“The most vehement objections to fasting are made by those who have never missed a meal in their lives.” – Dr. Herbert Shelton (1895-1985)
We need to eat to live; but there is also wisdom in not eating.
Fasting , though a very traditional Lenten practice, is not particular to the Catholic faith. It is practiced by most of the major World Religions and it is also held up in high regard by non-religious types and has lately been touted as a possible aid to longevity.
The purpose of fasting can be for any number of reasons. It might be to lengthen one’s life if the theory is correct. It can be used as a test and strengthening of one’s will. It might be used as an aid to lose weight, cure a disease or draw attention to a social injustice. If it is done from a religious motivation it can be a way of drawing one’s self closer to God. But beware!
In the first reading from Isaiah we find an angry prophet chastising those people who follow the ritual fast without a pure motivation.
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice,to undo the thongs of the yoke,to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke?
Sure they follow the laws and abide by the fast. But for them it is easy. They have money and leisure time. It is not a problem for them to be comfortable and rest while they dull their hunger pangs with idle conversation. In the meantime their labourers are out doing the work from which the rich will glean the profits while the laborers really go hungry. Fasting for show is no way to gain points with God.
Jesus makes it clear that there is not just a proper way to fast but also a proper time to fast. “The guests do not mourn while the bridegroom is with them.” Jesus reminds the Pharisees that being joyful and being able to love life is as much a part of loving God as is being able to take on penitential practices. St. Theresa of Avila said it well when she remarked, “There is a time for fasting and there is a time for Pheasant.”
There is a time for fasting, the tradition of the Church bears witness to this. The Law of the Church prescribes the practice on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. When we do fast perhaps a good way to do it is to not just let it be about ourselves but to let it be an aid to thinking about our world and our place in it. When we feel hunger pray for those who feel hungry every day. When we smell food but cannot taste it, pray for those who see a world of plenty but find themselves impoverished and at arm’s length from all we take for granted. When we are feeling empty inside remind yourself how it is God who wants to fill you in a way that food never can.