Literature Girl

home reading list reviews portfolio journal stream links about

The Beauty and Necessity of Fasting

(and the tragic loss of tradition in the Church)


"When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to others to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you."

Matthew 6:16-18

I was raised as a Low Church Anglican, so for a lot of my life never encountered the idea of fasting. When I finally did, I was about fourteen, and it was in relation to nutrition, not religion. I found out about intermittent fasting and OMAD diets, studied the potential benefits of these things, and thought that was as far as it went.

Eventually, whenever I began to start studying Catholic theology and reading more from the saints, I discovered the idea of fasting as a religious practice.

Fasting is beautiful. For me, it has been incredibly healing spiritually, as it serves as a reminder to myself that I am humbling myself before God daily and choosing to live for Him actively and purposefully, even in relation to my most rudimentary (otherwise everyday) functions. Fasting is a method through which we may explicitly subject our flesh, our earthly bodies, to the will of the divine. In this sense, it is reminiscent of the act of prostration or kneeling during prayer.

As my favourite author, C.S. Lewis, once wrote, "We must accept and embrace the body, in all its glory and buffoonery, remembering that whatever our bodies do affects our souls." Humans often build up this idea that because the soul is 'transcendent' that we may neglect the role of our flesh, assuming the two have nothing to do with one another. This couldn't be more wrong. God gave us matter for a reason: if it had no purpose, the Eucharist would not serve the purpose it does, and the fact that Christ cloaked Himself in human flesh would not be worthy of the magnitude with which we claim it most certainly holds. Jesus would also not have commanded us to fast, for what would be the purpose?

What we do to the body affects the soul. This is why we kneel during prayer, for, as Lewis states, "The body ought to pray as well as the soul. Body and soul are both better for it." In the case of fasting, we are aiming to achieve something very similar. We cannot escape our bodies, even if we may wish to; God gave us them for a purpose. They serve a function. They are not meaningless within our spiritual lives, nor can they be wholly detached from them. Instead, we must learn and practice the methods through which we can subject our bodies to God, as well as our minds.

Fasting is an incredibly powerful practice, which Augustine claimed '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'. I wish we would see a revival of this practice, especially considering how little emphasis is often placed on it within Protestant denominations.

I regularly see the same loss and diminishment of tradition in regards to veiling and headcovering, singing hymns and psalms, or even kneeling during prayer. Most of the Christians I meet claim that these things are antiquated and unnecessary, or that they are oppressive. What a wasted opportunity. These are tried and tested, beautiful methods of subjecting our bodies and our minds to God outwardly, and their value does not diminish with time. Time does not change the role our bodies play in our faith. They are as important as they always have been, and this is why we must learn how God intends us to direct them according to His will.

I am not catechised, and I am unsure about many of the official teachings of the Church on fasting and when it is required (quite simply, because this information is often presented in a very convoluted way — where is my 'Catholicism for Dummies' book?) — but, insofar as fasting may be interpreted merely as 'subjecting the body or mind through abstinence', I have been trying to implement a few different forms into my life lately. After all, as shown in the excerpt from Matthew above, Jesus says 'when' you fast, not 'if'.

Conventionally, fasting usually refers to abstinence from food altogether, or else from specific kinds of food. I have various deficiencies and disorders that make it difficult for me to do long-term fasts in a way that seems advisable, but I have found sustainable and reliable alternatives to settle on:

There are other important forms of abstinence and self-mortification that do not directly relate to food but which may be considered and are of similar benefit to the soul and the body, such as: