitutions of religious orders. In fact, the pope reminded us that while “all the faithful are required to do penance by divine law”, priests and religious are bound to a more perfect form of fasting beyond the minimum required by canon law, proper to their state in life; "The precept of penitence must be satisfied in a more perfect way by priests...as well as by those who...practice the evangelical counsels".
Traditionally, fasting for priests and religious has always been more rigorous than the Church norms prescribed for the ordinary faithful. This fits quite naturally with what we know of consecrated life and sacred orders, that is; they are acts of supererogation, that is; above the minimum necessary for salvation (Saint Francis De Sales counseled even lay people to fast beyond the minimum; "If you are able to fast, you will do well to observe some days beyond what are ordered by the
Church".) Furthermore, the pope raised the norm even higher in regions “where economic well-being is greater”, stating that in such areas, “so much more will the witness of asceticism have to be given in order that the sons of the Church may not be involved in the spirit of the world.” In other words, in wealthy countries such as the United States--a land where gluttony and obesity are manifestly widespread—the faithful need to make even greater efforts to mortify themselves compared to poorer countries, where food is already sparse and the means of living difficult. (Recalling to mind that an average meal in America would have been sufficient for that of a 17th century king). And if this is true for the ordinary faithful, how much more so is it for a priest or religious in America?
In more recent times, Pope Benedict XVI, in a general address (link), again emphasized the need to restore fasting back to its proper place, “so that the authentic and perennial significance of this long held practice may be rediscovered.” Here we see another pope in our time calling for a “rediscovery” of this lost tradition. The Holy Father went on to state something quite remarkable. He said fasting is “a spiritual arm to do battle against every possible disordered attachment to ourselves”. This statement alone can be a subject of many hours of meditation. But the he did not stop there. He further commented that fasting is a “therapy to heal all that prevents [us] from conformity to the will of God”, and “assists us to mortify our egoism and open our heart to love of God and neighbor”. The pope further lamented the fact that “in our own day, fasting seems to have lost something of its spiritual meaning” and has taken on a purely superficial trait as a means for weight loss. There can be no doubt that in our time, the Church, through the voice of its chief shepard, is calling the faithful back to lives of greater austerity, beginning with the restoration of fasting to its place of primacy.
: "God has given us the goods of the earth,
not only that we may enjoy them, but also that we may have the means of ... showing him our love
by the voluntary renunciation of his gifts, and by the oblation of them to his glory. To abandon, for God’s sake, all
worldly enjoyments, has always been the practice of holy souls."
The Primacy of Fasting
The Church teaches us, in no uncertain terms, that fasting is the highest external penance that anyone can perform, and thus should be preferred above all others. In fact, the Church even goes so far as to indicate that those who do not fast--whose bellies are continually satiated--are incapable of prayer! Indeed, there is a good reason why we as Christians often hear the words "prayer and fasting" together, as if this is somehow the solution to every problem (those who do not fast cannot understand the efficacy of such a prescription). We might even go so far as to say that fasting and prayer are so deeply connected, that they are virtually inseparable from one another.
"All kinds of satisfaction are reducible to three heads: prayer, fasting and almsdeeds, which correspond to three kinds of goods which we have received from God; those of the soul, those of the body and what are called external goods. Nothing can be more effectual in uprooting all sin from the soul than these three kinds of satisfaction. For since whatever is in the world is the concupiscence of the flesh, the concupiscence of the eyes, and the pride of life, everyone can see that to these three causes of disease are opposed also three remedies. To the first is opposed fasting; to the second, almsdeeds; to the third, prayer. Moreover, if we consider those whom our sins injure, we shall easily perceive why all kinds of satisfaction are reduced especially to these three. For those (we offend by our sins) are: God, our neighbour and ourselves. God we appease by prayer, our neighbour we satisfy by alms, and ourselves we chastise by fasting. [...] This triple remedy was, therefore, appointed by God to aid man in the attainment of salvation. For by sin we offend God, wrong our neighbour, or injure ourselves. The wrath of God we appease by pious prayer; our offences against man we redeem by almsdeeds; the stains of our own lives we wash away by fasting. [...] Fasting is most intimately connected with prayer. For the mind of one who is filled with food and drink is so borne down as not to be able to raise itself to the contemplation of God, or even to understand what prayer means."
