Lent: Fasting, Abstinence, and Prayer

Our tradition of fasting, abstinence and prayer for a definite season goes back to the example of Our Lord Himself, who fasted for forty days in the wilderness. He prophesied that when He was taken away from us, we would fast (Luke 5:35). Those days have come, but He has left us this holy tradition by which we can imitate, even in a small way, His example.
Fasting is restricting our intake of food and drink, either completely or in part. But it does not stand alone from prayer, the search for holiness, and leading a good life. Rather, it gives more meaning, more power to these.
Abstinence, for us, is refraining from eating meat and dairy, that is, exercising will- power to decide what I will and will not eat.
We fast to do penance for our sins, to acquire will-power (to do what is good and avoid what is evil), to link or thoughts and emotions to a good and virtuous life, to make our religion a part of our every-day life, and to help us see ourselves and how attached we are to our bellies, and to certain types of food. The purpose of fasting is to grow in holiness.
Whenever we fast, we should remember that we seek holiness. Then, whether we are feeling hungry, desiring food or a drink which we cannot have, preparing our food, or even just thinking about our fast, we should make an intentional connection with the fast.
If we use the fast, and everything which follows from it, to remind us that we fast in order to seek holiness, then we shall grow in holiness, because food and drink are so fundamental to our lives that we will have endless reminders.

Fasting helps us come to holiness because it is a form of penance, and it develops strength of will and self-understanding. But holiness never comes automatically. We need a complete Christian discipline for life; and fasting is an important part of that. Fasting can have no supernatural results unless it is undertaken in a spirit of prayer. It is often found by those who pray and fast, that God works small miracles for them. The person who fasts diligently and conscientiously can exercise an unprecedented control over his carnal appetites and desires. It is also essential that we fast for ourselves alone, and not compare ourselves with others who are not fasting. The great temptation of those who fast is pride.

Fasting is a powerful means of mortification (i.e. disciplining our body for our sins). When one fasts and prays, one feels in one’s very body that one has struggled to make sincere atonement. When people feel that they have not done enough penance for a sin, let them fast 24, 36 or 48 hours, and they will know that they have performed their penance.
Second, fasting strengthens the will. Our Lord said that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak (Matt. 26:41). Fasting helps the spirit to exercise its will over the flesh. It helps if the decision to fast is made a day or two before the fast commences.
Third, fasting facilitates self- examination, because under the influence of the fast we see ourselves quite differently. Our sense of ourselves is related to feeling our ordinary selves, to eating and drinking like our ordinary selves. Changing our intake of food and drink immediately upsets the established patterns of our reactions: we are no longer our ordinary selves. We acquire new perceptions and feelings through the unaccustomed impressions of depriving ourselves of food and flavoured drink.
Being prepared to discipline ourselves, we are often able to make better confessions.

Fasting can bring a welcome sense of freedom, not only physically, but in the feeling and the mind, too. Our appetites enslave us more than we know, and being able to do without food helps us break this slavery. We often find, when we fast, that we don’t need as much food as we thought we did.
What we really crave is often not so much the food as the experience of satisfying our desire. Being a little hungry is not as bad as we might imagine: but the anticipation of eating something delightful can make fasting seem intolerable. Fasting shows us what a large part eating and even drooling over the prospect of eating play in our lives. When consumption is put into its proper place, there is more room in our minds and hearts for the spiritual life.
It should also be noted that the traditional understanding of the Church is that fasting from meat and dairy products is of help in overcoming the lust of the flesh. Further, substantial health benefits accrue from fasting, as long as one does not binge afterwards. Looking after our health is good and legitimate, after all, our body is the Temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19).
St Maximos the Confessor tells us that: “Food was created for nourishment and healing. Those who eat food for purposes other than these two are therefore to be condemned as self- indulgent, because they misuse the gifts God has given us for our use. In all things, misuse is a sin.” This is worth pondering, especially today as modern culture has tried to sensualise food and eating, and has, to a significant extent, succeeded for many people.
If food is fresh, nourishing and natural, then it will be satisfying to the taste as well. In fact, part of God’s providence.
The law of abstinence bind all Catholics from the age of seven to 59, and the laws of fasting from the age of fourteen to 59. But judgment is needed, and if you are older, you can always keep those rules.

This was written by a Maronite priest. Of your mercy, please pray for those souls in Purgatory who have no one else to pray for them, and also pray for that priest.