What’s your take on fasting? If you’re a well-adjusted God-fearing, healthy individual, it’s always a good thing, right? Recently, God the Father surprised me by His answer.
Why am I even thinking about fasting now?! According to the liturgical calendar, we are squarely in a season of feasting. Woohoo! Lemme at the goodies! Yesterday we marked the joyful feast of the Epiphany. Our family joined another family at a doughnut shop after Mass. And what says feasting better than greasy fried cakes covered with icing and sprinkles? Nothing in my book. While I did manage to refrain from partaking in the sugary treats this time, the truth is, ever since Christmas Eve I have taken to the feasting principle like a portly duck to buoyant waters. Who doesn’t enjoy all the great foods that accompany our jubilant holy days during the Christmas season? I single-handedly made enough pizzelles to supply the Italian World Cup soccer team for a good year. Santo Cielo!
I’ve definitely got the feasting down. Check. But the fasting part of our faith… Let’s just say it doesn’t come naturally to me—unless you consider a full-blown ugly cry to be a normal response for a middle-aged adult. It was my failures in the lead-up to Christmas that have caused me to rethink my standards on fasting.
Before the feast of the Nativity of Our Lord, I did my level best to practice moderation. I strived to simply go without desserts or snacks when possible. I made an effort to use Advent as the time of intense preparation the Church intends it to be and consciously put off the celebration while the rest of the world was shopping and partying it up. Spoiler alert: I didn’t always nail it. There were days I managed to abstain and other days that were downright laughable. Strangely, I’m okay with that, even though my spotty fasting record was a very scaled down version from my initial plan. Normally, I’d consider this a collapsing defeat, but it’s taken some time and a pow-wow with the Big Guy to recalibrate my new, more holistic approach to fasting.
Back when the news broke about the clergy sexual abuse crisis sometime late summer, I was deeply affected and wanted to do something. But what? Everything I read and heard pointed to more prayer and fasting. Not necessarily the answer I was seeking. Wasn’t there someone I could just call and yell at for a while? That’s more of a charism for me. Everyone seemed really convinced about the whole fasting thing. So, I
grudgingly eagerly joined some of my fellow parishioners who planned to fast in reparation for the Church. Now with great zeal and the heart of an underdog, I began fasting Wednesdays and Fridays in early September with the end goal being December 24th at dusk. I felt like one of those contestants on The Biggest Loser. No one thought I had it in me, but I was fueled by heavenly motivation. I was gonna do this!
A little back story is required here. I used to be one of those wan Catholics who mistakenly thought fasting meant you opted out of meat on Fridays and went for a posh fish dinner instead, maybe an expensive cut of salmon or sea bass. Yum. Or when I was growing up, it was the mouthwatering filet-o-fish from McDonald’s—deep fried fish slathered with cheese and tartar sauce. Yup, some serious sacrifice there.
For those of you who are wondering precisely what I mean by fasting, I was planning to follow the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ standards for Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. (Ironically, some of the people who required my fasting the most.)
“When fasting, a person is permitted to eat one full meal, as well as two smaller meals that together are not equal to a full meal. The norms concerning abstinence from meat are binding upon members of the Latin Catholic Church from age 14 onwards.”
In addition, I would abstain from any between-meal snacking. No problemo. Gulp.
About a month into my fasting challenge, I hit my stride. It was tough, but it felt as though I was building real virtue. My discipline and restraint were being sculpted and honed. This was one of the longest stretches of consistent fasting in my lifetime. Then I hit an itty bitty bump in the road. Hormones are a funny thing… I had had an awful morning. I woke up exhausted. The kids played dead in their beds until my shouts of “Get up now, OR ELSE!” finally roused them. It was as if they moved in quicksand, while I frantically rushed around trying to herd them out the door. It was all punctuated by clusters of angry exchanges and griping. Mercifully, my little cherubs finally exited the car and were out of my hair. But my day only ramped up. I volunteered that morning for a task that felt particularly physically taxing. I had a persistent headache and tickle in my throat that signaled impending viral doom. I argued with a sibling.
My morning caffeine was no longer sustaining me. Mere fumes now. I drove home in despair. I seriously needed a snack. What did I have in the car? There’s usually a stash of goldfish or some such kiddie treat buried in my purse or minivan. While I began urgently rummaging for a few Tic Tacs or stray Altoids, (seven or eight can be remarkably filling) I remembered it was a fasting day and it was only 10:15. The realization struck me like a smack to the face. I drove home with gritted teeth and a growling belly. I HAD to fast… I made a promise and I wasn’t about to let my Father down. Cue the ugly cry.
In the midst of my mawkish one-person pity party, I was struck by the comforting image of God the Father loving me unconditionally in my present “misery.” I felt very close to Him and felt His consolation. I remembered my own dad when I was experiencing heartache or a really bad day. He wouldn’t have asked me to ratchet up the suffering. “What you really need right now is to suck it up and meet your goal or you’re letting me down and you’ve lost it all.” The thought is ludicrous. He would have told me to take care of myself and that all would be okay. He would be deeply concerned with my well-being and health. He would suffer for seeing me in distress.
As I pulled into the driveway, the feeling of God’s love surrounded me in the darkness and quiet of my garage. An all-loving, all-knowing Father didn’t want me to suffer more by my self-imposed benchmark. If I gorged on the whole tin of Altoids with a family-size bag of Ruffles on the side, he was fine with that. (Actually, seeing as that wouldn’t be particularly healthy, he would rightly caution me against it.) I felt certain that He was telling me that today was not a good day to fast. No condemnation. No disappointment. No lack of love. In fact, He lovingly wanted to accompany me that I might persevere without being crippled by self-reproach and self-doubt. He merely wanted my heart. Relaxation seemed to permeate every cell of my body. I broke my fast that morning and did so without guilt. I felt God smiling on me in that moment.
The next Friday, I picked up my fasting routine. I believe there is great ancient wisdom in the practice. We are uniting our suffering with Christ’s while building temperance and discipline. And I’m convinced our world would be a better place if more people fasted in reparation for sin. So once again, I attempted fasting with the enthusiasm of a new puppy. It worked. And once I again I messed up. But here’s the newsflash: God doesn’t expect perfection AT ALL. We put that on ourselves. He knows we’re going to fail, but he’s encouraging us along the way and doesn’t want us to get caught up in the self-hate tunnel spin. That’s most certainly NOT of God.
So, in the midst of this season of feasting, enjoy! Lent is just around the corner. I don’t know about you, but I will be looking forward to giving fasting another whole-HEARTED try!
If you want more info for your future fast, I found this essay on fasting from The Catholic Gentleman to be helpful.