"The chief means by which we satisfy God for the temporal punishment due to sin are: Prayer, Fasting, Almsgiving, all spiritual and corporal works of mercy, and the patient suffering of the ills of life."
There is a good reason why the Church prescribes fasts on the vigils of great feasts, says Venerable Bellarmine, "so that Christians might be more fit for celebrating the divine solemnities." For this reason, fasting is also mandated before the reception of Holy Communion. Not only has fasting enjoyed a long-standing place of honor throughout Church history, but it is also mentioned more times in Sacred Scripture than any other penance. Additionally, fasting held such a high place in the Church, that laymen who failed to fast during Lent were excommunicated; and clerics who failed in this way incurred the degradation of their orders. It should be no surprise that many of the greatest mystics in the Church had stomach illnesses that prevented them from keeping down food (Padre Pio, Saint Jean Vianney, Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich, Saint Faustina, Blessed Alexandrina De Costa, etc.). In this way, Our Lord aided their austerity in fasting so that they could rise more quickly in sanctity. Fasting is also the only traditional penance that is angelic, since it closely imitates the life of the angels and saints in heaven, who neither eat nor require food. Regarding religious life, the Catholic Encyclopedia elaborates; "It is primarily as a means to this end that fasting takes so important a place in the monastic life. [...] Among the early...monks, fasting was carried to such lengths that some modern writers have been led to regard it almost as an end in itself". It is thus that fasting should be the preferred penance of choice in religious life, though other penances should also be encouraged. particularly those that are opposed to one's principle vices.
"It is impossible to engage in spiritual conflict, without the previous subjugation
of the appetite."
"Fasting is the support of
our soul: it gives us wings to ascend on high, and to enjoy the highest contemplation! [...] God, like an indulgent
father, offers us a cure by fasting."
"He that gratifies the taste will readily indulge the other senses; for, having lost the spirit of recollection, he
will easily commit faults, by indecent words and by unbecoming gestures. But the greatest evil of intemperance, is
that it exposes chastity to great danger. 'Repletion of the stomach,' says St. Jerome, 'is the hotbed of lust.'
"Temperance includes the two virtues of abstinence and sobriety...Abstinence also includes
fasting. These virtues take the first place in treating of
temperance; for nourishment, being necessary for the
preservation of life, is among the principal objects coveted by the appetites."
...More Fasting Quotes
"Penance without fasting
is useless and vain; by fasting [we] satisfy God."
"without mortifying the taste, it is impossible to preserve
innocence, since it was by the indulgence of his appetite that Adam fell."
"But now the necessity of habit is sweet to me, and against this sweetness must I
fight, lest I be enthralled by it. Thus I carry on a daily war by fasting, constantly bringing my body into subjection...And while health is the reason for our
eating and drinking, yet a perilous delight joins itself to them as a handmaid; and
indeed, she tries to take precedence in order that I may want to do for her sake
what I say I want to do for health’s sake....These
temptations I daily endeavor to resist and I summon thy right hand to my help and
cast my perplexities onto thee."
"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 body subject 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
“Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to others, you open God’s ear to yourself”
"pray for your enemies, and fast for those who persecute you."
