Fasting Well On Our Lenten Journey

The holy 40 days of Lent, along with Holy Week, are set apart from the rest of the year both in terms of the structure of the liturgical services to be followed and the nature of the days of fasting and abstinence. 

Though far less rigorous than in medieval times, the Lenten fast—which in this article is shorthand for abstinence directives as well—presents innumerable opportunities for spiritual growth, but like all human practices, it can be corrupted as well. As such, we must be ever mindful that our fasting be true and not an opportunity for boastfulness and judgmentalism.

Three Conditions for Fasting Well

In his 1622 Ash Wednesday sermon, St. Francis de Sales sets forth three conditions for fasting well (“Sermon for Ash Wednesday, February 9, 1622,” Sermons of St. Francis de Sales for Lent (TAN Books 1987)).

I thought of speaking to you of the conditions which render fasting good and meritorious. Understand that of itself fasting is not a virtue. It is a virtue only when it is accompanied by conditions which render it pleasing to God.

We find some people who think that to fast well during the holy season of Lent it is enough to abstain from eating some prohibited food. We know very well that it is not enough to fast exteriorly if we do not also fast interiorly, and if we do not accompany the fast of the body with that of the spirit.

Now among all the conditions required for fasting well, I will select 3 principal ones...

The first condition is that we must fast with our whole heart, willingly, wholeheartedly, universally and entirely.

The second condition is never to fast through vanity but always through humility.

The third condition necessary for fasting well is to look to God and to do everything to please Him, withdrawing within ourselves in imitation of a great saint, St. Gregory the Great, who withdrew into a secret place where he remained for a time.

These conditions, particularly the third, should direct our minds to the reality that we are always dependent on God. The rigors of the fast, which may be applied differently based on personal temperament and spiritual disposition, should always lead us to a conversion of the heart. If fasting separates us from our brothers and sisters, or becomes an occasion for pride, then the conditions of fasting well have not been met. Similarly, if we are inclined to take the easy path, fasting only according to the de minimis letter of the law rather than the spirit, then it is not possible to say that we have fasted with our whole heart directed toward God.

Lent Is About More Than Food

While Lent fasting brings to mind fasting from certain types or amounts of food, the Lenten season calls for much more. Fasting must be joined with prayer and almsgiving, which itself can take several forms, including donating our money or giving of our time with works of service. As with exercising restraint at the table, almsgiving, too, must be performed in a godly spirit of self-giving rather than calculated solely for personal gain (a tax write-off) or adulation (special recognition for charitable donations). Finally, Lent is a time of forgiveness; we must have compassion toward others if we expect compassion from God.

Then there are those temptations that we routinely fall prey to. Although we are called always to avoid the occasions of sin, Lent is a time to examine critically how seriously we take that call. It is a perversion of the Lenten season to declare we will take on an extra day of fasting during the week while refusing to forego visiting harmful websites or drinking our hours away at the bar. Our Lenten self-denial must be all encompassing to be profitable.

This giving of ourselves while denying worldly things must, again, be performed in the proper spirit. As Our Lord instructs in the Gospel of Matthew 6:14-21:

For if you will forgive men their offences, your heavenly Father will forgive you also your offences. But if you will not forgive men, neither will your Father forgive you your offences. And when you fast, be not as the hypocrites, sad. For they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Amen I say to you, they have received their reward. But thou, when thou fastest anoint thy head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not to men to fast, but to thy Father who is in secret: and thy Father who seeth in secret, will repay thee. Lay not up to yourselves treasures on earth: where the rust, and moth consume, and where thieves break through and steal. But lay up to yourselves treasures in heaven: where neither the rust nor moth doth consume, and where thieves do not break through, nor steal. For where thy treasure is, there is thy heart also.

Consider also these words of St. John Chrysostom on these verses for the start of Lent, which is found in a 14th century East Slavic lectionary of readings for the liturgical year (“An Instruction on Cheese-fare Sunday,” The Gospel Commentary (Church of the Nativity 2nd edition 2016)).

Behold, the contest of the forty days of the Fast is about to open for us, brethren. Lo, we have reached the gates of Lent, and spiritual struggle lies ahead. Now our salvation is closer than when we were eating and enjoying ourselves and overeating. Therefore, let us rejoice and be glad, because the light of our salvation is come; let us gladly enter into the first antechambers of abstinence, with joy and good spirits.

