And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, afterwards he was hungry. – Matthew 4:2
The Scriptures are sometimes amusing in their understatement. Perhaps one of the most obvious examples of this is when St. Matthew describes how Jesus was feeling after fasting for forty days. Think about how you feel if you have to skip a meal because you’re out running errands or have a busy day at work.
“Oh my gosh, I’m starving.”
“I was so hungry I thought I was going to die.”
“I could eat a horse right now.”
We have any number of cliches to express the pangs of hunger we feel when our pampered bodies do not get the nourishment they want, right when they want it. And believe me when I say that I do not mention these things as an admonishment. Really, it’s more of a confession.
I’m horrible at fasting. Always have been. Every time I hear someone say that our present crisis requires “more prayer…” I do a fist pump and say “YEAH!” – but then, they inevitably finish with, “…and fasting” – and I become instantly sullen. “Jeeze. Why is that person such an extremist about everything?”
I love food. I’ll admit it. In the world travelling I did in my youth, some of my most profound memories are food-related. The first time I had authentic tacos and fresh, fire-roasted salsa in Mexico. The first time I ate alligator in Louisiana, or had crawfish etoufee at a Cajun grandmother’s kitchen in Ville Platte. Moose stew and Bannock in the little First Nation village of Berens River, Canada. Roasted pork and fresh-grated horseradish in Dürnstein, Austria. Wienerschnitzel en route to Vienna. Incredible white pasta and house wine in Assisi. Churros and Chocolate in San Sebastian, or sauteed Octopus in Santiago de Compostella. Black meat pudding, parsley, potatoes and sauerkraut in Krakow. Smoked sausages and mustard, juice dripping from their crisped casings, purchased from a street cart in Wenceslaus Square in Prague. Real Hungarian Goulash in Budapest. Bahn Mi or pho in the Vietnamese enclaves of Virginia. Any and every time I’ve ever had exquisite Dim Sum.
Suffice to say, food and I are great friends, and I carry around the extra pounds to prove it. My lovely bride and I experienced the first spark in our relationship when she asked if I’d like to join her for lunch at a sushi place in downtown Phoenix. (We were co-workers at the time.) In a manner of speaking, you could say we dined our way into a shared life together, our joy over great food and life fully lived forming the initial basis of our blossoming romance. If there was a film that captured our ethos, it would have perhaps been Big Night, or better yet, Babette’s Feast. And we didn’t just go out. My wife — as anyone who knows her will tell you — is a phenomenal cook. Friends and family never turn down an opportunity to come to our house when Jamie is offering to feed them.
I’m supposed to be writing about fasting, and all I can talk about is eating.
The point is, this Lent, despite (or perhaps because of) my proclivities toward gustatory delight, I’ve decided I really need to get a handle on this whole fasting thing. I know, however much I don’t like it, that it’s part and parcel of any authentic development of the spiritual life. And I already know that what the Church requires of us today isn’t going to cut it. Fasting for two days out of forty is kid stuff. If I want to understand spiritual discipline, I have to take on the traditional Catholic practice of Lenten fasting.
What is the traditional Catholic practice? I’m so glad you asked. We owe it to ourselves to understand how our grandparents (or parents) lived the faith in the not-so-old days. Since there’s no English translation of the 1917 Code of Canon Law available online, I’ll point you to the guidelines on traditional fasting provided by the SSPX, which reference that code.
The upshot is this: fasting in the pre-conciliar Church was serious business. Catholics of just a generation ago had to fast every day of Lent – not just on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Moreover, they had to abstain from meat in all but the main meal of the day every day of Lent. Fasting and complete abstinence was required on all Fridays and Saturdays of Lent, along with Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, Ember Days and Holy Saturday until the end of the Easter Vigil Mass. There’s a reason why Sundays have retained their status as the days off from Lenten discipline. Back then, it was the only day of the week when you were allowed to eat three square, delicious meat-filled meals – a far more significant concession than just getting your weekly chocolate fix.
I’m so hungry just thinking about it.
And yet, I want to try this. I talk all the time about the way things were done back then, and why they were better. I believe it, but I still wimp out and follow the current law when it makes things easier. Still, if I’m going to talk the talk, can I walk the walk?
