As Catholics have fallen off the wagon at eating healthier and exercising in the New Year, come February there’s another opportunity to get back on track — Lent.
However, fasting is about more than giving up Snickers or skipping the steak. If that’s all it is, it’s missed the spiritual point completely.
It’s an opportunity to empty ourselves to be filled with God, to connect with the poor and remind us that everything good comes from God, said Msgr. Scott Friend, Diocese of Little Rock vocations director and a certified spiritual director. That can mean fasting from food or the 24-hour news cycle.
“Ultimately to grow closer to the Lord,” is the point of fasting, Msgr. Friend said. “That’s what makes it a spiritual experience and not just doing a diet because you want to lose weight. You want to be closer to the Lord so you’re denying yourself something.”
According to the 2009 book “Fasting” by theologian Scot McKnight, it is a natural practice found in many of the great world religions and philosophies. McKnight explains that the need to fast is a response to a grievous, sacred moment, which can mean “death, sin, fear, threats, needs and sickness,” allowing fasting to bring clarity and bring about “life, forgiveness, safety, hope, answers and help.”
It’s a practice meant to reconnect the body with the soul and spirit, more in tune with the creator.
In Catholic tradition, the law of fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday includes eating one full meal and two smaller meals and abstinence from eating meat. Those 18 to 59 are obliged to fast those two days during Lent.
Abstaining from meat also begins on Fridays for those 14 or older. According to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, those with chronic illness, like diabetes, or those with physical and mental illnesses, or pregnant and nursing women, can be excluded from fasting if health is put in jeopardy.
The idea of fasting is common throughout the Bible, with Catholics most prominently recalling Jesus’ fast in the desert for 40 days, tempted by the devil. A 2002 article in America magazine points to Joseph F. Wimmer’s book “Fasting in the New Testament: A Study in Biblical Theology,” where he explains that we grasp, through fasting, “the sublimity of his answer to the devil: ‘It is written, one shall not live by bread alone.’”
“In the midst of hunger, fear and deprivation of fasting, a new horizon appears. We become aware that things of the spirit are superior, that we must not limit our concerns only to the cares of this world … We gradually realize what it means to live by every word that comes from the mouth of God,” Wimmer wrote.
In whatever a person fasts from, there must be a way to connect it to a spiritual, interior movement of heart, drawing closer to the Lord. It is a way of repenting from sin, but pangs of hunger can also remind us of yearning for God, Msgr. Friend said.
“Fasting also helps us to remember the poor because typically we don’t often think about the people who go hungry every night, people who are starving in places. It helps to remind us to pay attention to what we need to do to help the poor. Be able to understand a little bit about the pain they feel,” he said.
It is important to be self-aware when fasting and to have a conscious intent and desire to fast, rather than just following the tradition blindly, but having a desire to die to self.
“When you think about denying yourself, what do you desire from God? Obviously to be filled. The hunger reminds us of the deepest part of our being, our soul, our hunger for God,” Msgr. Friend said.
Deacon Tim Costello, diocesan minister to deacons and director of St. John Center, said when deciding what to fast from, it’s important to consider what someone is holding onto the most and let it go.
“God always makes the first move, so if you just happen to think, ‘What do I have to give up for Lent,’ if it’s Facebook, the computer or TV, God’s probably already put that on your heart,” Costello said. “Giving that up, the blessings that you’ll see from it is far beyond your imagination because God always blesses us beyond our imagination. We just have a difficult time seeing it from time to time because of all those distractions that we have.”
It’s important to understand, however, that if a fast is started and we fail, keep going.
“Christianity is a practice you learn by doing it … Because it’s practice, practice makes perfect. If something happens you can do it again,” Msgr. Friend said. “Rather than getting all self-absorbed because I didn’t do this or that, the intention is still on myself. You want to put the intention on God.”
As a child, Susej Thompson grew up watching her mother fast throughout her life. Seeing firsthand the spiritual benefits, she fasts regularly, beginning to consciously fast after taking a Daniel Fast, based on the Old Testament prophet, about 10 years ago. Cutting her diet to fruits and veggies, she admits “I failed after a week, so I did an additional week. It made a huge difference in my life.”
Thompson, pastoral music director at Our Lady of the Holy Souls Church in Little Rock, has fasted from meat the past year and a half.
“I think you just have clarity. I don’t think it’s magic. It’s a better perspective,” she said of fasting. “It is really humbling if you can get through the breaking point, it’s very transformational.”
Thompson has fasted from talking, with three days of silence, complaining, secular music and even from mourning, giving herself a break from the grief and stress after her husband died in 2013. It comes down to fasting from whatever takes her focus off God.
“I just try to connect it with what Jesus did. Allowing myself to rest. There’s times he fasted, rested, times he could have said something but he didn’t. Times he had to give up things, give up people,” she said.
Thompson said she looks to Isaiah 58 that discusses authentic blessings from fasting, most prominently verses 8 and 9.
“I think the process of fasting is very physically detoxing, but sometimes I need to detoxify my thoughts and actions,” she said.
There are a variety of structured fasts to choose from, including those done as a group. Exodus 90 for Men is a 90-day fast, focusing on the pillars for prayer, asceticism and fraternity. Men, with a group, commit to a daily holy hour, reading the Scriptures and meeting weekly as a group and daily with their “anchor” or support buddy within their fasting group. For self-denial, the list is long, including taking short, cold showers, regular exercise, getting a full night’s sleep and abstaining from a variety of things, including alcohol, desserts, the computer — aside from work, school or essential tasks — television, movies and sports.
Costello and three other fellow parishioners from Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in North Little Rock (Marche) jumped right into the holy fire, beginning the fast Jan. 13, the day of the NCAA Football Championship.
It has produced spiritual benefits in unexpected places.
“Before, I hardly ever slept the whole night. So I would get up in the middle of the night, and you know God was calling me. He was saying, ‘Hey, this is a good time to read Scripture, there’s nothing to bother you nothing to distract you.’ And, of course, I’d go on and turn on the TV. Watch it for an hour or two and go back to sleep, but I was never well rested,” he said.
Now, he prays his holy hour in the middle of the night. “It was amazing because once I did that holy hour I just fell right back asleep.”
Hannah Philpot, 28, a parishioner of St. Joseph Church in Tontitown, and six other young adult women from northwest Arkansas are fasting with Fiat 90, the women’s version of Exodus 90 that includes prayer, fasting and fellowship, formatted for the feminine heart.
As a former FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) missionary, Philpot has fasted as a team before, eating and drinking just bread and water all of Holy Week one year.
“At first, I said no because it sounded hard and I like food and I was so surprised by the end because we were so happy and joyful,” she said, adding it was her happiest Easter. “Fasting isn’t all gloom and doom. It does make you free and joyful. Allow yourself to be free from what distracts you and think that’s filling you up. So you can be aware of your own hunger for God.”
They began the fast on Ash Wednesday, tailoring it to about 45 days. Some of the fasting includes no desserts, alcohol, gossiping or complaining, and waking up to the first alarm in the morning.
As a group, they discuss their struggles with chastity, sobriety, not putting forth the energy at school or work and will work to hold each other accountable.
“Nobody gets to the end of 40 days, ‘now I’m a perfect saint,’” she said, adding that the horrible cycle of self-reliance and self-condemnation during a fast can break someone down in a non-healthy way. “I think if you can find a friend in it, instead of going at it alone, that friend will teach you mercy. Having someone else in there can teach you to have mercy when you fall.”
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