By: Arthur Canales, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Theology
Millions of Americans are overweight and obesity is rampant in the United States. Medical professionals tell us that two leading causes of death that are related to obesity are heart attacks and diabetes. It is clear that obesity is a complex issue, involving both physical and psychological components; however, if the Catholic tradition is correct, it is also a spiritual issue, since obesity indicates a form of concupiscence or errant desire (Robert Barron, The Strangest Way, 2002, 63). If the center of the Christian life is Jesus the Christ, then the appetites for unhealthy food and drink need to be quelled and disciplined into control. The ancient Christians knew this, but our contemporary, fast-paced world seems to have forgotten this truth. If our center is compromised or weakened, then the passion for God becomes secondary or lost completely. Simple fasting for one day out of the month can “calm the monkey on one’s back” to help center one’s mind and spirit for God (Barron, 63). Perhaps reclaiming the lost art of fasting will help Christians engage their bodies in healthy living and their souls in deeper holiness and prayer.
Fasting is Prayer
There are many types of prayer and many ways to pray, but one form of prayer form that is often overlooked today—fasting. Fasting is a lost art today, but it remains an important part of one’s spirituality, and is one that is especially helpful during the liturgical season of Lent. Fasting is a viable form of prayer for two reasons: (1) it is biblically-based, Jesus did it (Luke 4:2) and (2) it requires mental willpower and physical discipline—it ain’t easy.
Fasting is a practical, yet intense, spiritual exercise that tries to deepen our “hunger” for God. As our hunger for food intensifies while fasting, so does our spiritual hunger for God intensify through the ritual of fasting (Charles M Murphy, The Spiritualty of Fasting, 2010, pp. 18).
For centuries, Christians around the world would fast on Fridays by abstaining from eating red meats. Through this modest act of self-denial, Catholics identified themselves with the suffering of Christ on the Cross at Calvary (Barron, 64). In addition, Catholics were reminded of the larger social problem and disorder around the globe because Christian wealth did not feed everyone who was hungry or in need of something to eat. Fasting, like all other prayer styles, takes discipline and the ability to focus bodily behavior upon God.
The ascetical practice of fasting may arise from the need to be more fully expressive in one’s relationship with God or the need to seek some deeper religious insight to an indiscernible problem (Barry and Connolly, The Practice of Spiritual Direction, 1998, 41). Christians who fast on a regular basis allow the body to encounter God in a different manner, and by doing so empowering their spirit to enter more deeply into the communication and contemplation with God.
Many Ways to Fast
Personally, I have found fasting to be an act of faith and one that bolsters my spiritual journey. I have fasted several times a year, usually for a big event that I have prepared for in my ministry. There are many ways to fast. Fasting can be for one meal a day for a week, fasting can be for a week of eating only fruits, vegetables, and drinking only water. A fast can last from sunrise to sunset or vice versa, like in the Jewish and Muslim traditions; or it can be for an entire day, once a week for six weeks, as in the Christian season of Lent.
I have found that fasting on Fridays during Lent to be a spiritual practice that I look forward to each year; I liken it to an annual pilgrimage. My Friday Lenten fast typically lasts from Thursday at bedtime until dinner on Friday evening, which is typically capped-off by a fish dinner or cheese enchiladas (yummy!). Fasting need not be a burden on the body; it should be a spiritually uplifting enterprise. There is no set rule of fasting; it is simply another method of prayer, one that involves a total bodily commitment.
Fasting should be according to each person’s disposition, culture, and tradition. The richness of fasting depends on the relationship that a person has with God. The important rule of thumb here is to not lose this ancient art of fasting!