The big question I had was: how do I tackle this? It seems like it should be simple. Just don’t eat, right? But that never works. Hunger is a powerful appetite, and eventually, I always give in. I want to do this right, and to be honest, I had no idea where to begin. So while it may seem counterintuitive based on what I’ve told you so far, the first person I turned to for advice was my wife. Something I’ve learned over the years is that while I was instrumental in bringing her into the Church, she is a far, far better Catholic than I will likely ever be. She outprays me. She out-sacrifices. She is generous where I am selfish. She is joyful where I am grumpy. And she does most of these things so quietly I don’t often realize how far ahead of me she is on the path to sanctification. In a recent conversation, I discovered that she’s been doing traditional Catholic fasting for years.
“Fasting is only hard at first.” She told me. “You have to embrace it. When it starts to hurt, when the pains begin, think about Jesus being crucified. Think about the nail going into His hand. Then ask yourself, ‘Which pain would I prefer? This pain, or that pain?'”
“You have to pray, too.” She continued. “When your stomach starts to rumble, pray a ‘Hail Mary.’ Pray as many as you have to to get through it. If it interrupts your work, so what? This is more important. You have to offer it up, and unite your suffering with His.”
Does it get easier? I asked her.
“It does.” She assured me. “I’ve been doing this for years now, and I almost don’t even notice the hunger anymore.”
Like any man who gets sound (but difficult!) advice from his wife, I did the only thing I could do. I got a second opinion. To the Google! Only there was no weaseling out of it.
“We have this fast too as an ally,” writes St. John Chrysostom. “and as an assistant in this good intercession.” What he says next is long, but important. Forgive me for citing it at length:
Therefore, as when the winter is over and the summer is appearing, the sailor draws his vessel to the deep; and the soldier burnishes his arms, and makes ready his steed for the battle; and the husbandman sharpens his sickle; and the traveller boldly undertakes a long journey, and the wrestler strips and bares himself for the contest. So too, when the fast makes its appearance, like a kind of spiritual summer, let us as soldiers burnish our weapons; and as husbandmen let us sharpen our sickle; and as sailors let us order our thoughts against the waves of extravagant desires; and as travellers let us set out on the journey towards heaven; and as wrestlers let us strip for the contest. For the believer is at once a husbandman, and a sailor, and a soldier, a wrestler, and a traveller. Hence St. Paul saith, “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers. Put on therefore the whole armour of God.” Hast thou observed the wrestler? Hast thou observed the soldier? If thou art a wrestler, it is necessary for thee to engage in the conflict naked. If a soldier, it behoves thee to stand in the battle line armed at all points. How then are both these things possible, to be naked, and yet not naked; to be clothed, and yet not clothed! How? I will tell thee. Divest thyself of worldly business, and thou hast become a wrestler. Put on the spiritual armour, and thou hast become a soldier. Strip thyself of worldly cares, for the season is one of wrestling. Clothe thyself with the spiritual armour, for we have a heavy warfare to wage with demons. Therefore also it is needful we should be naked, so as to offer nothing that the devil may take hold of, while he is wrestling with us; and to be fully armed at all points, so as on no side to receive a deadly blow. Cultivate thy soul. Cut away the thorns. Sow the word of godliness. Propagate and nurse with much care the fair plants of divine wisdom, and thou hast become a husbandman. And Paul will say to thee, “The husbandman that laboureth must be first partaker of the fruits. He too himself practised this art. Therefore writing to the Corinthians, he said, “I have planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase.” Sharpen thy sickle, which thou hast blunted through gluttony–sharpen it by fasting. Lay hold of the pathway which leads towards heaven; rugged and narrow as it is, lay hold of it, and journey on. And how mayest thou be able to do these things? By subduing thy body, and bringing it into subjection. For when the way grows narrow, the corpulence that comes of gluttony is a great hindrance. Keep down the waves of inordinate desires. Repel the tempest of evil thoughts. Preserve the bark; display much skill, and thou hast become a pilot. But we shall have the fast for a groundwork and instructor in all these things.
