What's So Great About Fasting?
Fasting may not be fun, but it certainly is fruitful.
By Carrie Gress
I think I can honestly say, I used to be terrible at fasting. I tried it in college, with the idea of just eating bread. It was a snap after I realized that challah bread, complete with eggs and sugar, was bread, so it counted, right? One scarcely noticed the deprivation at the end of the day when the loaf was gone (and 2200+ calories had been consumed). Oh dear.
For about 10 years of life, I didn't have to think about fasting, since I was pregnant and/or nursing (and certainly had other sacrifices to offer in my life, like sleep). When I finally stopped nursing, I knew I needed to revisit fasting. But rather than try and do it willy-nilly, as I had before, I needed a better way to tackle it than I had done as co-ed decades ago.
Gratefully, fasting seems to be making a come back, and not just in Catholic circles. Like so many other areas, science and medicine are finding that this age-old practice actually has a lot of benefits for the body.
My friend Jay Richards has also pulled together a great 9-part-fasting resource over at The Stream, covering everything from how to fast, why fasting is good for the body and soul, and why our contemporary diet makes fasting such a challenge.
Megan Schrieber and Becky Carter of Thriving in the Trenches devoted a whole podcast on fasting at the beginning of lent. I was inspired by Schrieber's remark that Christ doesn't say "if you fast," but "when you fast," recognizing that it is truly a spiritual necessity. I was also intrigued by the idea of extending a fast, so I didn't eat bread at every mealtime, but actually skipped eating altogether. I tried it and actually found it to be easier than trying to figure out the right amount of bread to eat. I also found not having to think about what I was going to eat to be very freeing.
Feeling like a had a new way to look at and tackle fasting, I spoke with Thriving in the Trenches host, Becky Carter, more about some of the other benefits that I could look forward to because of fasting.
Gress: What are the spiritual benefits of fasting?
Carter: According to the early Church Fathers, growing in virtue and fighting against sin are the most profitable of the spiritual benefits of fasting. I can not say anything better than the Patristics, so I will leave it to them. St. Ambrose says, “Fasting is the death of sin, the destruction of guilt, the remedy of salvation, the source of grace, and the foundation of chastity.” As for Jerome he continues the list by saying, fasting “is the foundation of all the other virtues; it is sanctification, purity, and prudence.” St. Peter Ravenna adds with charity and holiness. Wow! What anticipation for virtue we should have.
As for the benefit of fighting against sin, St. Leo encourages us by saying that fasting, “gives strength against sin, represses evil desires, repels temptation, humbles pride, cools anger, and fosters all the inclinations of a good will, even unto the practice of every virtue.”
One Father more, the great St. John Chrysostom, adds his own insights: “Fasting purifies the mind, calms the senses, subjects the flesh to the spirit, renders the heart humble and contrite, disperses the clouds of concupiscence, extinguishes the heat of passion, and lights up the fire of chastity.”
Gress: Are there health benefits as well?
Carter: As a well known physician in both research and clinical use of fasting, Dr. Jason Fung states in an article, “Intermittent fasting is the ancient secret of health. It is ancient because it has been practiced throughout all of human history. It’s a secret because this powerful habit has been virtually forgotten. But now many people are re-discovering this dietary intervention. It can carry huge benefits if it is done right: weight loss, increased energy, reversal of type 2 diabetes and many other things. Plus, you’ll save time and money.”
In a society that always complains of being sick and tired of being sick and tired, this perked up my ears. As the Church Fathers also wrote about the mental clarity that comes from fasting, science reports the same benefits. Even the ancient Greek mathematicians and philosophers knew that fasting would increase mental clarity.
Gress: I just had a discussion with my spiritual director about this - he spoke of the always- angry-monks who don't eat enough. While this might be okay for a monk, but not great for a mom or dad, employee, employer, and so on? How do we know when we go too far?
Carter: In my personal discernment and speaking with my spiritual director, we agreed that fasting should not separate me from my family activities. Therefore, it is very rare that I do not sit down and eat a meal with my family every evening. If I am choosing a longer fast, I make sure that I am consuming something, like chicken broth, with them. Also, if it is date night, I am not going to fast while I am celebrating my relationship with my spouse.
There does need to be space of asking God if the grumpies are an invitation to go deeper in trust and faith with Him and not just a rationalization to quit fasting. This is the attitude that has caused the act of fasting to pretty much diminish in our overfed western society. But the discomfort of fasting, as we saw in the Church Father's, has a lot to offer.
If you feel like fasting is becoming an idol or a source of manipulation to achieve an unhealthy body weight, it would be best to revisit the spirituality part of this discipline. This is not an OK form of an eating disorder that needs medical attention.
Gress: What is the best way to go about doing it?
Carter: Many do have a bit of a longer adjustment period to fasting. If you live on a higher carb diet, you may have a harder time getting your insulin reserves to diminish so that your hormones and blood sugars settle down and you feel less like a yo-yo or that you will die or vomit of hunger. First and foremost, with all medical disclaimers satisfied, ask the Lord for the discernment and the grace to be able to add this ancient practice. Keep reading Dr. Fung’s articles on the art of fasting and for more tips on gaining health while fasting.
Most importantly, make this a spiritual practice; make it profitable not only for your body, but also for the Body of Christ. Join your hunger to the crucified Christ. Give this offering to the Blessed Virgin Mary, asking her to present your heaviest burdens and prayers to God on your behalf. Even scripture tell us that there are some evils can only be remedied with fasting.
I also just discovered the sayings of an obscure saint, Asterius of Amasea, a fifth century bishop who wrote, "Fasting is an intimate friend of the saints; fasting is the originator of every good deed." The saint continues, "Angels are close guardians and keepers of the homes of those who fast." Great things for us to keep in mind, particularly when our stomachs are rumbling. Fasting may not be fun, but it certainly is fruitful.