Obviously fasting is key to Lent. Before Vatican II, every day of Lent (except Sundays and Solemnities – maybe this is why we have St. Patrick and St. Joseph in March!) was a fast day, and the fast was pretty rigorous: typically two to four ounces for breakfast, eight ounces for lunch, one real meal, and meat only at that meal.
Since Vatican II the Church has tended toward less universal solutions, recognizing the differences between cultures and the place for prudent decisions according to particular situations. For example, lobster on Fridays might match the old rules for abstinence, but not make much sense as penitence in our culture. Similarly, some people might do better giving up television rather than breakfast. And the Church has always recognized that fasting is not practical for every situation, for example when you are sick or have hard work to do.
But Vatican II did not abolish fasting; in fact, it called for more public, communal acts of penitence during Lent, and for a deeper appreciation of “the virtue of penance which leads to the detestation of sin as an offence against God” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 109-110). And though there is much room for prudence, there is also much to learn from the tradition’s insistence on fasting from food. Both Thomas Aquinas (a beefy guy doing very hard intellectual work) and, more recently, the great mid-century German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper, insist that not only can we handle fasting, but it’s actually good for our minds and our work ethic.
That last point is perhaps the key. Fasting is not meant to be unhealthy, it is meant to be healthy. According to a doctor friend of mine, secular studies show that the single greatest thing you can do to increase your lifespan is to eat less. And of course our culture heartily agrees with the Church that eating too much is not good for you.
The Church has always condemned fasting that does damage to your body. The point is, reasonable fasting does not damage your body.
We can think about this in terms of various virtues, and our lack of them. The first one is the virtue of prudence. Prudence just means being smart, making wise decisions. Fasting is an exercise in prudence. According to the great fifth-century monastic founder John Cassian, part of what makes food such an interesting place for spiritual growth is precisely that there is no external measure, because every body is different.
No one can tell you how much fasting is healthy for you, how much or how little you can stay healthy on. Fasting is a practice of prudence, of just being awake enough to figure it out.
Fasting is a reminder, too, that we generally are not very prudent. Fasting reminds us that much of what we think we need is not needed. One of the functions of Lent is to remind us that we have a lot of growing to do. Our relationship with food is unhealthy – not because food is sinful, but because we are! – and our prudence is often falsified.
The deeper problem, of course, is the virtue of temperance. We always want more. Again, there’s nothing wrong with food. Food is not a sin. But there is something disordered when we want more food than is good for us, and insist on more than we really need. Fasting is a reminder of how little we really need.
Of course it’s not meant to say we should never enjoy ourselves. Lent is only forty days of the year, and the celebratory season of Easter is ten days longer. But again, this should make us all the more suspicious of ourselves. Really? Am I so addicted to food that I can’t live on the healthy minimum for just a month and a half (with interruptions!) of the year?
Finally, fasting is about relationships. It is, first, about solidarity. An awful lot of people don’t have the luxury to play fasting for a couple weeks out of the year. Much of the world, and much of history, is full of hungry people. Could you not watch one hour with them? Can we not, occasionally, and without actually hurting ourselves, enter into the experience of our brothers and sisters who are genuinely hungry? Fasting is connected to the more important practice of almsgiving.
And fasting is also about our relationship with God. God is our Creator, our Father, who commands us to ask for daily bread. He doesn’t want us to starve. But honestly, do I love the Giver more, or the Gift? Can I not spend a few days a year reminding myself that God is more precious to me than bacon and eggs? Fasting is connected, too, to the more important practice of prayer.
What is it like for you to be hungry? What do you learn about yourself?