Some time ago, after having put up the post “What is Christian fasting?” I received this question:
Question: Thank you for this post on fasting! It just seems to me, Jean, that this practice of fasting has been lost somewhat in the modern Church. It seems there is not much explanation on the power of fasting or the reasons to fast or how often one should fast. I know that strictly speaking we are obliged to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and that Fridays are a day we ought to try harder to carry out penances.
From the above, I can see that fasting helps us to reach the “Groom” – Jesus. Please could you explain more about the power of fasting?
Also, Jesus in Mk 9:29 explained to the disciples that certain demons cannot be expelled except by prayer and fasting. Does this mean that in certain situations we ought to combine the two? Like when? How often should a Christian fast?
Answer: First thank you L. for your question. We are asked to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Abstaining (from eating meat) happens during Lent, during Advent, during the year on Fridays, and many traditions kept Wednesdays and even Saturdays (in honour of Our Lady) as abstinence days. In the Roman Latin Catholic Rite, Abstinence was (and is) more about not eating meat. Pope Benedict did mention it with regard to Friday.
In what follows I will use only the verb “fasting” in general and flexible terms.
General Aspects of Fasting
Fasting is about self control, or if you prefer about the virtue of temperance. It is also about helping the poor (you give what you have saved by fasting) and you honour the Passion of the Lord (on Friday). It helps as well in spiritual warfare. In order to grow, we need to change our “attachments”, “enslavement”, “addictions”, into other Spiritual “Attachments” first, and then, at a second stage to even get rid of these “spiritual attachments” and strive for Jesus only, the “naked Jesus” as the mystics called Him, not trying to go to the king for any benefits but just for his sake only, finding in Him all your good.
Fasting in general terms is depriving ourselves of something (in general: food (a meal), but it can be anything else as well, like “speaking” (chatter, gossiping), alcohol, cigarettes, TV, other pleasures, other types of loss of time, useless activities,…). In doing so, we create a space for a spiritual activity. We help get rid of bad habits, we reach a greater freedom.
Food can be very addictive (other pleasures as well), whereby the body can control us instead of us controlling it. Control comes through fasting, through other activities instead (like prayer, meditation,…) that will fill us.
With the Grace of God, and with the advice of the Spiritual Director, we can find the right fasting to do, and its amount/degree.
You quote the Lord saying: “certain demons cannot be expelled except by prayer and fasting”. Of course. But today, who believes in “demons”? Who believes today that sin as well is an invitation for a “spirit” to take his place in us and be fed (yes be fed: when you do something according to his will you are feeding him, he becomes a parasite in you)? A “small spirit” maybe but still a spirit, i.e. an unwelcome being in you, a new master in you. (I said “small spirit” in order to differentiate it from formal possession.) There are many types of spirits, from the most insignificant ones (low materialistic ones) to the nastiest (most spiritual ones). How do we define addiction today? What is a vice? (vice vs virtue) what is the negative effect that the repetition of a bad act (a sin) has on us? Jesus himself gives the answer: “Truly, truly, I say to you, every one who commits sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34). One can’t come out of it through his or her own strength, being in a vicious closed circle (like addiction).
This is why we need to experience the Power of the Grace of God that can help us, free us. We need to ask for it. This experience is simply unique. But it comes at a cost: begging (prayer), spending time with Jesus, exposing ourselves to the Rays of His Love and Mercy, and with the help of God fasting, i.e. abstaining from doing certain things, most importantly food. Because food controls a lot in our behaviour.
It is true as well that sometimes we are invited to pray a lot for somebody, or for a cause, and it is normal to couple prayer with fasting, for it gains more power. But with discernment, because we can fall, after a while, into spiritual pride (see below).
Eating the Word of God
It is very important to understand the relationship between eating and listening to the Word of God. Both are food: our bread and the Word of God. If our experience of food is only “bread” and what comes with it, we are in a very poor human state. We are treating ourselves as if we were worse than animals, just having a body, nothing else.
Fasting means directing our appetite to the Word of God, as a real food for the soul (mind, will, freedom,…). It is treating ourselves as really having/being a body, a soul and a spirit. We honour therefore hidden and buried parts of our being (soul and spirit) that haven’t been used for some time (or for long time), watering them, helping them to flourish and blossom. We need to give Divine Food to our Soul, and to our Spirit. We allow God to dismantle various enemies of our soul and spirit, when we turn our attention toward them by fasting with the body, by focusing on the Word of God. Jesus’ words to Satan are a Golden Rule for us: “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the Mouth of God.’” (Matthew 4:4) Jesus is God’s Mouth.
