I decided to become Catholic in February 1992, a week before Lent started. Naturally, I was excited about my life as a Catholic, and I wanted to dive in headfirst. With Ash Wednesday approaching, I contemplated what I should “give up” for Lent (as a Protestant, I had never participated in Lent before). In my youthful enthusiasm, I decided to give up…food. I had read that St. Francis of Assisi — already my favorite saint — fasted for 40 days one Lent, so I figured, “Why not me too?” I did temper my fast a bit: I allowed myself some bread and water each day, as well as a meal on Sundays.
So how did that first Lent go? By the first Sunday, I had already given up on my fast, after being weak, miserable, and cranky for four straight days. I couldn’t concentrate on my studies, and I was difficult to be around. By Monday I was back to pizza, hamburgers, and my other unhealthy college eating decisions. So much for youthful enthusiasm.
That first foray into fasting was to become a foreshadowing of the next couple decades. Every Lent, and sometimes during other times of the year, I would try to fast at least a little more than the Church’s current guidelines (one meal a day plus two small meals that don’t add up to another full meal). I would skip lunch or breakfast, or I would eat little at each meal. But no matter what I did, my attempts ended in me being miserable, insufferable, and definitely no closer to Christ than when I began.
However, in the past year, I’ve discovered it is possible to fast — even for days at a time — in a way that not only allows me to fulfill the duties of my state of life, but also bestows spiritual and mental clarity. What changed?
History of Christian Fasting
Before I detail what I’ve learned, we should first look at why fasting is so important to the Christian faith. Fasting has been part of Christianity since its beginning. Our Lord fasted in the desert to prepare for His public ministry, and although He said His disciples would not fast “while the bridegroom is here,” he added that when “the bridegroom is taken away from them…then they will fast” (Mt. 9:15). The early Christians took this to heart, making fasting a regular part of their spiritual lives.
In the first years of Christianity, there were two primary Christian fasts. All Christians fasted every Wednesday and Friday (cf. Didache, Ch. 8), in commemoration of Christ’s betrayal and his crucifixion, respectively. Further, catechumens fasted in the days leading up to their baptism at the Easter Vigil. Although both of these practices were eventually dropped, they evolved into important devotional times of year: the weekly Wednesday-Friday fast became the quadrennial Wednesday-Friday-Saturday Ember Days, and the catechumens’ pre-Easter fast became Lent.
After Christianity became legal in the fourth century, some followers of Christ wanted to embrace a more ascetical life than could be found in regular Roman culture. Thus were born the monks. Along with other sacrifices, monks embraced a “regular fast,” in which they would deny themselves food on a daily basis. The most common form of monastic fasting was to eat only one meal each day, usually after noon but before sundown. For the monks, fasting was an essential component of overcoming man’s disordered passions. St. Benedict in his Rule (Chapter 4) said his monks need “to love fasting.”
St. John Cassian, a Church Father and monk of the late 4th and early 5th centuries, wrote that monks (and all Christians) need to overcome eight vices: gluttony, fornication, avarice, anger, sadness, acedia, vainglory, and pride. The order given for these vices was not arbitrary: he found that conquering one vice was often dependent upon defeating preceding vices in the list, and so gluttony’s place at the head of the list is significant.
In Cassian’s Conference Five, he compares the Christian overcoming vices to the Chosen People overcoming the existing inhabitants of the Promised Land. Only by defeating these enemies could they inhabit the land. Specifically, Cassian compares the eight vices to the seven nations that the Israelites had to defeat. The immediate question that comes to mind, “Why eight vices but only seven nations?” Cassian writes that the first vice — gluttony — is to be compared to Egypt, which the Israelites had to first escape before even traveling to the Promised Land. In other words, if one does not overcome gluttony, he cannot even engage in battle against the other vices! Further, Cassian describes three kinds of gluttony: eating before the appointed time, overeating, and desiring delicate foods. For the monk, eating before the appointed time meant eating outside the one meal per day prescribed by the monastic rule.