Fasting in the Old Testament
The very first commandment of God was, in a sense, to fast; “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die” (Gn 2:16). Pope Benedict quotes from Saint Basil as saying; “fasting was ordained in Paradise”. (Thus we see a certain connection between fasting/indulgence and redemption/original sin. In other words, just as Adam sinned by breaking a fast, so too do we make reparation, in some small way, for the original sin when we fast). Fasting was also regularly performed by the prophets of the Old Testament as a means to gain favor with God and atone for sin. Upon a close examination of Scripture, we find many key moments in the history of Israel began with a simple formula of prayer and fasting (commentary in blue);
"Go, assemble all the Jews…and fast for me; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maidens also will fast in the same way. And thus I will go in to the king." At this moment in history, Jerusalem was on the brink of total annihilation. Yet Esther the queen was able to successfully win the king’s favor and save Jerusalem from extinction. And all this was initiated by three days of fasting.
“When I heard these words, I sat down and wept and mourned for days; and I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven” Nehemiah laments over the destruction of Jerusalem, and by his fasting and supplication, he obtains favor with God to rebuild the walls of the eternal city. This is a major turning point in the history of Jerusalem.
"So he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he did not eat bread or drink water, and he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments." One of the greatest moments in the history of Israel is preceded by a forty day fast.
“Yet even now, declares the LORD, return to Me with all your heart, and with fasting, weeping and mourning…Consecrate a fast, proclaim a solemn assembly, gather the people, sanctify the congregation…” Again we see this pattern of fasting being associated with a new beginning; a renewal of Israel.
"you shall not eat of..." The precept not to eat of something is the most common prescription of the Old Testament, and occurs more than eighty times throughout Scripture.
"and Esau said to Jacob, “Please let me have that red pottage, for I am famished.”...But Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use then is the birthright to me?”...Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew...and thus Esau sold his birthright." Esau traded his place as firstborn (and thus his life's inheritance) for a bowl of lentils! Is this not the mindset of today's society? We devote more time and thought to our next meal, than we do to the law of God.
....More Old Testament Passages
"Then the people of Nineveh believed in God; and they called a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them. [...] Do not let man, beast, herd, or flock taste a thing. Do not let them eat or drink water." God relented of His anger, and spared the city of Nineveh after it fasted and repented of its wicked ways.
"Prayer is good with fasting and alms, more than to store up treasures of gold."
“So I gave my attention to the Lord God to seek Him by prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes.” Through his fasting and supplication, Daniel received a vision in which the Archangel Gabriel revealed the end of the punishment of Israel--yet another pivotal moment.
“It came about when Ahab heard these words, that he tore his clothes and put on sackcloth and fasted, and he lay in sackcloth and went about despondently. Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite, saying, ‘Do you see how Ahab has humbled himself before Me? Because he has humbled himself before Me, I will not bring the evil in his days." After handing himself over to evil and worshipping idols, Ahab repents and gains pardon from the Lord through tears and fasting.
“They gathered to Mizpah, and drew water and poured it out before the LORD, and fasted on that day” Through prayer and fasting, the Lord delivered Israel from the threat of the Philistines, who had oppressed them for so many years.
“Then all the sons of Israel and all the people went up and came to Bethel and wept; thus they remained there before the LORD and fasted that day until evening. And they offered burnt offerings and peace offerings before the LORD.” It wasn't until Israel fasted and gave offerings when their defeats changed to victories. Weeping alone was not enough.
"Know ye that the Lord will hear your prayers, if you continue with perseverance in fastings and prayers in the sight of the Lord." Again we see that prayer must be joined with fasting in order to have greater merit in the eyes of God.
“Jehoshaphat was afraid and turned his attention to seek the LORD, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah.” Once Judah had turned to God through fasting and supplication, God defeated its enemies.
“Then I proclaimed a fast there at the river of Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God to seek from Him a safe journey for us, our little ones, and all our possessions.…So we fasted and sought our God concerning this matter, and He listened to our entreaty.” After God had abandoned Israel after many years of sin and idolatry, Ezra obtained pardon and favor from God through fasting and supplication.
