Friday, February 12, 2016

I hate Fasting

I hate fasting! I get grumpy, I always feel cold consequently I feel ill, I get headaches and find it difficult to concentrate and consequently I get easily distracted in and from prayer, I crave food (it is psychological, of course but I am sure it gives Satan a chuckle of delight). Normally I can go a couple of days and then remember I haven't eaten but when I fast I am  hungry all the time. Far from aiding prayer, I find it a distraction - yes. alright maybe I am not fasting enough, and need to get over the foothills before ascending the mountain.
Saint Thomas Aquinas sums up the Biblical and Patristic tradition and says,  "For we fast for three purposes: 
(1) to restrain the desires of the flesh; 
(2) to raise the mind to contemplate sublime things; 
(3) to make satisfaction for our sins."
Well..., again maybe I have never done enough of it. Growing older might well restrain the desires of the flesh but fasting didn't really help, it was a bit like trying not to thinking of Tuesday, it only made Tuesday more obvious and desirable. As for raising the mind to the sublime, it tends to raise my mind to bacon. As for making satisfaction for sin, I can go along with that, except it doesn't feel as though I have made much satisfaction and I end up sinning, at least against charity even more, I think it adds to sloth and then ultimately to gluttony too.

In the West fasting, even the Eucharistic fast has all but disappeared, if you reduce something to a minimum it tends to be a sign of not being important, then of being ignored. Of course Canon Law does present the one hour (quarter of an hour for those over 60) as being the minimum. There is no reason why the pious and virtuous should not fast and abstain from liquids from midnight or even for a few days before receiving Holy Communion.

Fasting for me is an encounter with my own weakness, with my own fragility. This is really what most forms of Christian asceticism are about. They are concerned with embracing weakness, of actually reducing potency, at least in this world, of accepting the real world where Jesus Christ alone is Lord. The obvious example is a virile young man or fecund young woman embracing a life of celibacy, "for the sake of the Kingdom ...", for the sake of Christ 'becoming less'. It is like the the brilliant young theologian or philosopher going off the monastery to look after pigs (or on this Day of the Abdication, the wise and saintly old Pope embracing a life of seclusion and academic silence). 'I will pray for you', is the ultimate statement of our human powerlessness and divine omnipotence. It is end of homo liturgicus, 

Although many saints do, it is interesting that Aquinas does not, give fasting as a way of showing solidarity with the poor, or even that most practical sense of saving the money spent on a meal or two in order to give it to the poor. I suspect 'the poor' for Aquinas would be 'the poor Christ'. It is sad that our Bishop's have for so long allowed fasting as being a way of fundraising for aid organisations rather than an ascetic practice that has value in itself, and because Jesus fasted and said his disciples would fast.

Coptic friends boast of fasting for two thirds of the year, they are doing so imitation of those great ascetic saints of the Alexandrian desert there is a sense in which ascetic practice which is difficult or painful give a sense of achievement. An Epiphany dunk in the frozen Volga or laying a lash over the shoulder on a Good Friday (or every Friday) afternoon are easy ways of showing to ourselves our love for God, achieved faster and with more absoluteness than loving a brother with whom one has nothing in common, in the same way as putting a heavy cross around our neck or being tattooed with one, is easier than carrying one and following Christ.

Fasting is an expression of the incarnational nature of of our faith, we are not Manichees, we have bodies, we should use them. Conforming our bodies to Christ, at least in theory conforms our souls or our minds to him.
So this Lent do some physical penance: endure the cold, keep vigil in the night, walk barefoot over sharp rocks, kneel or prostrate on a damp stone floor, wear sackcloth, use the discipline or celice often. The trouble with these is that they can so often be vainglorious, more about our endurance of pain, more about me - fasting on the other-hand is less likely to us physical or spiritual harm, so fast! Even if it is difficult and the good it does is difficult perceive, do it.


August said...

I found out, in the course of losing a lot of weight with a paleo low carb diet, that I could fast pretty well once I adapted to the diet. There is a huge difference between a carb-addicted crabby hunger, and the hunger of a fat-adapted hunter. There is still hunger, but the mind is more focused on the task- hunting, presumably, for ancient man.
The bodies fat stores are being accessed, and there are no wild blood sugar swings- and, again, there is energy and focus, so that we can actually pray and focus on God rather than have mood swings and generally be a pain to be around.
So, before attempting a fast, I would suggest taking the carbohydrates out first. I also think small amounts of fat can help during the fast. I used a spoonful of coconut oil here and there on one Good Friday fast. Both carbs and protein effect insulin, which subsequently effect blood sugar, and blood sugar changes seem to cause great unpleasantness.

Clare said...

It is with how much love we fast that counts.

Romulus said...

Thank you, Father. I'm hungry and cold too. A result of fasting not mentioned by St. Thomas is that, a few weeks in, one finds oneself regarding the Sacred Host with a not-just-spiritual craving. Surely that can't be bad.

Oakes Spalding said...

