Fasting in the Wilderness
How’s your wilderness journey going? I’m struggling a bit, to be honest. I recently listened to a series of lectures on Celtic Christianity by Peter Brown, Rollins Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University. In one of the lectures he was talking about the early Irish monastics and the strong spiritual connection they felt with the Desert Monastics, when he said, “But of course, it is when one TRIES to dedicate one’s whole self to Christ that one becomes aware of how little of that self wishes to follow.” I know this is true from my own experience, and I suspect it’s probably true of most people. It’s amazing how something always comes up to distract from prayer, works of mercy, and fasting.
Being in the wilderness often means doing without. Resources are scarce, and we need to ensure that what we do have will last us until we can find more. Here’s where the fasting comes in. Speaking of fasting, it’s Friday of the First Week of Lent. If you’re Catholic, you know what that means. Fish fry! Seriously though, Catholics are asked to refrain from eating meat from warm-blooded animals as a gesture of solidarity with the poor and also as a way of entering into Jesu’s passion and death. For an interesting take on the origins of the Friday “fish fast,” check out this story from NPR.
Givin’ it up for Lent
We tend to think of fasting in terms of not eating and, while that is the most common expression of fasting, we abstain in other ways as well. Many people give up something they enjoy for Lent: a favorite food or beverage, alcohol, TV, or social media. Liturgically, we fast from using the word “alleluia” and many churches are going back to the practice of not using the organ (or other instruments) during Lent. I personally like the idea of giving up an item or an activity and using the money or time I would spend on that for prayer and almsgiving.
Pope Francis on Fasting
There’s a meme of Pope Francis making the rounds on social media, where he encourages a form of fasting of a spiritual, moral, and ethical nature. It reads,
Do you want to fast this Lent?
- Fast from hurting words and say kind words.
- Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude.
- Fast from anger and be filled with patience.
- Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope.
- Fast from worries and have trust in God.
- Fast from complaints; contemplate sincerity.
- Fast from pressures and be prayerful.
- Fast from bitterness; fill your hearts with joy.
- Fast from selfishness and be compassionate.
- Fast from grudges and be reconciled.
- Fast from words; be silent and listen.
These are practices we should engage all the time, not just during Lent. And for those of us with health issues that prevent us from fasting or abstaining from certain foods, this a great way for us to practice fasting. Indeed, I have found that the more I engage in prayer, the more I am aware of these things I need to fast from. Being more engaged in prayer also makes it a little easier to rein in the negative thoughts and focus on the positive alternatives.
Abstaining in a Culture of Instant Gratification
Abstinence and fasting are not easily done in a culture that worships the acquisition of material wealth, a culture, moreover, that bases a person’s worth on their ability to accumulate wealth. Our entitled culture of instant gratification looks suspiciously on the idea that someone would choose to do without stuff. We all saw what happened in 2020 when people were asked to observe basic public health practices, such as staying home if sick and wearing a mask in public places. Even now, ongoing supply chain issues keep us from getting everything we want. You would think the world is ending from people’s reactions. For all our talk, we are not a culture that embraces sacrifice.
Fasting is indeed a discipline, one that I’m often not that good at following, especially when it comes to food. I do have some very serious health issues that prevent me from engaging the fasting and abstinence practices the Church encourages us to follow but sometimes I use that as a crutch.
Questions for Reflection
How do you engage fasting during Lent and during the rest of the year? How does the practice of Lenten abstinence affect the other practices of prayer and almsgiving? Can individual fasting and abstinence be a sacrifice for the greater good of humanity?
Hopefully, these are ideas we can carry forward after we come out of the wilderness.
Continued blessings on your journey.