To the Fathers, controlling one’s intake of food was vital to the spiritual life, and they often contrasted fasting to the Original Sin. Just as Adam sinned by eating when and what he was not permitted, so we can defeat sin by not eating when and what we are permitted.
Disappearance of the Regular Fast
Over the centuries, the strict regular fast of the monks lessened. There were many reasons for this accommodation, but in general monasteries reflected the culture surrounding them. It was uncommon for anyone until recent centuries to eat more than two meals a day, so the one meal a day of the ancient monks was not as restrictive as it might appear to modern eyes (and stomachs). But as society became more materially affluent, larger and extra meals became the norm, and all Christians — including monks — joined the trend. By the 19th century, virtually all monks ate three meals a day, just as everyone else did.
This lessening of fasting restrictions reached its culmination in the Church’s modern definition of “fasting.” Today, the Church sets the following guidelines for “fasting”: eating one regular meal plus two small meals that don’t equal one full meal. However, eating three meals a day is not “fasting.” By the definition of the term, fasting means not to eat. So if one eats three meals in a day, he is not fasting. He might be denying himself; he might get hungry; but he is not fasting. For all intents and purposes, the practice of fasting — so essential in the first millennium of Christianity — has disappeared from the Christian consciousness.
Why has this happened? The reasons are many. As already mentioned, increased material prosperity around the world, and especially in the West, has led to more food available and a larger food intake baseline. The modern and now common practice of a morning breakfast exemplifies this trend. Some argue that modern life mitigates against fasting due to our more demanding schedules. Yet at the same time, others argue that modern man is physically weaker than the ancients and therefore unable to handle fasting. These arguments appear contradictory: if we have more demanding schedules, thereby needing more food, how can we also be weaker than our ancestors?
A more likely cause, aside from simply a softening of our sense of asceticism, is our modern diet. The foods we eat today are dense in sugar and other carbohydrates, which stimulate the body to eat more frequently. If you eat a Big Mac and fries for dinner, you’ll likely be starving before bedtime. If you eat a meal rich in fat and protein, however, your stomach won’t be rebelling as you hit the bed.
Whatever the reasons, the important fact remains: what was considered of utmost importance to Christians of the early Church is now barely even an afterthought. Is fasting no longer important? Or should we rediscover and embrace this ancient practice?
The Need for Fasting
I believe that the answer is clear: we must embrace fasting again. The Desert Monks insisted that we cannot overcome any of our disordered appetites if we don’t control the first appetite, which is the desire for food. As long as we have a disordered attachment to food, then we cannot have an ordered attachment to God. As St. John Cassian put it, we cannot fight our vices and enter the Promised Land until we escape from the Egypt of our gluttony.
So how can we do it? As someone who struggled with fasting for decades, I know this is no easy task. One cannot just say, “I’m going to start fasting today” and expect to succeed without making changes to both his spiritual life and his physical diet first.
The first thing to do in order to embrace fasting is to establish a baseline of prayer each day. Even if you are physically able to fast, if it is not accompanied by prayer, then it is just a diet, not a means for drawing closer to Our Lord. Most spiritual directors recommend one hour of prayer each day for those who are not in religious orders. This should be the goal for every Catholic. If you are not there yet, build to it by adding 5-10 minutes each week until you reach one hour a day. When someone told Fulton Sheen he didn’t have time for an hour of prayer each day, Sheen replied, “then you need to pray two hours a day.”
But even for someone who prays an hour each day, fasting can still be extremely difficult physically. I believed for a long time I was unable to fast because I was pre-diabetic, which gave me “crashes” throughout each day if I didn’t eat frequently. After studying the practice of Intermittent Fasting, in which one doesn’t eat for 16-23 hours each day, I realized that my main problem wasn’t my pre-diabetes; it was my poor, carbohydrate-rich diet. Consuming carbohydrates spike a person’s insulin far more than consuming protein or fat. When the insulin inevitably later falls, you get your “crash.” Once I cut out carbs and started eating more fat and more protein, my insulin levels stabilized, my crashes disappeared, and fasting became much easier.
The Right Kind of Sacrifice
I can already hear the objection: “Isn’t fasting supposed to be difficult? It’s supposed to be a sacrifice!”
