First, while it is true that fasting is not the most important thing in the world, this does not make fasting irrelevant or unimportant. There are, certainly, more urgent things to abstain from than food or drink, such as maliciousness, backbiting, grumbling, etc. But a person is mistaken to conclude that he therefore does not need to fast. He should not believe that he can ignore fasting and instead abstain in more important matters. Rather, fasting and avoiding those other vices go hand in hand. Fasting must accompany efforts to abstain in greater matters. For one thing, fasting teaches a person how to abstain in the first place.May your Lent be holy, and may you be pierced by the transcendent beauty of God who is our chief Good and End, our true Happiness.
Moreover, it is presumptuous for a person to try to practice the greater virtues without first paying attention to the smaller ones. As Our Lord says, "He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much" and so can be trusted with greater things. Therefore, if a person wants to be able to abstain in greater matters he must not neglect to abstain in smaller matters, such as through fasting.
Finally, there is a subtle form of pride present in the person who says that because something is not very important, he does not need to do it. Whoever makes such a claim implies that he does only important things. But the average person is rarely called to do very important things. Accordingly, each person is more likely to be judged on how he did the little, everyday things. Even when, rarely, a person is called to do a great work, how often does he fall short? All the more reason, then, for a person to make sure that he at least does the small things well. Furthermore, if he truly loves the Lord, he will gladly do anything–big or small–for him. So, in the end, saying that fasting is not the most important thing is not a good excuse for avoiding it.
What, then, is the reason for fasting? To answer this let us first clarify what fasting entails. It involves more than the occasional fast, such as on Good Friday. To be effective, fasting requires disciplined eating habits all the time. There are certainly days when a person should make a greater effort at abstaining from food and drink. These are what we usually consider days of fasting and they must be practiced regularly. But, still, there are never days when a person is allowed to abandon all restraint. A person must always practice some restraint over his appetites or those periodic days of fasting arc valueless. Always keeping a check on his desires, a person develops good habits, which foster constancy in his interior life. So, in addition to practicing days of fasting on a regular basis, a person should continuously restrain his desires, such as those that incline him to eat too much, to be too concerned with what he eats, or to eat too often.
We might, then speak of the discipline of fasting in order to avoid the impression that fasting is sporadic. The operative principle behind the discipline of fasting is simple: to limit yourself to only what is necessary for your physical and psychological health–no more, no less. St. Augustine puts it concisely when he teaches: "As far as your health allows, keep your bodily appetites in check by fasting and abstinence from food and drink." So, fasting is meant only to keep a person's unnecessary wants in check. A person is not– nor is he permitted–to deny himself what is necessary for his health. The discipline of fasting instead asks a person to check his desires for what is superfluous and not necessary.
Tuesday, February 05, 2008
The Lenten Fast
W. posted this link in a comment and I thought it was worth quoting parts of it here. From Ignatius Insight by Brother Austin Murphy, OSB, in the section "Doing Small Things Well"