Fasting in the New Testament
The New Testament is also replete with many references to fasting, including those made by Our Lord himself, who evidently intended for this tradition of the Old Law to continue into the New Covenant. This is significant because among the thousands of Old Testament customs, fasting is a rare breed to have been prescribed by Christ Himself. Saint Leo reaffirms; "Those which were figures of future things, have passed
away, what they signified being accomplished. But the utility of fasting is not done away with in the
New Testament; but it is piously observed, that fasting is always profitable both to the soul and
"But this kind [of demon] can be cast out in no other way except by prayer and fasting." Just as in the Old Testament, prayer must be joined with fasting in order to have greater efficacy before God.
"Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. "But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you."
"Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness...And after He had fasted forty days and forty nights..."
Pope Benedict comments on this saying; "Like Moses, who fasted before receiving the tablets of the Law (cf. Ex 34,28) and Elijah’s fast before meeting the Lord on Mount Horeb (cf. 1 Kings 19,n8), Jesus, too, through prayer and fasting, prepared Himself for the mission that lay before Him, marked at the start by a serious battle with the tempter."
"Then the disciples of John came to Him, asking, 'Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but Your disciples do not fast?' And Jesus said to them, 'The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast." Here, Our Lord virtually mandates fasting for us until the Bridegroom comes again.
...More New Testament Passages
"She never left the temple, serving night and day with fastings and prayers. At that very moment she came up and began giving thanks to God, and continued to speak of Him to all those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem." We again see this powerful combination of prayer and fasting, which obtained for Anna the singular privilege of recognizing the Messiah in the child.
"they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: Whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things." Here gluttony is being directly linked as an enemy of Christ.
"While they were ministering to the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, 'Set apart for Me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.' Then, when they had fasted and prayed and laid their hands on them, they sent them away."
"When they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed."
How should I fast? What is the best fast?
Thoughout Church history, we can find a golden thread of common fasting practices, the most prominent of which is a bread and water fast on Wednesday and Friday--a practice which even dates back to the times of the early Church and early monasticism. Such fasting may seem extreme to us today, who are used to having full bellies every day. But prior to the 20th century, this form of fasting was not uncommon in Church practice. And in fact, some eastern churches have continued the Wednesday and Friday fast even today.
Ultimately, we need to know ourselves, and implement only what can be sustained for life, lest we get discouraged and give up the way of aestheticism altogether. For this reason, it is usually best to "ease" in to fasting by degrees.
: "But let not your fasts be with the hypocrites; for they fast on the second and fifth day of the week; but fast on the fourth day (Wednesday) and the Preparation (Friday)."
: "But He commanded us to fast on the fourth and sixth days of the week (Wednesday and Friday); the former on account of His being betrayed, and the latter on account of His passion."
: “Let no one fault us that we fast on Wednesday and Friday, according to a custom rightly commanded by tradition: on Wednesday because of the trial of the Jews for the betrayal of the Lord; and on Friday for all that He suffered for us.” - Archimandrite Akakios, Fasting in the Orthodox Church, Original source: St. Nicodemos the Hagiorite, Pedalion: Apanies Hoi Hieroi kai Theoi Kanones [The rudder: all of the sacred and divine canons].
: "On three days a week, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, there will be a strict fast [on bread and water]...During the two great fasts, ember days and vigils, the food will consists of a piece of bread and some water, once a day." Saint Faustina outlined a detailed prescription for fasting for the new community she founded. The saint often asked permission from her superiors to fast on bread and water.
: "Fast strictly on Wednesdays and Fridays." ... "The best fast is on bread and water. Through fasting and prayer one can stop wars, one can suspend the natural laws of nature. Works of charity cannot replace fasting... Everyone except the sick, has to fast..." (1984) Though not yet approved, we include this quote in our study for those who are interested in further investigation.
: "Religious may, without the danger of vain glory, occasionally perform very rigorous mortifications. For
example, by living on bread and water on days of devotion, on Fridays and Saturdays, on the vigils of the Blessed
Virgin, and on similar occasions; for such fasts are ordinarily practiced by fervent religious."
: "Our Lord asks me to mortify myself in all things. Not only by not gratifying my taste, but even in eating; that I eat a little of everything."