Yes, fasting is supposed to be a sacrifice, and therefore difficult. But most of us have a misunderstanding of what that difficulty is supposed to be. Take training for a marathon as an analogy. As I’m preparing myself for a marathon, I should expect to encounter pain during my training. “No pain, no gain,” right? So if I’m sore and weak after (or during) a run, I need to fight through that with willpower and discipline. But what if I injure my knee? It’s pain, so should I fight through it? Of course not; to do so would be to risk not being able to run in the marathon at all. I believe that in most cases, those who eat a modern diet are like injured runners trying to finish a marathon. Eating a standard diet makes fasting painful, but it’s the wrong kind of pain, for it makes spiritually beneficial fasting nearly impossible.
Before I changed my diet I became incredibly weak and cranky when I fasted. I couldn’t fulfill my obligations as a husband and father, at home or in the workplace. I often wondered, “How is this fast making me more Christ-like?” Short answer: It wasn’t. But fasting with a healthier overall diet does help one to overcome disordered attachments, draw closer to Christ, and still fulfill one’s obligations in one’s particular state of life. Further, fasting, done properly, actually brings positive benefits to the one who fasts. He gains mental and spiritual clarity and an energy to serve others. Fasting isn’t supposed to disable us; it’s supposed to enable us to serve Christ better.
Does that mean fasting can be made easy? Not at all. There are still hurdles to overcome and disordered passions to master. The primary passion that regular fasting attacks is our disordered attachment to food. Most of us don’t realize how much food plays a part in our daily lives. We eat three (usually unhealthy) meals a day, but then we also add to that snacks (which are, again, usually unhealthy) throughout the day. I know that I used to eat six times a day (three meals plus three snacks), and still would sometimes grab chips out of the pantry if I was walking by. Besides being physically unhealthy, it is also spiritually unhealthy, for we cannot master our souls if we have not mastered our bodies. This is the lesson the Desert Monks repeated over and over again.
To Love Fasting Again
By engaging in a true fast — meaning no food for set periods of time — we must overcome the temptation to please our body, a temptation that is always before us in our modern world. Someone living in the 11th century didn’t have food always available, but those of us living in the developed world today can eat whatever and whenever and wherever we want. To practice fasting is to discipline the body, to reverse the Original Sin of Adam, in a sense.
When we look at all the troubles facing the Church and the world today, I would argue that many of these problems stem from a lack of self-discipline when it comes to physical pleasures. An obvious example is abortion, which is widespread because so many engage in sexual relations outside marriage. But I believe that even something like liturgical abuse can be traced back to our lack of self-discipline. In many ways, modern Masses are like fast food — quick, easy, and ultimately unsatisfying. Just as modern man would rather grab a quick bite at McDonald’s than spend the discipline and sacrifice and effort needed for a healthy home-cooked meal, so do most Catholics prefer the quick and easy, but unfulfilling, music and preaching of the typical Catholic parish’s Mass.
Lent is approaching, which makes now a perfect time to rediscover and embrace fasting again. But a word of warning: Just as one should slowly build up how much he prays each day, lest he overwhelm himself and fall, so should one slowly build up his fasts. If you are used to eating every few hours, start by cutting out snacks between your three meals. Also watch what you eat when you do eat; fasting is much more achievable if you aren’t constantly taking in sugar and other carbs. Then consider cutting out breakfast in the morning (it’s a myth that it’s the most important meal of the day, as everyone before the 19th century could tell you). Eventually your body will then be able to handle longer fasts done for spiritual reasons. They will still involve sacrifice and discipline, but they will bring about mental and spiritual clarity and energy, and they won’t be impossible to complete while fulfilling the obligations of your state in life.
Our Lord once said of a particularly powerful demon, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:29). I think we would all agree that our world — and our Church — is facing particularly powerful demons today, so if we want to overcome them, we’ll need “to love fasting” again.
Eric Sammons is the Executive Director of Crisis Publications. He is the author of eight books, including Deadly Indifference: How the Church Lost Her Mission and How We Can Reclaim It.