Today marks the beginning of lent; that time in the liturgical year when a believer is called to prepare for Easter through prayer, repentance, almsgiving, atonement and self-denial. As I was reflecting on this year’s lent, I went searching for famous quotes on lent and fasting. I came across many quotes but this one by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI stood out for me: “Lent stimulates us to let the Word of God penetrate our life and in this way to know the fundamental truth: who we are, where we come from, where we must go, what path we must take in life…”
I found this quote presenting a fresh way of looking at lent; all our activities and observances during lent should be aimed or geared towards renewing our hearts and minds to prepare them as a fertile ground, to receive the life-giving Word of God which in turn penetrates our life giving us a new identity and direction. I understood this to mean that lent is not so much a time for making all those many religious observances, though necessary, but it is more of a time to study the word of God, reflect on it and apply it in my life so that going forward, it can guide all my thoughts, actions and words. It is a time to stop, observe the wind and adjust my sails so that the boat of my life can take the correct route towards our destiny.
As has been taught by the Church, the three pillars of lent are prayers, fasting and almsgiving. As part of the lent preparation I sought out to learn more about these three pillars and below I present some of the lessons learnt so far on fasting.
For Catholics, fasting is the reduction of one’s intake of food, while abstinence refers to refraining from meat (or another type of food). Seems there are varied descriptions of what really constitutes a fast during lent (and I believe any other times) but the most common one seem to be that on days of fasting, we are to eat only one meal, that can be breakfast, lunch or dinner. If needed, two smaller meals (not adding up to more than one regular meal) may be eaten at regular mealtime. No food is to be eaten between meals. Both Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of designated as days of fasting and abstinence.
There are many benefits for fasting and from the bible I was able to pick out three of those;
- Fasting helps in preparing the soul for prayer and contemplation of divine things as can be demonstrated from three examples in the Bible; In Exodus 34:28 Moses fasted for forty days and forty nights before he wrote the second set of the tablets containing the Ten Commandments; Daniel 10:1-2 explains how Daniel had a 3 weeks fast before a great vision and in 1 Kings 19: 8 we are told how Elijah traveled for forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. To this you can add Jesus’ forty days fast before He started His ministry.
- Fasting serves as a satisfaction for sin. As St Jerome puts it “Fasting and sackcloth are the arms of penance, the help of sinners”. In Jonah Chapter 3, we read how after Jonah had prophesied about the destruction of Nineveh, the king declared a fast for the Ninevites and following this fast, and the genuine conversion from their sinful life, God relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had promised.
- Fasting is meritorious and is very powerful in obtaining divine favours. Matthew 6:17-18 advises us about fasting “But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Also, in 1 Samuel 1:6-7, we read about Hannah’s fast as represented by her husband Elkanah’s questions, and how this led to her womb being opened and giving birth to Samuel.
Fasting tames the flesh by crucifying it with its vices and when fasting the idea is to use the hunger to help us to focus more clearly on Christ. We should convert our fasting to be a prayerful exercise during which we draw closer to Christ by meditating on His forty days in the desert and how hungry and thirsty He was while hanging on the cross. During this fasting moment, as my stomach rumbles or as I yawn, it is a good moment to say a quick prayer asking for forgiveness for the many sins I have committed as well as to ask for strength to be able to face whatever temptations the evil one may throw my way. The pangs of hunger also reminds me of my hunger for God.
Further, with fasting, it is not just about giving up our favourite food but it’s also about going further and giving up things like hatred, ‘unforgiveness’, impatience, anger and so on. It should thus be looked at as an opportunity to clean our hearts and to prepare ourselves for purity; a moment to pick up new habits and new virtues.
In Isaiah 58, we learn about true fasting and why fasting may fail to produce the right fruits
““Why have we fasted,” they say, “and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?” ‘Yet on the day of your fasting, you do as you please and exploit all your workers. Your fasting ends in quarrelling and strife, and in striking each other with wicked fists. You cannot fast as you do today and expect your voice to be heard on high. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? “‘Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the LORD will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the LORD will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: here am I.”” Isaiah 58:3-9
Below are some other quotes on fasting which I came about;
“”Fasting makes sense if it really chips away at our security and, as a consequence, benefits someone else, if it helps us cultivate the style of the good Samaritan, who bent down to his brother in need and took care of him.””
St John Chrysostom:
“No act of virtue can be great if it is not followed by advantage for others. So, no matter how much time you spend fasting, no matter how much you sleep on a hard floor and eat ashes and sigh continually, if you do no good to others, you do nothing great.”
“Do you fast? Give me proof of it by your works. If you see a poor man, take pity on him. If you see a friend being honored, do not envy him. Do not let only your mouth fast, but also the eye, and the ear, and the feet, and the hands, and all the members of our bodies.”
Pope Benedict XVI
“Lent is like a long ‘retreat’ during which we can turn back into ourselves and listen to the voice of God, in order to defeat the temptations of the Evil One. It is a period of spiritual ‘combat’ which we must experience alongside Jesus, not with pride and presumption, but using the arms of faith: prayer, listening to the word of God and penance. In this way we will be able to celebrate Easter in truth, ready to renew the promises of our Baptism.”
“The ultimate goal of fasting is to help each one of us to make a complete gift of self to God.”
St. Peter Chrysologus:
“Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to others, you open God’s ear to yourself.”
“Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one’s flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, quenches the fire of lust, and kindles the true light of chastity. Enter again into yourself.”
Fr. Thomas Merton
“The goal of fasting is inner unity. This means hearing, but not with the ear; hearing, but not with the understanding; it is hearing with the spirit, with your whole being. The hearing that is only in the ears is one thing. The hearing of the understanding is another, but the hearing of the spirit is not limited to any one faculty, to the ear, or to the mind. Hence, it demands the emptiness of the faculties, and when the faculties are empty, then your whole being listens… Fasting of the heart empties the faculties, frees you from limitations and from preoccupations.”
“Fasting confirms our utter dependence upon God by finding in Him a source of sustenance beyond food.”