It’s easy to get caught up in the routine of fasting for the sake of fasting; it’s that thing we do for Lent, after all! However, it must be remembered that fasting is not a virtue. Rather, it is a tool that when exercised properly yields many fruits. During the Lenten period beginning on Ash Wednesday and ending on Holy Saturday, we are asked to fast, particularly on the Fridays. But why?
St. Francis of De Sales in looking at the Life of Christ lays out the purpose of fasting and also several conditions that must be present in order for one to fast well. He says: “[F]asting fortifies the spirit, mortifying the flesh, and its sensuality; it raises the spirit to God; it fights concupiscence and gives power to conquer and deaden its passions; in short, it disposes the heart to seek to please only God with great purity of heart.” (The Sermons of St. Francis De Sales for Lent, 1622)
The three principal conditions to reach this purity of heart are:
- Fast with one’s whole heart—willingly, and entirely (in body and spirit);
- Never fast through vanity, but always through humility (all works without charity are dead [1 Cor 13]); never fast more than you ought, or look gloomy like the hypocrites (Matt. 6:16-18);
- Look to God and do everything to please Him.
With fasting, there will always be temptation: “My son, when you come to serve the Lord, prepare your soul for temptation.” (Eccl. 2:1) Not even Jesus, the Son of God was exempt. He fasted for forty days in the desert and was tempted three times. Each temptation was a representation of each kind of temptation possible (flesh, material power, and of the spirit). Jesus’ response to the devil was “do not put the Lord to the test”. Likewise as the living temples of the Holy Spirit, we must respond similarly, “do not put this tabernacle to the test.” To fend off temptation St. Francis gives the following advice:
• Avoid idleness— always engage in something good;
• Do not trust in one’s personal strength;
• Remember the faith. Recite the Creed in a moment of weakness. Call out to God for assistance;
• Be conscious of personal sin and unhealthy patterns. Stop these;
• Never be satisfied with the virtue you have. Go deeper. “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Matt. 5:48)
If one fasts with the purity of heart in mind, then the fasting will be beneficial. (“Unless a grain of wheat fall to the ground and die, it remains a single grain, but if it die, it produces a rich harvest.” [Jn. 12:24]) Lent is a great time to examine one’s self and to take another step into God; the Church provides the structure and the unity for these reflections and actions. When taken to heart, Lent is a beautiful time full of healing and growth.