Fasting: Lent's spiritual practice creates space for prayer

By Carol Zimmermann

WASHINGTON (CNS) — There is no getting around fasting
during Lent.

only is it one of the three pillars of spiritual practice along with prayer and
almsgiving, but it also bookends the period of preparation for Easter.

and abstinence is required of adult Catholics, ages 18-59, at the start of Lent on Ash
Wednesday and at its end on Good Friday. This means eating only one full meal and
two small meals that equal one meal as well as no snacks in between meals and
no meat consumption.

University’s Online Ministries program, “Praying Lent 2017,” says the
purpose of fasting is to “experience the effects of not eating. It also
serves to be a penance or a sacrifice for the purpose of strengthening us.”

we get hungry, we have a heightened sense of awareness,” it adds, noting
that the practice helps people to clarify their thoughts. “It is purifying
and prepares us to pray more deeply,” the resource from Jesuit-run
Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, points out.

addition to the two days of fasting, Catholics 14 and older are obligated to abstain
from eating meat during Fridays in Lent.

Friday practice is a sacrifice meant “to help Catholics make much bigger
sacrifices,” the Creighton resource says, pointing out that not eating
meat doesn’t give someone permission to eat a fancy fish meal. And for
vegetarians, it could mean abstaining from a favorite meal.

which has deep roots in many religious traditions, is meant to draw
participants into deeper prayer and also link them with those in need.

Christians, the tradition has roots in both the Old and New Testaments. In the
Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples how they should look when they are
fasting — not gloomy, not neglecting their appearance and with their faces
washed so they do not appear to be fasting.

says when we fast, not if,” said Father John Riccardo, pastor of Our Lady
of Good Counsel Parish in Plymouth, Michigan.

He said
the key to fasting is to attach an intention to the practice “rather than
seeing it as a flexing of our self-discipline muscles.” It makes the
practice “not about me but someone else,” he told Catholic News
Service March 1.

is heavy artillery,” he added because the person doing it is denying
themselves something and trusting that God will use it.

fasting is technically not eating food, giving something up can also be a form
of fasting.

Charles Murphy, author of the 2010 book: “The Spirituality of Fasting:
Rediscovering a Christian Practice” said there are two forms of fasting —
total and partial. A total fast is eating nothing and drinking nothing for a
designated period of time where a partial fast involves giving up certain things
for a specific period of time.

fasting is a popular part of Lent where people choose to give up something such
as soda, candy, beer, television or more increasingly, social media.

The top
things people said they were going to give up this Lent, according to, a Web search engine that examined Twitter posts during the week
of Feb. 26, included a mix of social media and food and one wishful thinking:
school. The only other top 10 mention that wasn’t a food or drink was to give
up swearing.

fasting, just like a full fast, shouldn’t be done to benefit the person doing
it. “It’s not to make us more narcissistic, which it can do,” said
Paulist Father Jack Collins, who helped Busted Halo, the Paulist website, with
videos like “You don’t know Jack about Lent” a few years ago.

don’t fast to feel good, but to remind ourselves that half the world goes to
bed hungry,” he said, adding that it’s a way of reminding us “we are
our brother’s keeper.”

Father Larry Rice, director of the University Catholic Center at the University
of Texas at Austin, is not keen on people looking for a loophole in their
fasting practices, for example saying that Sundays don’t count and they can
have whatever they gave up that day.

get that people want a pressure relief valve, ” he said, “but when I
open my missal it says the First Sunday of Lent” meaning Sunday counts.

U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops gives a little leeway here. In its fasting
guidelines it notes that if someone is giving something up for Lent it is more
effective if it is continuous — “kept on Sundays as well. That being said,
such practices are not regulated by the church, but by individual conscience.”

Rice, who is giving up riding elevators for Lent, said the Catholic college
students he works with typically give up a food or social media. “They
won’t give up texting. That would be like giving up breathing,” he added.

age group, and Catholics at large, could take a small step toward a phone fast
by following the initiative of the Archdiocese of Hartford, Connecticut, which urged Catholics to not use their phones on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday this year
“as a way to reflect on God and the meaning of the Easter season.”

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Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim.

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