Column: Catching Air
The Eleventh Annual Napa Catholic Conference included a practical but very profound talk on the subject of fasting by Jay W. Richards, Ph.D., O.P., of The Busch School of Business at Catholic University of America.
The Bible is full of references to fasting, especially at critical times during a person’s life, especially necessary along with prayer and penance during these difficult times in our country and Church.
True confession… I have to admit that I’ve never really taken fasting as seriously as I should.
The one-hour fast before Communion doesn’t impact my life very much when I can finish breakfast just a few minutes before leaving for Mass, drive to church and hit the Communion rail just a little after the hour passes.
On Good Friday, two small meals and one regular meal with no meat can easily turn into breakfast and lunch (small meals) followed by a rather sumptuous salmon dinner.
Dr. Richards’ talk convicted me.
He pointed out that most of the Church’s fasting tradition has fallen away in recent times, with most Western Catholics now observing what he called just “residual fasts.” In other words, we do just the bare minimum fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday purely out of habit without a real sense of why we are doing it or any connection with prayer.
We (I) need to take God seriously…
There are references to fasting in the Old Testament and we know it was a part of Jewish tradition.
Old Testament writings, including the prophets, speak of fasting associated with grieving, repentance, or intense prayer for a particular cause. The Book of Tobit records the teaching of an angel saying that “Prayer is good when accompanied by fasting, almsgiving, and righteousness.”
For many centuries, fasting has been a basic part of the Christian life… prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Jesus, of course, fasted for forty days and forty nights before he began His public ministry.
Jesus seemed to take it for granted that his disciples would do some fasting, telling them “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do…”
After one of Jesus’ miracles casting out a demon, when the apostles asked him why they were unable to do it themselves, he said “This kind can go out by nothing but by prayer and fasting.”
According to Dr. Richards, for most of Christian history, Catholics kept a rigorous fasting schedule that included two fasts per week; three days of fasting during the Ember Days four times a year; and long fasting seasons of Advent and Lent.
Secular, scientific confirmation that God knows what He’s doing
In recent years, there has been increasing scientific evidence that fasting has countless benefits to our physical health as well as our spiritual health.
Funny how that happens. We keep finding out that God actually knows what he’s doing, even on a worldly level.
For example, studies show that Catholic moral principles like temperance and marital fidelity are both physically and psychologically healthy.
We hear from modern psychology and medical studies that regular prayer reduces stress and has other health benefits even aside from its obvious central place in our Catholic spiritual life.
Fasting is an exercise of some discipline over our bodies, making a small sacrifice in conjunction with a prayer intention. It is a very particular act of self-denial, laying down one’s body in just a small way out of love for God or another person.
How do we get started?
Unfortunately, many of us are not even quite sure how to fast anymore with all the talk these days about healthy eating, dieting and good nutrition.
As with a lot of things worth doing, the first step is to just start doing it and work out details as we go along. The point is not self-torture or to injure our health and we should make sure to drink enough water on a fast day.
There are many ways to start fasting but one practical suggestion for men is to fast on the first Wednesday of each month for their wife as a way to imitate Jesus’ love for His Church. The e5 movement is named after Ephesians Chapter 5:25 where it says “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself for her.”
The monthly fast consists of plain bread and water for at least one 24-hour period.
The e5men.org website allows men to register for a monthly email reminder. Unmarried men and women are invited to participate as well.
Of course, the e5 movement is just one way to get started with fasting and there are many others. The point is to start taking more seriously God’s call to fast on some regular basis combined with prayer.
David G. Bjornstrom is a retired Santa Rosa, CA-based attorney at law with 38 years specializing in business, estate and tax law. He may be reached... MORE »