My wife and I have done the traditional Lenten observance for the last six years. One meal (plus possibly one or two snacks) a day and no meat (though dairy and fish are permitted). Sunday, of course is exempt. Thoughts:

1. It's hard for me too. Red meat is my favorite food. Not eating meat hits me harder than the one meal a day requirement.
2. It's VERY psychological. For some reason I'm doing better this year (though we're only three days in), but it's psychological, rather than physical. I'm trying to embrace the emptiness, so to speak, rather than trying to ignore it or distract myself from it.
3. I'm also trying to lose weight to help my running. So one of the highlights of my day is getting on the scale and seeing that I've lost another pound. Whether or not one is an athlete I suppose one could use a physical scale as almost a stand in for a "spiritual scale". Maybe it's my weird competitive mindset but a see nothing theologically wrong with this.
4. The "free day" of Sunday really helps. You can embrace the emptiness AND think of Sunday. I knew this too from when I had dieted before. The free day is a must.
5. I still drink alcohol and smoke cigars. This may not sound very Lenten but it helps. I don't know whether you do those things or have equivalent "vices" but unless you're Jesus or some almost superhuman ascetic, giving up EVERYTHING (or feeling guilty because you don't) is just too much, and I don't think God requires it of you.
6. As a fun aside, I get a kick out of the fact that our Lent is the ONLY time where I am more hardcore than the traditionalist priests and brothers at my Church. As I understand it Father abolished the traditional Lenten fast/abstinence because some members of the Order were going overboard with it and it was getting dangerous. It also introduced a weird sort of potentially destructive competitive dynamic. Or so I am told.

I hope I haven't been crass. Lent is more than fasting/abstinence. And fasting/abstinence is much more than just losing ten pounds. Obviously. But I think there's nothing wrong with making a set of sacrifice and then thinking logically about how to make the best of it. I hope this helps.

Stephen Turton said...

I have heard it said that fasting sharpens the spiritual senses, and I must admit praying and reading the scripture come a lot easier with moderate fasting.

Pelerin said...

Interesting comments Father regarding fasting and St Thomas Aquinas' not equating fasting to giving the money to the poor. I did indeed think that fasting was so that the money saved could be donated otherwise what was the point? Even after 50 years I still have a lot to learn!

Incidentally I never knew that the Eucharistic fast was only 15 minutes for the over 60s - in fact I was well over 60 before discovering that fasting on Ash Wednesday etc for the over 60s could be dispensed with! However I do still try and keep to it though.

I attended Mass in Notre-Dame, Paris last weekend and noticed there was a magnificent reliquary on the sanctuary surrounded by flowers. Curious, after Mass was over I went up to it (only half a dozen others approached it) and was surprised to find no information as to whom the relics belonged. A short while later a Religious in a habit approached and I enquired whose relics they were. I was told they belonged to St Thomas Aquinas. In their newsletter it mentioned that the Dominicans were celebrating 800 years since their foundation but no mention was made of the Reliquary of St Thomas being there and I did not even know that he had been a Dominican.

lazylyn said...

Prayer & fasting - they go together. Prayer will show you the object from which you should fast. So, it might be a food / drink. What foodstuff do you love ? Crave even. The first coffee in the morning ? Give it up for 40 days.
Do you long to go onto the internet , watch T.V., buy new clothes every week ? Are you a gossip , do you waste time , harbour grudges ? Free yourself by giving them up. Prayer will prompt you to be honest with yourself about what you should give up in Lent - no-one else can tell you.
As Clare Short says above ' It is with how much love we fast that counts.'

Jacobi said...

Some of us have a real problem with fast and abstinence. In my case, being somewhat beyond my sixtieth year and having little appetite anyway, I don't mind it. So what on earth do I do to make up for my sins?

The Rosary is the obvious answer!

You raise the question of the Eucharistic fast, Father. This is, I think, crucial. It should be strengthened, not perhaps back to “from midnight”, but to at least three hours before reception.

This would give those in the 100% shuffle who have not seen the inside of a Confessional in years a good excuse to stay where they should be during Communion, in their seats!

JARay said...

I found it interesting that you write that you can go a couple of days without eating simply because you forgot to eat. I can do that too! It's quite easy. One thing is quite certain and that is that I am not cold. Here we just had four days when the temperatures were over 40 degrees Celsius and we are due to get another four similar days at the end of next week too. I seriously was thinking, as I drove along, of trying to get some light gloves to stop the sun burning the backs of my hands as I hold the steering-wheel. My skin is not too fond of the sun. Perhaps I could offer that up!

Liam Ronan said...

Well written spiritual exposition, Father. Thank you.

Vincent said...

I have to say that I think the 'fasting increases prayerfulness' story is a load of guff. Call it what it is, fasting is meant to be uncomfortable, it is meant to be something to offer up as a practical prayer. I certainly don't think any better on an empty stomach...

Liam Ronan said...


I understand your visceral dislike of fasting and scepticism regarding its efficacy in increasing prayerfulness. But the mere fact that one does not 'think' better on an empty stomach does not mean that one's prayers, confused and disjointed as they might seem to our own intellect, are less acceptable to God, just the opposite.

Fasting creates a keener awareness of our own intellectual helplessness, and challenges us to subdue our pride and trust in God

God knows what is pleasing to Him and most certainly fasting is urged time and again in the Scripture and by the Church.

Extrapolating from your initial premise, Vincent, it might be just as well to say one ought not pray when one is in pain because prayer offered to God while in pain is distracted and not as prayerful as that offered when in the peak of health.


August said...

I used to think fasting was meant to be uncomfortable too. I did not realize what it was meant for until I experienced it under conditions ancient men would have experienced it under.
What is often experience now is abnormal- governed by mood swings brought on by wild blood sugar swings. It is not fasting in love- cannot be because the neurological framework is decided fasting in grumpy. It takes a while for that to go away- probably have to gut it out for three days or so to get the biology in accord with the purpose. Of course, most folks quit before then. This is why I suggest what I suggest above.

I also suggest remembering our physical natures are integral to our selves. It must be brought into accord, not attacked or beaten senseless.

Simple Simon said...

Those who believe that our Lady is appearing in Medjugorje fast in response to her request. Bread and water Wednesday and Friday. If this is too difficult initially, make a start as best you can and work gradually towards the fast as requested. The fruit of fasting (among other things) is purification of the heart. When one gets a taste for fasting, it reveals itself as an immense grace and blessing.

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