There are two types of Catholics in the world, those who stay up until midnight on Ash Wednesday to eat every snack in the pantry once it’s technically Thursday, and those who go to bed at 8 p.m. on Ash Wednesday so they can wake up as early as possible to eat bacon and eggs. Fasting is a difficult discipline and the hunger pangs often make our bodies question why we put ourselves through such an ordeal. Abstinence from food doesn’t feel natural, and even though it has health benefits that range from losing weight to decreasing insulin levels, without the prompting of the Church I know I would never do it.
Why do we fast? Like any penance, the key is understanding that it’s about how making a sacrifice sets us free and opens us up to spiritual progress. Fasting isn’t only about lack of food, and it isn’t about torturing ourselves. It’s about developing virtue. Every act can be good or bad. Every act, if done with clear intention, can be made virtuous. St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that fasting helps us to bring virtue to our everyday actions, and the good that we create by intentionally sacrificing food diffuses itself through the rest of our lives. Because of that, we point out the good that results from fasting.
St. Thomas points out three such benefits of fasting.
Fasting helps us master our desires. The virtues are all connected; if we practice the particular virtue of fasting, we’ll notice benefits in other areas of our lives. When we master our desire for food, that is helpful in mastering other desires of the flesh. Fasting brings spiritual focus. If you’re struggling with a particular vice or unhealthy attachment, try fasting in order to combat it.
Fasting lifts our minds to heaven. St. Thomas writes, “We have recourse to fasting in order that the mind may arise more freely to the contemplation of heavenly things.” He goes on to mention how Daniel received a revelation from God after fasting for three weeks. It’s often the case that prayer and spiritual contemplation is enhanced by fasting. If you have a big decision to make or are seeking direction for your life, try fasting as you pray.
Fasting makes restitution for past sin. Although God is happy and quick to forgive our sins, they still leave damage behind that must be repaired. To make restitution for sins and turn more fully to Jesus, fasting is helpful. The prophet Joel linked the two when he wrote, “Be converted to Me with all your heart, in fasting and in weeping and in mourning.” To more quickly recover from the lingering issues caused by past sin, fast with the intention of making satisfaction to God.
Good food is a wonderful thing and life should be full of feasting, but if we want it too much, it becomes symbolic of our struggle with desire of earthly things. The Church’s prescription to fast is an opportunity to overcome temptation and draw closer to Jesus.
Father Rennier is parochial administrator of Epiphany of Our Lord Parish in St. Louis. A former Anglican priest, he was ordained in 2016 under a pastoral provision for the reception of Anglicans and Episcopalians into full communion with the Catholic Church. He and his wife, Amber, have six children.