A friend in seminary once shared how all of the students would try to “outdo” one another during Lent. They would wake up to screams in the morning because a handful of them gave up hot water and couldn’t hold back their wailing during that icy morning wake-up call. Some of them wouldn’t be able to sit long during class because of aching backs from trading the comfort of mattresses for their hardwood floors. Seems a bit excessive, right?
Maybe, but it shines the light on the person making such an effort. We fast to strip away the things that keep us from the One whom we truly desire to meet, to imitate, and to love. We deny ourselves comforts, and suffer through hunger and cold showers and hard floors, because our misery becomes company when it draws us to Christ, when we are joining our sufferings to his for the sake of the world and our own souls.
Tomorrow, the Catholic Church kicks off the season of Lent with Ash Wednesday, a day of fasting and abstinence. The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us:
The seasons and days of penance in the course of the liturgical year (Lent, and each Friday in memory of the death of the Lord) are intense moments of the Church’s penitential practice. These times are particularly appropriate for spiritual exercises, penitential liturgies, pilgrimages as signs of penance, voluntary self-denial such as fasting and almsgiving, and fraternal sharing (charitable and missionary works). (CCC 1438)
Every Ash Wednesday, social media is flooded with cries of only remembering the abstinence “after I finished the last piece of chicken on my plate!” There will be complaints about how hard it is to skip the meat and to fast (we’re only asked to endure two very small meals, along with one ordinary meal!), questions about what constitutes a small meal, and more. But our fasts and abstinences, our extra devotions and disciplines, are about more than just “following rules.”
Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are the bookends to the journey of Lent, and they rightly ask each of us to make meaningful sacrifices. While we focus on the particulars, our desire for an interior life of peace should be the fuel that helps us burn through the uncomfortable days of fasting and abstinence, and the forty days of doing something more.
One Lent, I was moved to do the “if possible” part of the Lenten abstinence and fasting guidelines, and fasted from Holy Thursday until after the conclusion of the Easter Vigil on Saturday night. I remember visiting my spiritual director on Holy Saturday, and we sat down to pray Morning Prayer. During the pauses, you could hear my stomach growling, and he responded, “Don’t worry about that. Those noises will pass.”
I have not taken on that particular discipline again since, and I only share it now in order to say that it can be done by mere mortal laypeople, when they feel called to it, as well as to attest to the discomfort of long days of fasting. But it’s no Ramadan (thirty days of no food or drink from sunrise to sunset); our bodies are capable of giving up much more than we think, and such denial often provides healing and focus in areas of profound woundedness or complacency.
Eventually, the bodily aches of fasting and abstinence give way to virtue. Although it may feel like we are taking something away from ourselves, it is better understood as a reorienting of our appetites in order to answer the call to holiness. The entire season of Lent calls us to this, but its bookends are opportunities to shout down the rumbling stomach, stop aching for more luxury and exterior focus; take away a few small comforts until you are left in the silence and beauty of interior freedom.
There will be moments when you want to give up, because sometimes, yes, it’s difficult. You will want to order a chicken salad sandwich on a Friday; you will naturally turn on the hot water in the shower, or lay down on your mattress—“just for a moment”—and end up sleeping the night. None of that means you’ve failed, so keep going. When those moments come, remember the communion of saints and let those who have gone before us instruct and inspire, for they have faced the same difficulties and found the determination to overcome. And remember, in the words of St. Josemaría Escrivá, “A saint is a sinner who keeps trying.”
Here are some insights from the saints to help with our Lenten journey:
“Temper all your works with moderation, that is to say, all your abstinence, your fasting, your vigils, and your prayers, for temperance sustains your body and soul with the proper measure, lest they fail. It reminds an honorable person that he is ashes and shall return to ashes [cf. Gen 3.19] —St. Hildegard of Bingen
“Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one’s flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, quenches the fire of lust, kindles the true light of chastity.” —St. Augustine
“How shall we have the means to help our brother who is in need? We can do without those unnecessary things which become habits, cigarettes, liquor, coffee, tea, candy, sodas, soft drinks and those foods at meals which only titillate the palate. We all have these habits, the youngest and the oldest. And we have to die to ourselves in order to live, we have to put off the old man and put on Christ. That it is so hard, that it arouses so much opposition, serves to show what an accumulation there is in all of us of unnecessary desires.” —Dorothy Day
“Never forget that there are only two philosophies to rule your life: the one of the cross, which starts with the fast and ends with the feast. The other of Satan, which starts with the feast and ends with the headache.” —Archbishop Fulton Sheen
“There are a lot of things you can give to Jesus—I don’t like to say, ‘Give it up.’ Well, you’re going to take it back. But give it to Jesus for Lent.” —Mother Angelica
“Fasting is directed to two things, the deletion of sin, and the raising of the mind to heavenly things.” —St. Thomas Aquinas
“Fasting of the body is food for the soul.” —St. John Chrysostom
“Nothing great is ever achieved without much enduring.” —St. Catherine of Siena
“I do not know you, God, because I am in the way. Please help me to push myself aside.” —Flannery O’Connor
“Let the mouth fast from foul words and unjust criticism for what good is it if we abstain from birds and fishes but bite and devour our brothers.” —St. John Chyrsostom
“Where there is no prayer and fasting, there are demons.” —St. Theophan the Recluse
“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.” —St. Francis de Sales
“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.’” —Pope Paul VI
“Today, especially in affluent societies, St. Augustine’s warning is more timely than ever: ‘Enter again into yourself.’ Yes, we must enter again into ourselves, if we want to find ourselves. Not only our spiritual life is at stake, but indeed, our personal, family, and social equilibrium itself. One of the meanings of penitential fasting is to help us recover an interior life. Moderation, recollection, and prayer go hand in hand.” —Pope John Paul II