Fasting gives birth to prophets and strengthens the powerful; fasting makes lawgivers wise. Fasting is a good safeguard for the soul, a steadfast companion for the body, a weapon for the valiant, and a gymnasium for athletes. Fasting repels temptations, anoints unto piety; it is the comrade of watchfulness and the artificer of chastity. In war it fights bravely, in peace it teaches stillness. – St. Basil the Great
Are you struggling with a sin? I mean a sin that you just can’t seem to get rid of; a sin that is keeps you in a constant state of guilt and despair. You’ve prayed, you’ve frequented the sacraments, but you just can’t seem to break its hold.
We’ve all been there at one point or another, and such struggles are part and parcel of the spiritual life. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Today, I want to introduce you to a very powerful, but much neglected weapon in the spiritual arsenal: Fasting.
If you want to put to energize your spiritual life, if you want to slay a sin that has you in bondage, if you want to grow in union with God, take up the holy weapon of fasting. For as Jesus said, there are some demons that “cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting.”
Let’s examine this powerful weapon and its use in the spiritual life.
What’s the point?
From her earliest days, the Church has taught the need for asceticism in the life of every Christian. That’s right—asceticism is not just monks and priests, but for laymen too. But what do I mean by asceticism? For our purposes, asceticism can be loosely defined as self-denial with the ultimate goal of self-control. And this self denial most often takes the form of, you guessed it, fasting.
Asceticism is necessary for everyone because of our passions—intense fleshly desires, which are sometimes referred to as concupiscence. Experience teaches us that we our often lead about by these desires in a way we can barely control. St. Paul tells us that “the impulses of nature and the impulses of the spirit are at war with one another.”1 This war is so intense that our passions often lead us to do things we don’t want to do, and we find ourselves saying, “My own actions bewilder me; what I do is not what I wish to do, but something which I hate.”2
Keep in mind that the passions of our flesh are not necessarily wrong, but because of our fallen nature, they are out of control and they want to dominate us. Left unchecked, our passions will lead us to soul destroying behavior like gluttony, hatred, disordered sexual acts, or addictions of all kinds. Eventually, their dominion will lead us to hell. “The sinful passions…yield increase only to death,” explains St. Paul.3
Faced with the reality of the passions, it can be easy to become discouraged and think we can never overcome them. We cry, “Pitiable creature that I am, who is to set me free from a nature thus doomed to death?”4
Fortunately, that’s not the end of the story, and we are not left as helpless slaves to concupiscence. “The spiritual principle of life has set me free, in Christ Jesus, from the principle of sin and death.”5
Through the grace of God, and by walking in the new life purchased for us by Jesus Christ, we can overcome and subdue our passions. We can live as children of God, free from the law of sin that leads to death.
So how do we find this freedom practically speaking? Again, St. Paul explains:
“Nature has no longer any claim upon us, that we should live a life of nature. If you life a life of nature, you are marked out for death; if you mortify the ways of nature through the power of the Spirit, you will have life.”6
“Those who belong to Christ have crucified nature, with all its passions, all its impulses.”7
“I buffet my own body, and make it my slave.”8
In other words, we find freedom from the passions by mortifying them, putting them to death, through the practice of grace-empowered asceticism—specifically, fasting. Fasting helps us tame the wild stallion of our flesh and bring it under the bridle of self-control.
In his apostolic constitution on penance, Painitemini, Pope Paul VI explains this point clearly:
This exercise of bodily mortification—far removed from any form of stoicism—does not imply a condemnation of the flesh which sons of God deign to assume. On the contrary mortification aims at the “liberation” of man, who often finds himself, because of concupiscence, almost chained by his own senses. Through “corporal fasting” man regains strength and the “wound inflicted on the dignity of our nature by intemperance is cured by the medicine of a salutary abstinence.”
How to Fast
Now that we’ve discussed the purpose of fasting, let’s take a look at how to build fasting into our daily lives.
1. Start with the basics – The first step in fasting is obeying the law of the Church—fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, abstaining from meat on Fridays, and observing the Eucharistic fast (do not eat or drink one hour before communion).