: "The early Christians selected Wednesday, Friday and Saturday as days of abstinence. [...] The ancient monks, as St. Jerome relates, thought
it a great defect to make use of food dressed with fire. Their daily sustenance consisted of a pound of bread. St
Aloysius, though always sickly, fasted three times in the week on bread and water. St. Francis Xavier during his
missions was satisfied each day with a few grains of toasted rice. St. John Francis Regis, in the great fatigues of his
missions took no other food than a little flour steeped in water. The daily support of St. Peter of Alcantara was but
a small quantity of broth. We read in the life of the Venerable Brother John Joseph of the Cross, who lived in our
own days, and with whom I was intimately acquainted, that for twenty-four years he fasted very often on bread and
water, and never ate anything but bread and a little herbs or fruit. When commanded, on account of his infirmities,
to use warm food, he took only bread dipped in broth. When the physician ordered him to take a little wine, he
mixed it with his broth to increase the insipidity of his scanty repast. ... I do not mean to say, that to attain sanctity it is necessary for nuns to imitate these examples; but I assert that
whoever is attached to the pleasures of the table, or does not seriously attend to the mortification of the appetite,
will never make any considerable progress in perfection. In religious communities there are generally several meals
in the day: hence, they who neglect the mortification of the taste will daily commit a thousand faults."
How do I know my limits?
The saints remind us that we should never practice penances beyond our ability to fulfill our duties in life. Many saints in fact regretted punishing their bodies in their youth with severe fasts (Saint John Vianney, Ignatius of Loyola, etc), leaving them with health problems later in life. Yet at the same time, they also remind us that the more the body is given, the more it demands (Those of us in developed countries especially; since we tend to pamper our bodies). As Saint Teresa of Avila said; "Our human nature often asks for more than what it needs, and sometimes the devil helps so as to cause fear about the practice of penance and fasting...My health has been much better
since I have ceased to look after my ease and comforts."
If we consider the ordinary fare of the Apostles likely consisted at most of stale bread, fish, goats milk, vegetables, olives, and cheese, then we should be ashamed at what we in American today consider "necessary". Indeed, the human body is more resilient than most may realize. It is commonly accepted that a person can live without food (water only) for about forty days. We also know that many seculars who fast for its health benefits alone, commonly perform water-only fasts for three, ten, twenty, and sometimes even forty days (albeit under supervision). We mention this because there are some who tend to get nervous about fasting on bread and water for one or two days per week. We would argue that this fear is unwarranted. Most people should be able to easily fast on bread and water for one day (assuming they are healthy), and still perform their necessary duties. Fasting should not cause us to fear for our health, but instead should be done with great joy, since it is by fasting that we erect a spiritual fortress around our homes and merit the grace of conversion for numerous souls. Those who drag their feet into fasting however, may feel lethargic and burdened. But for the generous heart, fasting is often a bliss, producing the best days of prayer and clarity.
However, as a general rule, such fasting should only be done when one is healthy. Saint Alphonsus elaborates; "If bodily weakness renders us unable to practice corporal austerities, let us at least...embrace with joy the infirmities with which Almighty God visits us. If borne with patience, they will conduct us to
perfection better than voluntary works of penance." As a final point, it is also important to remember that the point of fasting is not to destroy the body, but rather to subdue it by not satisfying its every whim, keeping it in continual restraint so as to free the spirit. Leaving the belly a only partially satiated is, for example, a penance of tremendous merit. As Saint Augustine and Saint Jerome say, it is a lesser act of the will to avoid food altogether, than to stop eating a food after it has been tasted.
"Oh! how often is bodily
weakness made the pretext for unnecessary indulgence."
"If, on account of bodily
infirmity, or through want of fervor you do not practice rigid fasts, you should at least not complain of the common
fare; and should be content with whatever is brought to table. St. Thomas never asked for particular food, but was
always satisfied with what was placed before him, and ate of it with great moderation. Of St. Ignatius we read that
he never refused any dish, and never complained that the food was not well dressed or well seasoned. It is the duty
of the Superior to provide the community with wholesome food, but a religious should never complain when what
is laid before her is rare or overdone; when it is scanty, smoked, insipid, or too highly seasoned with salt."
