A three-part series in preparation for Lent...
The Nuts and Bolts of Fasting
Throughout the history of the Church, it has been an almost universal discipline to fast on both Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. These constitute the minimum of Christian practice when it comes to fasting, and I recommend that if you’re able, you abstain from all food until the evening meal, which should be rather light and meatless. The purpose here is simple: to practice self-denial and discipline so that the Lord may teach and correct our minds and wills. We think of our stomachs as standalone organs. In truth, they are intimately tied to our hearts and affections. There’s a reason we equate courage with guts, a reason the Greeks used the same word for bowels as they did for affections. On these particular days, our affections must be re-tuned to repentance, the work of leaving behind sin and turning to the crucified Jesus.
The next days offered for fasting are the Fridays of the year, excluding the Fridays in Christmas and Easter. This has traditionally meant fasting from all manner of flesh meat with the exception of fish. For some, this will mean abstinence from food for the whole day up to the evening meal. For most, it means restricting the intake of food to very small meals and avoiding snacking. In our family, we have maintained this discipline the whole time Ela and I have been married. Not only does it build in us a habit of sanctifying the day of the week wherein Jesus poured out his flesh for us, but it almost forces us into the kitchen. We put a special effort into making meatless meals, and it allows us freedom from the tyranny of the meat and two veggie plate. We relish salads and fish, vegetable soups, and grains. And what we find is that this day becomes a day of recollection, both of our own sin, but of the work of Jesus on the Cross.
Quite often, it becomes our calling to pray and fast for others. We can pray and fast for those who face great suffering, or for those who are wandering from the Lord. When doing this, I recommend writing out your intentions and fasting plan in advance. This will help you stick to it. Mark out a period of days or weeks when you plan to do this, and what specifically you will offer up. This is where fasting from things other than food can be a particular help. Begin each day of the fast by offering this self-denial to the Father, as soon as your feet hit the floor in getting out of bed. This practice helps us to avoid unintentionally breaking the fast. It also helps us be mindful of this self-denial and its purposes. As well, submit the fast to God in a way that is flexible. You might be called to dial it up! You might also be called to dial it back. Some years ago, a friend of mine had fasted so much that he was a complete bear to his wife and children. It wasn’t making him holy. It was making him a pain in the rear! His wife wisely encouraged him to take a step back and re-evaluate his aspirations. As it turned out, this friend’s fasting was not an outgrowth of humility or a desire for holiness, but an act of pride. This is a dangerous temptation!
The last thing that I would say is far more practical. I have found that fasting requires me to be very intentional about my diet. Breaking a fast with greasy, heavy food is never a good idea. What I find I need is to ease back into eating with fruits, vegetables, and perhaps a glass of wine. Further, you might find that fasting brings on severe headaches. Don’t hesitate to take an Advil or two. Your body is only signaling that something is out of order, but it will soon accept this new order you have placed upon it. Lastly, drink plenty of water. Much of your daily hydration usually comes from food. When you fast, you’ll get dehydrated much faster. For this reason, I keep a quart-sized jar around and fill it regularly. In that vein, you might find that coffee either helps or hinders your fast days. Be attentive to this!
As a pastoral note, I find that many people today, in thinking about Lenten discipline, have taken on fasts from things other than foods. While this is often commendable, it can obscure the need to fast from food, and because of this, I want to encourage you to keep some manner of food fasts this Lent. This, of course, does not apply to small children (the usual age is under 12), nursing or pregnant mothers, and the elderly.