When we think about the season of Lent, we often consider practices of fasting, prayer, and increased almsgiving. The Catechism says that although fasting is intended as an act of penance (#1434), there are also times in the Gospels when Jesus tells us not to be somber or to make a big display out of fasting, but instead to do it in secret:
And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:16–18)
The secret part is not easy, in my view. My husband already hears from me frequent updates about how my point-based dieting system is going and bears with me as he hears how much the point value of this or that potential dinner food might be. I am the last to claim that I in any way embody the ideal faster at Lent!
Still, it is worth considering how fasting can be an act that is not somber but presumably joyful. I take Jesus’ words in Matthew chapter 6 to say something like this: fasting is part of our relationship with God, and we should focus on that relationship when fasting.
In short, I hope that fasting can grow love.
A familiar Lenten practice of fasting from many childhoods was giving up candy or cake, because that was what all of one’s friends were doing. We already know that these kinds of fasts ought not to guide us as adults. I, at least, want fasting to be meaningful and to help me to grow in my relationship with God. In short, I hope that fasting can grow love.
But then how do we discern well how to go about fasting? It helps to ask three questions about how fasting can be an act of love:
- What habits of mine are not good for others, such that giving up that way of acting can be an act of love toward others?
- What habits of mine are not good for me, such that giving up that way of acting can be an act of love toward myself?
- What habits of mine negatively impact the community, such that giving up that way of acting can be an act of love for the world?
I can easily think of friends who have embarked on the first and second sorts of fasts. For example, I recall a friend who decided to fast from complaining (even to herself) for Lent and another friend who fasted from alcohol after deciding it did not serve her life well to drink. Both had thoughtfully reflected on what habits stood in the way of being more loving.
The third sort of fast might be harder to discover, but I remember several years ago hearing of a group of friends who decided as part of their Lenten practice to embark on a carbon fast and to reduce the energy that they spent on any given day. Their idea, as I recall, was to consider how their actions of high energy consumption relative to that of people in other parts of the world had global consequences for everyone, especially the poor. They also wanted to be more aware of what they saw as a social sin in which they (and nearly all of us) participate. There was nothing dismal about their approach, however. To the contrary, they saw it as a hopeful sign that overconsumption was not an inevitable fact of contemporary life but a temporary state that could be overcome. Fasting can be an act of hope as well as an act of love.
There is also something deeply spiritual about traditional approaches to fasting and abstinence that have been present in the Church for so long: avoiding meat and eating less food on designated days. St. Ignatius, in his Principle and Foundation, wrote that we should be indifferent to any good—even health, wealth, honor, or longevity—that stands in the way of God’s glory. To me, well thought-out, healthy ascetic practices remind us as a community of faith that the thing that we give up—food, for example—is not the be all and end all. God is. Lent is a chance to get in a little practice at getting closer to that realization.