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The Good of Fasting, Part I

A three-part series in preparation for Lent...

The loss of our interior life is the crisis of our age. 

When I say interior life, you might have a number of reactions. Some of you might think merely of our own internal monologue. Some might think of our dispositions and affections. Others might be thinking about the imagination. But, for Christians, the interior life is the supernatural life of the Christian in the presence of Jesus. We modern people evaluate every action, every thought by their practical or material result. This has come into sharp focus in ongoing cultural debate. “What good are thoughts and prayers when people are dying?” “The time for prayer has come to an end. What we need now is action.” Joseph Pieper comments on this: 

“it is contemplation which preserves in the midst of human society the truth which is at one and the same time useless and the yardstick of every possible use; so it is also contemplation which keeps the true end in sight, gives meaning to every practical act of life.”

The end is none other than God himself, and the source of that divine life is Jesus Christ, who was made flesh, and who was redeemed from the grave for our salvation. We cannot always give, Pope Benedict once said, we must also receive. The interior life of the Christian, a life of hidden devotion to God in fasting and prayer, is the life of being inwardly converted, turned towards God, and sanctified that we may become whole.

For the next three weeks, I want to focus on one of the essential components of the interior life, that of fasting. Certainly there are a great many more: contemplation, prayer, meditation on Holy Scripture, habits of the mind, etc. In the third part of this series, I will look at the nuts and bolts of fasting: how to do it, how long to do it, and what to fast from. In the second part, I’ll talk about why we should fast. But for now, I simply want to say that fasting is vital to the interior life.

Sin leads to no small amount of disruption in our interior lives. We get easily distracted, our thoughts are either dull or unvirtuous. We drift away from contemplation of God. It is quite clear that our affections and wills are deeply disordered. While prayer is of a great help, our affliction is not merely spiritual. Bodily and mental appetites often rule over us, and if the disorder is bodily, we need medicine for it. According to John Chrysostom, “fasting is medicine.” This medicine brings into order what is disordered, restraining the desires of the flesh, raising the mind to God, and even making certain satisfaction for sin. (Notorious sinners and apostates were restored to the ancient Church through fasting, not to re-earn justification from sin, but to satisfy the demands of justice.)

Further, we experience alienation from other human beings. While acts of charity and kindness express needed conversion, the Church joins together in common practices of fasting for the sake of common discipline. Just as we share the Eucharistic meal as an expression of our common life in Christ, the Church shares in common fasts for the sake of our common identity. Recent commentators have noted that much of Catholic identity in this country was lost in the relaxing of certain common fasting disciplines, like Friday fasts from red meat. Lent provides a time for the Church to express as one body the deep importance of the interior life - that what is most important about the Church is not the good she can and does do, but her deep intimacy with her divine spouse. In a season of preparation for the Paschal Feast, by which the Church contemplates her being joined to the divine life of grace through the death and resurrection of her Lord Jesus, the Christian prepares not so much for fifty days of Easter, but for an eternity in Heaven: 

"When the fast makes its appearance, like a kind of spiritual summer, let us as soldiers burnish our weapons, and as harvesters sharpen our sickles, and as sailors order our thoughts against the waves of extravagant desires, and as travelers set out on the journey towards heaven. Lay hold of the pathway which leads towards heaven, rugged and narrow as it is. Lay hold of it, and journey on."

Saint John Chrysostom

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