Avoiding excess on non-fast days
This is a very important point, as Saint Alphonsus reminds us; "Some religious fast one day, and eat to excess on the next. St. Jerome says that it is
better to take always a reasonable quantity of food than to fast sometimes, and afterwards to commit excess". This is especially poignant for us today, who are given over to excess more than ever. Saint Alphonsus continues; "This is the best and most difficult sort of mortification; for it is easier to abstain altogether from certain meats than,
after having tasted them, to eat but little. He who desires to practice moderation in eating would do well to diminish
his meals gradually till, by experience, he ascertains the quantity of food necessary to support the body." In fact, if the purpose of fasting is to help subdue the passions of the flesh, then over-indulgence on non-fast days may render fruitless any merit the person may have made. This is not to say that one cannot enjoy a good meal at times. But rather, that the enjoyment should always be subordinated and put in its proper order, that is; only enjoyed to the extent that God created it for our nourishment.
No meal should go unmortified
The saints remind us that each meal presents many opportunities for mortification, regardless of whether one is fasting or not. Simple things like avoiding dessert, not adding condiments, avoiding salt, not eating to satiety, and the like, can be mortifications of great merit. As Saint Alphonsus said above; "In religious communities there are generally several meals
in the day: hence, they who neglect the mortification of the taste will daily commit a thousand faults." Restraint at table is often the first line of defense for a community against the spirit of the world. In fact, if a community does not practice restraint, and indulges its appetite to satiety, then it will eventually find itself drag down by the weight of the flesh, ceding the body's ever-increasing demands. Such a life, says Saint Teresa of Avila, is most regrettable; for they will be left with nothing but dryness, lethargy, and disquiet, convinced that it is a trial sent on high, when it is only due to their own lack of self restraint. In today's society, this occurs more than one might realize. This is another good reason why it is necessary to choose the right community, for young religious will eventually submit, out of a spirit of obedience, to the habits of the community (whether good or bad).
"It is not the uncleanness of meat that I fear, but the uncleanness of an
incontinent appetite. I know that permission was granted Noah to eat every kind of
flesh that was good for food; that Elijah was fed with flesh; that John, blessed with
a wonderful abstinence, was not polluted by the living creatures (that is, the
locusts) on which he fed. But I also know that Esau was deceived by his hungering
after lentils and that David blamed himself for desiring water, and that our King
was tempted not by flesh but by bread. And, thus, the people in the wilderness truly
deserved their reproof, not because they desired meat, but because in their desire
for food they murmured against the Lord. Set down, then, in the midst of these temptations, I strive daily against my appetite for food and drink. For it is not the kind of appetite I am able to deal
with by cutting it off once for all, and thereafter not touching it, as I was able to do
with fornication. The bridle of the throat, therefore, must be held in the mean
between slackness and tightness. And who, O Lord, is he who is not in some degree
carried away beyond the bounds of necessity? Whoever he is, he is great; let him
magnify thy name. But I am not such a one, “for I am a sinful man.”Yet I too
magnify thy name, for he who hath “overcome the world” intercedeth with thee
for my sins, numbering me among the weak members of his body; for thy eyes did
see what was imperfect in him, and in thy book all shall be written down."
Fasting Should Be Hidden
The saints would often go out of their way to avoid letting others know they were fasting, so that their sacrifice may gain greater merit, and to avoid occasions of vainglory. They remind us that the sacrifices most pleasing to God, are those that are hidden from the eyes of men. For this reason, it is unadvisable for a religious to fast at table if none of his other companions are fasting--for such singularity would occasion a temptation to pride and unrest, which could render fruitless any merit he could have gained. Alternatively, the religious can always ask permission from his superior to be assigned a duty during meal time, which would allow him to fast in secret, without his companions knowing. For this very reason, the superior at Saint Faustina's convent assigned her to portress during meal time.
