Q. I have noticed in reading the lives of the saints that they often practiced fasting throughout their lives. We often hear of fasting during Lent and perhaps Advent, especially on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, but not much during the rest of the year. Is fasting an acceptable practice, or is it reserved to the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent?
A. Fasting is the refraining from food or drink as a means of penance. This ascetical practice is noble and acceptable throughout the liturgical year, and is recommended to us in Sacred Scripture.
Scripture insists that we practice interior penance in three forms: prayer, almsgiving and fasting. These practices assist us in daily conversion, relative to God, our neighbor and ourselves.
Our Lord himself gives great witness to the necessity of fasting. We recall that Jesus fasted in the desert for 40 days, and endured temptations from the devil. He also taught that fasting was a powerful spiritual weapon. In speaking to his disciples about demonic possession, Jesus taught them that “this kind can only be cast out by prayer and fasting” (Mt 17:21).
Fasting serves as a means of mortification, or “making dead” our sinful inclinations. Unfortunately, due to our fallen human nature, we are inclined toward sin, where our passions desire apparent goods, which, in reality, are destructive to us. Fasting requires the denial of a legitimate good, like food or drink, which trains the will to deny temptations to evil.
The practice of fasting helps in acquiring the virtue of temperance, which moderates the use of the goods that the body desires. Temperance gives us freedom to enjoy the good things in God’s creation because its goal is to gain control over the passions. Temperance is fertile ground for spiritual growth because it causes detachment from created things, which allows us to more readily attach ourselves to God.
Allowing fasting to be a greater part of our spiritual lives produces much fruit. St. Basil the Great said, “Fasting gives birth to prophets and strengthens the powerful; fasting makes lawgivers wise. Fasting is a good safeguard for the soul, a steadfast companion for the body, a weapon for the valiant, and a gymnasium for athletes.”
Those with questions about fasting may consult their parish priest. Church law requires Catholics from ages of 16-59 to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday during the penitential season of Lent. Exceptions to this law can be made for reasons of health.
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