Choosing Joy: the hidden gifts of fasting

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“To deny one’s self in order to follow Christ.
“To chastise the body.
“Not to seek after pleasures.
“To love fasting.”

The Rule of St. Benedict, The Instruments of Good Works (Chp. 4)

Praised be Jesus Christ!

Septuagesima has come! Cue the countdown to Lent! Cue the Tracts! Farewell the Alleluia and Gloria (except on feast days, like that of St. Martina today)! And cue the approach of the Holy Fasts.

  “And every one that striveth for the mastery refraineth himself from all things. . .
I therefore so run, not as at an uncertainty; I so fight, not as one beating the air: but I chastise my body, and bring it into subjection. . .”
-Epistle from Septuagesima Sunday

The Lord has gently begun to turn my heart and mind towards the thought of fasting; especially in light of the vocation I am seeking, one which fasting is a pillar of. After all, the holy founder of the Benedictine family admonished his sons to love fasting. To love it.

But what is there to love about fasting? What hidden beauty and joy is really hidden in austerity, self-denial, and hunger? And is it truly important, not only to do, but to love?

 If one peers at fasting as it was once practiced, not only by great Saints but by the whole Church–the full Lenten fast (fasting on one full meal and two small ones, etc., every weekday of Lent), the from-midnight Eucharistic fast, vigil fasts, Ember Days–this idea of fasting starts to seem important, while at the same time becomes less frightening. If our Holy Mother the Church, in the richness of her wisdom and tradition and love, prescribed fasting for her children on such a regular basis, then it must be good, healthy, and not harmful. Certainly it must be important.

To go even further, if Christ Himself–purity and innocence Itself–fasted for forty days in a desert, it must have been (at least in part) to unveil to us the hidden gifts of fasting, to dispel our fear of it. Our Lord hungered to show us that fasting is a friend, a helper, and a true necessity of our souls, to be loved and sought after and practiced faithfully.

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“This kind cannot be cast out but by prayer and fasting.”
Mark 9: 28

For me, the instrument which St. Benedict names right before the love of fasting is a great key to understanding fasting: Not to seek after pleasures.

I will be the first to admit that, coming from a family that loves food, I often find myself seeking after pleasure by the act of eating. While this may seem innocent enough, I am beginning to realize that, while the pleasure may very well be innocent, the seeking is subtly but truly harmful. It is a lie of my concupiscence that prompts me to seek after pleasures for my body, blinding me to the fullness of joy and satisfaction which, by grace, I possess already in Christ dwelling within my soul. Truly it is a disordered symptom of fallen nature that makes me feel somehow discontented and in need of diversion and pleasure, when in my heart of hearts, I possess God.

“Virtue, even attempted virtue, brings clarity. Indulgence brings fog.”
-C. S. Lewis

While concupiscence certainly rears its head against my soul in areas besides that of food, fasting is a wonderful antidote to the whole problem, because instantly it causes me to step back, to detach from the fog of distraction and pleasure and blindness. It is really like a spiritual silence, a stillness in my inmost being that allows space for me to refocus upon God, for Whom my soul pines with a hunger quieter than that of the body but far more deadly whenever I turn myself towards anything but Him. Fasting turns me towards God as my one and only End, my one and only Joy, the only One to be sought.

That is the first beautiful gift that fasting discloses to the soul; it empties, only to make room for the fullness of God; it stings, but only in order to wake the soul to the presence of its only true Comforter; it weakens, but only to lead to soul to realize its weakness and obtain ultimate security by casting itself upon God. Fasting, in a word, turns us back to God.

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Closely knit to the first, the second gift is a mighty one as well: the act of denying ourselves strengthens us, just as the act of indulgence weakens us, in resisting sin and thus overturns concupiscence itself. Fasting, united to the fasting and sufferings of Christ, is a powerful remedy to our fallen nature. What a gift! What a weapon to be laid hold of with eagerness!

“Lord, give bread to those who have hunger,
and hunger of Thee to those who have bread.”
-Haitian Proverb

Fasting is also very useful in reminding us of the hunger pangs of the poor–and of the pain of Christ Who ever suffers in them. Feeling a little of what the hungry feel detaches us, at least on occasion, from the thoughtless ‘security’ of our daily lives. It is one thing to be hungry when you know that, if you feel like you’re about to pass out, you can run to the pantry for some crackers. It’s another thing–difficult to truly imagine–to be without food and altogether helpless to obtain it, for yourself or your family. Yet that true hunger consumes so much of the world beyond my home. It is a sobering thought–one that pulls me out of myself, encourages both compassion and gratitude, and moves me to pray for others, which is always good!

It’s true that fasting isn’t fun. But, as Father Augustine Wetta said so well in his book Humility Rules:

“Everyone comes to a point in his life where he has to choose between fun and joy. And to choose the former over the latter leads to a whole lot of emptiness. These decisions aren’t always life-changing, but they do have a cumulative effect; and they are often very difficult because  joy takes work. Ironically, the rich young man went away sad because he threw in his lot with fun.”

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Fasting is one of those points in my spiritual journey. It’s fun to eat as much as I want, when I want, because I want to. But there is incredible joy–matchless joy–in seeking nothing but God, in refraining myself from everything to strive for the mastery of the life of love. I choose joy!

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An Act of Love
(From the 1962 Missal from Angelus Press)
To be said before receiving Holy Communion

As the hart panteth after the fountains of water, so my soul panteth after Thee, O God!
My soul hath thirsted after the strong living God;  when shall I go
and appear before the face of God?
For what have I in heaven? and besides Thee, what do I desire upon earth?
Let blind and infatuated worldlings intoxicate themselves with the
false, transient, and fading happiness of this life; for my part,
nothing besides Thyself can content me, either in heaven or on earth.
Come then, O Thou Lamb of God, Who takest away the sins of the world!
Come, Thou Beloved of my heart! Come, to nourish, comfort, and enliven my sickly soul. O God of my heart! let me neither love, seek, nor think on any other object
but Thyself alone; for Thou alone art my consolation,
my treasure, my joy, my life, my all!
“My heart and my flesh have rejoiced in the living God. . .
Thou art, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God!”
“Who will give me wings like a dove and I will fly and be at rest!”

God bless you!
In our Loving Lady,
Lena

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