This is why fasting in Christianity is important. It is capable of casting the devil/Satan away. Satan doesn’t like the Truth, he is the father of Lies, a Liar from day one says Jesus (see John 8:44). Please note that, in his Temptation, Jesus dealt with Satan using not only the Word of God but a correct reading of the Word of God (in fact Satan was distorting it, so the Bible is not enough, we need the Holy Spirit to make it alive). Why? Because the Word of God bears the Truth, is the Truth, and the word of God helps the Truth enter in us. And the devil hates God’s Light, he prefers to hide behind the darkness of his lies.
For advanced persons
I did say, that after some early experiences with Fasting, one has to ask the advice of his/her spiritual director and follow it diligently even if he/she doesn’t like it. The merit of fasting doesn’t only come from what we do. We need discernment. The merit comes from the obedience to a competent spiritual director. Sometimes after a powerful experience of fasting, we could be tempted to fast more, idolising fasting. Turning to our spiritual director he/she might say: well fast less, or in smaller things (like St Therese, she did plenty of small things: l’ascèse de petitesse : the asceticism of little things). We might feel then rightly frustrated, because you started to idolise fasting, become very attached to certain practices, thinking that this is what is saving you. Jesus saved you, and your obedience to him is what matters. What more secure obedience can we have to Jesus than the one through the spiritual director?
This is why, it is of the utmost importance to be very pure in revealing all our thoughts and intentions to the spiritual director (I am aware that these practices are not practised today in the western churches, but this is the clear advice of our living tradition still (see the Desert Fathers and the activity called “revealing the thoughts”, in spiritual direction). I know that we are miles away from that, but mind you, this is a powerful means, because it is one of the highest “affirmations” of the Incarnation: Jesus gave his authority on earth, this being the extension of the Incarnation. This way (obedience) is one of the most powerful ways to disperse the devil, from within or around. “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God, and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God.” (1 John 4:2-3)
Fasting in Lent
As mentioned above we do fast during the year, on Fridays, some on Wednesdays and even Saturdays. But Lent is not only concerned about these days, but it is concerned about a general attitude for all the days. Fasting in Lent has a more specific meaning.
Let us remember that Lent time was engineered around celebrating each year, at a specific time of the year (Easter), the memorial of Jesus’ Passion. We do remember Jesus’ Passion at each Eucharist, this is obvious, we remember Him during each week, since we could live each week like a holy week, following Jesus from Thursday evening… through Friday, until he rises on Sunday. Which is great.
But for Lent, we prepare ourselves to celebrate each year in a deeper way the Lord’s Passion, Death and Resurrection.
In the Early Ages in the Church we had something like 3 days to fast then it became longer (a week), until it took the 40 days of Jesus in the Desert as a role model (And Moses fasting 40 days before the revelation of God on Sinai and the People of God in the Desert for 40 years). But all this effort is aimed at preparing ourselves to celebrate (and benefit spiritually which is the key aspect) from the Grace of the Memorial of his Passion-Death-Resurrection. This memorial is the core of our life, and it can easily (because of weakness and routine) become superficial, and not bring the expected fruits. This is why we need to “dig deeper” in order to give more space in our life to Jesus and to the Power of His Resurrection. This is essential. So “lent” is about “digging deeper”, making a greater space in us.
And Fasting in Lent is orientated toward this goal and bears this spirit: getting closer to Jesus, closer to his Cross in order to discover the Power and Glory he gives us when he is on His Cross. The Cross is the most powerful Revelation of God’s love and we need to learn to do that.
So, Lent and Fasting in Lent should have this specific spirit to it: getting closer to Jesus’ Passion, meditating on it, drinking from it, crying because of our sins, when our Saviour looks at us like he did to Peter after he betrayed Him. “Peter said, “Man, I do not know what you are saying.” And immediately, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. And the Lord turned and looked at Peter. And Peter remembered the word of the Lord, how he had said to him, “Before the cock crows today, you will deny me three times.” And he went out and wept bitterly.” (Luke 22:59-62)