Regarding abstaining from meat on Friday, it’s true that it is technically is not required in the U.S., but some sort of food-based penance or sacrifice is still required. But instead of trying to invent some new penance, why not just stick with what Catholics have always done? Abstain from meat on Fridays. There’s a good reason for it.
Men, fasting two days a year and abstaining from meat on Fridays is incredibly easy. In the “old days”, fasting was required every weekday in Lent. And there was once even a time when that fasting required abstinence from all dairy products. There were a ton of other fasts and days of abstinence throughout the liturgical year as well. I would say that we have it easier than any other period in Catholic history. So let’s start with the basics and obey the law of the Church without grumbling or complaining.
2. Add more – As Catholic men, we should never be satisfied with the bare minimum. We should seek to constantly pursue a deeper conversion. St. Francis de Sales gives some good advice in this regard:
If you are able to fast, you will do well to observe some days beyond what are ordered by the Church, for besides the ordinary effect of fasting in raising the mind, subduing the flesh, confirming goodness, and obtaining a heavenly reward, it is also a great matter to be able to control greediness, and to keep the sensual appetites and the whole body subject to the law of the Spirit; and although we may be able to do but little, the enemy nevertheless stands more in awe of those whom he knows can fast.
Accordingly, once you’ve begun to follow the law of the Church, build on that foundation to include fasting in other ways. Here are some ideas:
- Skip one meal extra a week, like breakfast or lunch. In addition to Fridays, Wednesdays are traditional days of fasting, so that might be a good day to start with.
- Deny yourself dessert on set days. Most of us eat too much sugar anyway.
- Skip salt on your food.
- Fast from soda. It’s terrible for you!
- Skip the beer or other alcoholic drinks when going out to eat.
- Don’t eat between meals. This sounds easy, but try it. You’ll find it’s quite hard since most of us snack frequently and don’t even realize it.
- Include things besides food. For example, fast from all technology one day a week.
- Fast (one main meal with two small snacks) one day a week.
- Drink only water.
Now, you don’t have to fast from all of these things all of the time. It is best to choose set days for fasting, like the Wednesdays or Fridays mentioned above. Doing so helps keep our fasting consistent.
3. Fast from sin – Bodily fasting is meaningless unless it is joined with a spiritual fast from sin. St. Basil gives the following exhortation regarding fasting:
Let us fast an acceptable and very pleasing fast to the Lord. True fast is the estrangement from evil, temperance of tongue, abstinence from anger, separation from desires, slander, falsehood and perjury. Privation of these is true fasting.
4. Pray – Fasting is not simply a matter of will power. Grace is absolutely necessary. While fasting energies prayer, prayer energizes fasting. Both are weak without the other.
As you fast to conquer your passions, pray constantly for the grace of God to flood your soul, beg for the virtues in which you need to mature, and ask for strength in the spiritual warfare.
5. Beware of Pride – With any kind of self-discipline, penance, or fasting comes a temptation to pride. We face the danger of believing that we are superior to others because we fast, or thinking that fasting is an end in itself. But fasting itself is never the goal, nor does it make us perfect or more spiritual than others. Rather, fasting is an aid, a training tool in our ascent toward perfection, which is found in a pure, self-giving love of God and neighbor.
“Be on your guard when you begin to mortify your body by abstinence and fasting,” says St. Jerome, “lest you imagine yourself to be perfect and a saint; for perfection does not consist in this virtue. It is only a help; a disposition; a means though a fitting one, for the attainment of true perfection.”
If we neglect fasting, our spiritual life will always be mediocre. We will be weak in the combat against our passions, we will easily succumb to temptation, and we will never truly overcome our inherent selfishness and self-indulgence.
As men, our desire should be to strengthen ourselves and be the best that we can be. We should train ourselves to be strong in the spiritual warfare, so we can resist the temptations of the evil one. There is no better way to begin this spiritual training than through the practice of fasting.
1 Galatians 5:17
2 Romans 7:15
3 Romans 7:5
4 Romans 7:24
5 Romans 8:1
6 Romans 8:13
7 Galatians 5:24
8 1 Corinthians 9:27