The Catholic University of America

March 16, 2012

Fasting May Help Us Develop Better Spiritual Muscle

WASHINGTON (CNS) – As I write this column, I am sitting in a hotel room in Santiago, Chile. I've been up all night because my flight was delayed and I missed a connection in Panama City. The airline also lost my bag, so I am without a change of clothes, my toothbrush and my computer.

Under these circumstances, it seems somewhat natural to think about the long-honored custom Catholics have of giving things up for Lent.

In my family we try to follow the church's rules about Lenten fasting. They are at least an inconvenience for the faithful, even if they are not nearly as severe as in ages past.

At one time, nearly all Lenten days were designated for fasting (not just two of them), and the rules of each day's fast were much stricter -- one meal, to be taken in the afternoon or evening. At one time, no dairy or wine was allowed on days of fast.

But even our lax modern rules present the average layman with enough privation that most of us look forward to Lent with just a little bit of dread.

To supplement the church's prescribed mortifications, most Catholics give something up voluntarily -- sweets, smoking and alcohol are typical choices. But I have also heard people say, "This year I'm not giving something up. Instead of focusing on all that negativity, I'm going to do something positive every day."

And it's gotten me thinking about why we engage as a church in "negative" activities like fasting and other mortifications.

The simple and scripturally correct answer is that Jesus did it himself during his 40 days in the desert. The Gospels also record his rejoinder to the followers of John the Baptist -- that his followers would fast "when the bridegroom is taken away from them."

It also doesn't hurt that, by making sacrifices, we develop some spiritual muscles, which should lead to a better spiritual performance, the way weightlifting leads to better performance on the football field.

But as I sit here in this hotel room, writing out this draft by hand, I've been thinking that there is a much more targeted role in our spiritual lives to the concepts of fasting and of giving things up for Lent. Namely, voluntary sacrifices prepare us to bear, with a Christian spirit and without whining, the deprivations we will inevitably suffer in life without our own choosing.

And really, that is where we benefit most in life from offering God our sufferings -- when they are imposed upon rather than chosen by us.

I really loved the suitcase that went missing. It held three days' belongings. It was leather, and beautiful. I bought it in Milan for a good price. Maybe I loved it a little too much. Come to think of it, don't 90 percent of our sins begin with such attachments to earthly goods?

The seven deadly sins feature prominently the inordinate desire for things our flesh wants (lust, gluttony, sloth) and the desire to indulge ourselves more (covetousness, envy). That leaves only pride and anger, two forms of a more elevated and dangerous self-indulgence. The appeal of anger is the way it lets you feel.

Pride conveniently lets us indulge in irrational excuses for all of our other shortcomings and in an unjustified feeling of moral superiority that lets us stand in judgment of others.

This Lent, we should be fasting from a lot more than just food. But if we at least start with food, maybe it will prepare us for the other sacrifices we must make. 

More Columns by John Garvey