"According to Cassian, the duty of all...that live in Community, is to avoid, as a source of much vain glory, whatever is not conformable
to the common usages of the monastery. 'Where,' says St. Philip Neri, 'there is a common table, all should eat of
what is served up'. Hence he frequently exhorted his disciples to 'avoid all singularity as the origin of spiritual
pride. A courageous religious finds opportunities of practicing mortification without allowing it to appear to others."
Fasting Without Love is Misery
As the saints remind us, it is easy for beginners to gravitate to corporal penances such as fasting, but without possessing a truly mortified spirit of detachment from self-love. As a result, fasting may be difficult in the beginning; for it will be without merit or consolation. As Saint Alphonsus tells us; "External works are of no value before God, unless they proceed from the heart." Indeed, fasting can be a most precious gift to God, but it must proceed with a humble heart. Just as the prophets of the Old Covenant humbled themselves before God when they fasted, and implored mercy on behalf of Israel, so too should we, when we fast, remember how we have failed God and implore His mercy on behalf of mankind. By doing so, we in a sense continue the work of the prophets of old. To be a saint, indeed requires a deep desire for the salvation of men, which demands a life of virtue. As Pope Benedict reminds us, true fasting not only consists in externals, but an inward fasting of the heart as well, that is; the true dying of the self; of pride, spiritual gluttony, and all forms of self-will, thus freeing the soul to joyfully seek to please God and carry out His will with love. For such people, fasting is freedom of spirit, joy, peace, and consolation. For beginners--for those who tend to glory more in the work--it is a misery and a burden.
: True fasting, as the divine Master repeats elsewhere, is rather to do the will of the Heavenly Father, who “sees in secret, and will reward you” (Mt 6,18). He Himself sets the example, answering Satan, at the end of the forty days spent in the desert that “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Mt 4,4). The true fast is thus directed to eating the “true food,” which is to do the Father’s will (cf. Jn 4,34)
Food Addiction and Religious Life
The Catholic worldview concerns itself with the whole person; both body and soul. Thus, it may be worth speaking briefly on a problem that is prevalent in America today, one that is now spreading to other countries as well. It is the problem of our understanding of medicine, and in particular nutrition.
As a civilization digresses in virtue, so too does its understanding of science. We say this with certainty, because as Saint Thomas Aquinas reminds us, a consequence of sin is a deadening of the intellect. In other words, sin further divorces people from reality, i.e., it makes people insane (this is what insanity is, to be out of touch with reality). But sin takes it one step further. It completely reverses truth on itself: What was once good becomes bad, and what was once bad becomes good.
The same can be said of our understanding of food. America was built on a hearty diet of saturated fats. Now saturated fats are the enemy. America grew up on farmland where meat, eggs, and diary were standard fare. Now meat, eggs, and diary are suspect. Salt was used in abundance for food preservation. Now salt is bad for you. Sugar was very rare and used in only small quantities. Now sugar is in everything. Are these changes necessarily good?
After all, before these changes we remained relatively healthy, no cancer, no heart disease, no diabetes, no allergies, no high blood pressure, no obesity, no hypertension. These ailments simply didn't exist. But now they are the number one killer of Americans. Also unknown was the host of psychological disorders we now have today, including bi-polar, ADD, anxiety, depression, lethargy, and autism. None of these existed either. Now our medical industry hands out meds like candy; it is the solution to everything today. But popping a pill only masks the issue. It doesn't fix the underlying root cause.
I think it is important that we understand this, so that religious communities can be vigilant even in health matters. Food today is not what it used to be just 70 years ago. It is highly processed, sterilized, and contains three times as much sugar as it did in the 1940's. This combination, we believe, has led to the catastrophic health and psychological consequences we mentioned above. Why? Because what we put into our mouths determines our health more than anything else on earth, including our environment.