Behold, we have fled from a fierce storm and cruel disturbance, and we have arrived at a fair haven, one which is quiet, calm, untroubled and truly conducive to salvation. We have fled from the clouds of instability and from drowning in the gales of intemperance. We have fled from the passionate attachments of the world and from the strong squalls and violent winds of incontinence. We have disengaged ourselves from carnal pleasures, earthly cares and worries. We are freed from the darkness of ignorance, and have already arrived at the springtime of soul-profiting abstinence.

Therefore, let us greet this radiant and beautiful day with ardor and gladness, and let us cast off the murky works of darkness, of soul-harming sin. What are these works? Fornication, impurity, lust, evil desires, avarice and so on. And let us put on the armor of light. If we so desire, we can put away the dark deeds of sin and cast them off like a garment, and we can be clothed in a garment of light, of purity and sanctity, which are the armor of the soul; and let us walk honestly, as in the day. For sin is the cause of dishonor and baseness, while virtue is the producer of honor and nobility.

Let us not find joy in gluttony and drunkenness; let us not be slaves to sloth or impurity, nor let us waste ourselves in slander and envy. Gluttony is present where there is extravagance, drunkenness and wanton behavior, through which we fall into all kinds of impure and unchaste acts.

. . . .

Moreover, let us receive one whose soul is infirm or whose faith is weak, and let us forgive the debts and transgressions of brethren who have sinned against us. For if we forgive men their trespasses, our heavenly Father will also forgive us our trespasses. By forgiving our brethren we find forgiveness for our own sins; the Lord’s mercy is hidden in mercy and forgiveness of our neighbor. If we do not forgive, we shall not receive forgiveness, for the measure we give will be the measure we get.

Lent Is Not a Solitary Journey

While each person must chart their Lenten journey through individual discernment or guidance from a trusted spiritual father, no Catholic lives alone. In the liturgical services and special Lenten devotions such as the Stations of the Cross, Catholics come together to give thanks to God before seeking His infinite mercy. Increasing personal prayer is essential for a good Lent, but never at the expense of attending as many public services as possible.

The sacraments, particularly confession and communion, are essential for a healthy spiritual life. Although their availability may vary based on geography and circumstance, every opportunity ought to be taken to receive these mysterious of the Church in spirit of humility and gratitude.

Know of course that the devil rides us hard during Lent. It is not uncommon to find numerous and unexpected obstacles placed on the road that leads from Ash Wednesday to Calvary and finally to the empty tomb and Christ’s glorious Resurrection. Personal setbacks, ill health, the loss of loved ones, unfair accusations, spiritual coldness, and many other afflictions may befall us during this time. For the Catholic committed to going it alone, these trials will often be too much. They will lose their way, fall prey to despair, or justify their tepidity by declaring, “Well, there is always next year…” But is there? Each Lent ought to be lived as if it is our last. And though we may not always be ready to accept each new trial with patience, by relying on the Church, our fellow Catholics, and God’s grace, perseverance is assured.

Fasting, Penitence, and Prayer Are Essential

Fasting, though a means and not an end, is not “optional.” Even those whose health severely limits what they can give up can still practice prudent self-denial. The world, and certain voices within the Church, may opine that the idea of foregoing pleasures in this life, including the pleasure of food, is “old hat” or a misguided practice of a bygone era. They do not see, as Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre observed in his 1982 Lenten message, that fasting is inextricably bound to our Lord’s call for prayer and penitence. Yet the materialism of the modern world wishes to dispense with all three.

Pray and do penance. Do penance in order to pray better, in order to draw closer to Almighty God. This is what all the saints have done, and all the messages of the Blessed Virgin remind us of it.

Would we dare to say that this necessity is less important in our day and age than in former times? On the contrary, we can and we must affirm that today, more than ever before, prayer and penance are necessary because everything possible has been done to diminish and denigrate these two fundamental elements of Christian life.

Never before has the world sought to satisfy—without any limit, the disordered instincts of the flesh, even to the point of the murder of millions of innocent, unborn children. One would come to believe that society has no other reason for existence except to give the greatest material standard of living to all men in order that they should not be deprived of material goods.

The Archbishop’s words, when combined with the earlier exhortations of Ss. Francis and John, should lead us to embrace fasting, penitence, and prayer during Lent with our hearts and minds oriented toward God.

Source: Fasting Well On Our Lenten Journey - District of the USA (