When the way grows narrow, the corpulence that comes of gluttony is a great hindrance. Hmm. Sounds like trying to get into my old pants. And if I can’t do that, how the heck am I going to get through the narrow gate to heaven? St. John Chrysostom adds more about the type of fast to which he is referring — and the dangers of fasting if done improperly:
I speak not, indeed, of such a fast as most persons keep, but of real fasting; not merely an abstinence from meats; but from sins too. For the nature of a fast is such, that it does not suffice to deliver those who practice it, unless it be done according to a suitable law. “For the wrestler,” it is said, “is not crowned unless he strive lawfully.” To the end then, that when we have gone through the labour of fasting, we forfeit not the crown of fasting, we should understand how, and after what manner, it is necessary to conduct this business; since that Pharisee also fasted, but afterwards when down empty, and destitute of the fruit of fasting. The Publican fasted not; and yet he was accepted in preference to him who had fasted; in order that thou mayest learn that fasting is unprofitable, except all other duties follow with it. The Ninevites fasted, and won the favour of God. The Jews fasted too, and profited nothing, nay they departed with blame. Since then the danger in fasting is so great to those who do not know how they ought to fast, we should learn the laws of this exercise, in order that we may not “run uncertainly,” nor “beat the air,” nor while we are fighting contend with a shadow. Fasting is a medicine; but a medicine, though it be never so profitable, becomes frequently useless owing to the unskillfulness of him who employs it. For it is necessary to know, moreover, the time when it should be applied, and the requisite quantity of it; and the temperament of body that admits it; and the nature of the country, and the season of the year; and the corresponding diet; as well as varous other particulars; any of which, if one overlooks, he will mar all the rest that have been named. Now if, when the body needs healing, such exactness is required on our part, much more ought we, when our care is about the soul, and we seek to heal the distempers of the mind, to look, and to search into every particular with the utmost accuracy.
I have said these things, not that we may disparage fasting, but that we may honour fasting; for the honour of fasting consists not in abstinence from food, but in withdrawing from sinful practices; since he who limits his fasting only to an abstinence from meats, is one who especially disparages it. Dost thou fast? Give me proof of it by thy works! Is it said by what kind of works? If thou seest a poor man, take pity on him! If thou seest an enemy, be reconciled to him! If thou seest a friend gaining honour, envy him not! If thou seest a handsome woman, pass her by! For let not the mouth only fast, but also the eye, and ear, and the feet, and the hands, and all the members of our bodies. Let the hands fast, by being pure from rapine and avarice. Let the feet fast, but ceasing from running to the unlawful spectacles. Let the eyes fast, being taught never to fix themselves rudely upon handsome countenances, or to busy themselves with strange beauties. For looking is the food of the eyes, but if this be such as is unlawful or forbidden, it mars the fast; and upsets the whole safety of the soul; but if it be lawful and safe, it adorns fasting. For it would be among things the most absurd to abstain from lawful food because of the fast, but with the eyes to touch even what is forbidden. Dost thou not eat flesh? Feed not upon lasciviousness by means of the eyes. Let the ear fast also. The fasting of the ear consists in refusing to receive evil speakings and calumnies. “Thou shalt not receive a false report,” it says.
This is, my searching has informed me, the most commonly-cited saintly advice on fasting. No doubt, there is more wisdom and advice from other saints and doctors of the Church. But it seems that the golden-tongued Chrysostom, as his title would imply, said it best.
So the only thing for it is to take it head on. I’ve got some practical coping strategies I’m going to use to help me. I’ve been a fan of “bulletproof coffee” for a while, and it helps me curb hunger for hours without eating solid food. I also know that too much caffeine turns me into a jittery munch monster, so easy does it on that. I know from experience that a low carb, high fat diet aids exponentially in general satiety (the feeling of being full) and with fasting. When you eat more fat, you get hungry less often. I also know from experience that when you eat things that like refined grains, sugars, and simple carbs, you get a blood glucose spike and a corresponding insulin dump, which makes you ravenously hungry, even shaky from low blood sugar. Your sugar levels then need to be brought back up, so you eat again to fix it. Rinse. Repeat. These are the pitfalls I’m going to watch out for.
But if an understanding of our biology helps us to fast more successfully, it’s still fasting. The point of fasting isn’t that we can make it easy. It’s supposed to be hard. That’s the part the purifies.
Most of us are bad at doing things that make us uncomfortable. I certainly am. I guess it’s time I got over it.
If I’m not to embarrassed by the results, I might even follow up to tell you how it went.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have seven children.