Prior to the second world war, most food was farm-based; raw dairy, vegetables, grains and meats; these were the staples of the American diet. In fact, these were the staples of most cultures throughout history. Food preservation was done through salt and fermentation, rather than refrigeration. And this fermentation generated beneficial bacteria, which our bodies depend upon for health.
All this change with the advent of processed food in the 1940's. Plot a graph of these diseases over time, and you will see it correlate almost exactly. Eventually, food became more a product of engineering in a laboratory, to smell a certain way, taste a certain way, have a certain texture. Food began to resemble less of its original form--in the form God made it--thus causing difficulty for the body to recognie it and break it down. Americans also seemed to grow more fearful of bacteria (not realizing that 80% of our immune system is precisely bacteria in our intestines), and food became increasingly sterilized, further contributing to illness and disease (Did the ancient phiosopher Hippocrates have it right when he said "All disease begins in the gut?").
No doubt sugar today has compounded this problem. According to the USDA and the World Health Organization, a person should not consume more than about 45 grams of sugar per day (about 10 teaspoons), which is equivalent to about one 12oz. can of coke. Yet Americans consume, on average, about 175 grams of sugar per day (about 40 teaspoons), which is unprecedented in history. Americans today are eating about 600 more calories per day than in 1970, with a >1000% increase in HFCS consumption. The average weight of an American today is about twenty-five pounds heavier than just twenty-five years ago. Clearly, we are eating more than we need today (though being even less nourished), which suggests we have developed a dependency or addiction to food.
The reason why we mention all this, is because it is necessary to realize that Americans today are facing an unprecedented battle with their flesh. Food is more addictive now than ever, with millions of dollars spent precisely on making it so. And as we become more attached to food, our society has fallen into a spiritual torpor and heaviness, which has reached into religious life as well. Indeed, the walls of the enclosure are not impervious to food. In fact, food is the one element of the world that freely enters the enclosure unmonitored. A cloister may be completely sealed from the world in every facet of life, except when it comes to the food they eat (especially mendicant orders, which depend on the donations of benefactors). If we think with the mind of our common adversary, what better way to infiltrate a heavily armed fortress than through its food supply? But since this is a battle of the spirit rather than the flesh, the tactic is not physical starvation by the blockage of food, but rather, spiritual starvation by its excess through gluttony. It is thus that religious communities need to be all the more discriminating with what is served at table, so as to minimize the temptation for self-indulgence, which as we know brings nothing but dissipation and misery;
: "I don't know what to do with regard to mortifications, since the priest told me I shouldn't do any, but I have such an unusual craving to eat caramels. Today I had such hunger that I ate all those I could and the ones that tasted best. It pains me to see that this is the way I am. Truly I don't know what to do. I'll consult with Mother Izquierdo about this. Today I was very dissipated. What should I do with such misery? My Jesus, my Mother, have pity on me. Deliver me from my tepidity. I'm sick in my soul. I don't know what is happening to me. [...] Tomorrow, I'm going to be better. This week I'll mortify myself more."
Health Benefits of Fasting
This is all the more reason why religious orders need to return to the venerable practice of regular fasting, which not only has been the standard par excellence in acetic discipline throughout history, but also provides health benefits as well. Medical reports suggest that regular fasting allows the digestive tract a chance to rest, relieving the body's energy expenditure to be devoted to other functions, such as fighting off latent bodily ailments. (It is believed that this is precisely the reason why a sick person naturally loses his appetite). Fasting can also help increase one's energy level (fatigue while fasting is more commonly a symptom of blood sugar imbalance, due to a developed dependency on processed sugars). It has been suggested (though medical reports on this topic are scant) that strict fasting also allows the body to "detoxify" from certain toxins that lay dormant in fat cells, and gives the body a chance to return to its normal functioning state. Fasting combined with a restrained diet will also help produce a more stable mood, avoiding the peaks and lows common to the standard american diet.
Davide A. Bianchini, Contact