With the Season of Lent upon us, I’m setting out to explore the traditional Lenten disciplines of fasting, almsgiving and prayer. These disciplines are taken from the opening verses of the sixth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, right in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. See how Jesus begins each section of this sermon:
“…when you give to the needy…” (Matthew 6:2)
“…when you pray…” (Matthew 6:5)
“…when you fast…” (Matthew 6:16)
In each case, Jesus speaks of the “secret reward” of these disciplines. Spiritual writers through the centuries have noted that this refers to the riches of the fruit of conversion, expressed through each of the disciplines. In short,
Fasting expresses conversion with regard to ourselves, avoiding the feeding of bodily passions and selfishness
Almsgiving expresses conversion with regard to our neighbor, putting the needs of our neighbors ahead of ourselves.
Prayer expresses conversion with regard to God himself, as we speak tenderly to Him, and ask Him to speak to us.
One of the forgotten things about sin is that it not only introduces disruption between human beings and God, but disruption and alienation in our inmost selves. We experience this, as did Saint Paul, as a war within our members, a battle between flesh and spirit. The objects of our desires are not typically evil, they are part of God’s good creation. What we find is that it is the desire itself which is disordered. Saint Augustine called this “concupiscence,” a desire for any good in general, but more specifically the desire to feed our lower and sensual appetites. This refers not only to the appetite for food, but for sex, power, money, even more innocuous things like control over our schedules, time to ourselves, and having things in their place. These are not bad things, not at all, but again, our disordered appetites are the problem.
What are we to do?
The body must be trained to yield up its most basic desires. If we are to gain the interior change and sanctification which God is working in us by His grace, seeking to bring order where there is disorder, then fasting is in order, and Jesus assumes that his disciples will do it. But, they are not to do so publicly, lest it merely feed an appetite for the good opinion of others. So, he says: “when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face,that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
(Matthew 6:16–18 ESV)
One can fast from anything that assaults the appetites. The purpose of fasting is to bring about hunger in order to put those appetites in their proper place. So, food is not the only possibility. One could fast from eating out and the experience of endless choices. One could fast from speaking of others in a judgmental or derisive way. One could fast from yearning for power or advancement.
But, nearly always, fasting from food is the most basic kind of fasting. Here are a few recommendations:
First, start with fasting from a specific type of food that you crave. This could be sweets, meat, coffee, fatty foods, alcohol, salty foods, etc. These types of fasts need to last about 40 days to be effective, so Lent is a good time to start. Regular breaks on set intervals are to be expected. This keeps us from pride. This is the reason that during Lent, the Church considers fasts to be canceled on Sundays, as they are feasts of the Resurrection. Many people regularly fast from meat on Friday, as an example.
Second, move to fasting from solid food, starting with all day fasts broken at an evening meal, to 24 hour fasts lasting from dinner to dinner, going up to 36 or 40 hour fasts. These should always include the consumption of fruit juices to keep up energy and bloodsugar. These fasts are the norm for Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Third, if you can do the second without suffering much, consider longer fasts, up to 5-6 days, or repeated days in which no meal is taken during daylight.
What I think you’ll find is that your appetite for the things of the self is put in check and that you’ll notice the subduing of the body and its desires. This aids in the flourishing of an active spiritual life.