The Consequences of Not Fasting
In his Message for Lent 2009, Pope Benedict focuses on just one thing: the revival of the ancient Christian practice of fasting. I certainly cannot improve on his presentation, so with respect to what Benedict says, I simply repeat an earlier recommendation to read it for yourself, and then act upon it. But taking a cue from what the Pope leaves unsaid, I intend to concentrate here on what it means when we do not fast.
The Pope describes fasting as “a great help to avoid sin and all that leads to it”, a means “to mortify our egoism”, a path for “conferring unity on the whole person, body and soul”, and a way to “open in the heart of the believer a path to God”. Now, if all this is true, we do well to consider the consequences of failing to fast. Might not those consequences include egoism, materialism, selfishness and self-indulgence of every kind?
Fasting and the Culture
All around us we see evidence of a self-indulgent culture. Especially in the West, society seems to be composed of an aggregation of individuals who believe, in their egoism, that the world exists for their benefit; who act, in their materialism, as if the highest good is physical comfort and pleasure; who ignore, in their selfishness, both the material and spiritual well-being of others; and who fall, in their self-indulgence, into extreme patterns of dependency on physical sensations (gluttony, drugs, alcoholism, pornography, sexual excess, and the like). And then, of course, they turn around and justify all this under the name of freedom and the rejection of past tyrannies, even while subjecting themselves ever more thoroughly to their own passions, lacking the self-discipline to recognize their own slavery.
Self-discipline comes by degrees, through practice. The first step is that slight independence of intellect which we call objectivity, the ability to stand at least a little bit outside and above our own feelings so that we can assess ourselves properly. A certain measure of humility is required, of course, for objectivity is always crushed under the immense weight of the almighty self. Still, properly encouraged, this objectivity leads to the recognition that we are not free but slaves to our passions. This objectivity then informs the will that it must take steps to free itself from domination by the passions, and so objectivity proposes the first step toward what Christians call detachment. Gradually, by clearing away all those things which have enslaved us for so long, we begin to open ourselves to God and to grow in union with Him. And this we call grace.
Grace, of course, will have been active from the first hint of objectivity, but it takes some time for us to recognize what it is and to seek it for its own sake. When we do, we begin to realize what Our Lord meant when He said “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Mt 4:4), and when he told His disciples: “I have food to eat of which you do not know. My food is to do the will of him who sent me” (Jn 4:32,34). Thus is true fasting also true food. If you see spiritual insight here, it is because Benedict has slipped into the discussion again, and I have slipped out.
But speaking for a moment longer about our culture, is it not characterized by a refusal to fast, in every sense of the word? Does not the failure to fast shape nearly everything in Western culture, so much so that it even dominates our politics? When was the last time someone was elected to high office by telling the truth about what sorts of “fasting” Americans must undertake to put their affairs back in order? Hard messages come only after the election is over, if they come at all, and if this rhetorical hardness does not lead to immediate material benefit, the result is defeat the next time around.
Fasting and the Church
Sadly, this failure to fast—in both the literal and the deepest senses—lies also at the root of many problems within the Church. What else has caused the crisis in moral theology but a failure to fast from sexual self-indulgence? If you ever thought this intellectual crisis was merely a matter of conflicting theories, you were indeed an innocent babe. Homosexuality, extra-marital sex, serial monogamy, pornography, contraception: All have been theoretically justified precisely because intellectuals wished to enjoy one or another of their forbidden fruits. It should be no surprise that the Church Fathers saw God’s command to Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of a certain tree in the Garden as the very first command to fast, even before the Fall.
And what else but an unbridled egoism lies at the root of the widespread failure, both on the left and on the right, to obey the Magisterium of the Church? How quick we are to elevate our own precious selves above apostolic authority based on the Revelation of Jesus Christ! How slow we are to see any virtue in obedience, which provides such a magnificent safeguard against the clouding of our intellects by passions and the hardening of our intellects through pride! Instead, we have factions in the Church fighting with each other, and all factions quarreling with those who are obedient, when through the simple expedient of obedience, such factionalism could be eliminated.
Again, what else but lack of self-discipline, as evidenced in laziness and the pampering of our own desires, causes the majority of leadership failures in the Church: Every bishop who fails to set and demand high standards; every priest who fails to set a good example and work hard for the salvation of his flock; every priest, deacon or catechist who ignores the wisdom of the Church in his own preaching, counseling and teaching; every lay person who leaves the job of becoming holy to somebody else. Even if we are among those who moan about the laxity of official Church discipline in modern times, how many of us are really living lives of detachment—lives that embrace true fasting, which the vacuum of rules makes so much more potentially rewarding?
Here the finger-pointing can start with me. Nothing in what I’ve said should lead the reader to think this is not also a problem in my own life.
What Lent is For
If nothing else, these reflections should increase awareness of what this season is for, and why we need it year after year. Benedict concludes:
Dear brothers and sisters, it is good to see how the ultimate goal of fasting is to help each one of us, as the Servant of God Pope John Paul II wrote, to make the complete gift of self to God (cf. Encyclical Veritatis splendor, 21). May every family and Christian community use well this time of Lent, therefore, in order to cast aside all that distracts the spirit and grow in whatever nourishes the soul, moving it to love of God and neighbor.
To which I will only add: Not only families and Christian communities, but all of us bloated individuals. If you’re already well along this road, stop reading. But if not, I’m talking about you and me really trying this for a change, making a significant effort to use the specific self-discipline of fasting from food and other attachments to begin to turn our lives around, to free ourselves, to radically increase our ability to do the will of our Father. And I mean doing this seriously, not just obeying a few rules and playing with it around the edges. There is no need to make mighty resolutions or life-long commitments. We just need to make a beginning—and the Lord knows we’ve all seen the horrendous consequences of not beginning. So let’s read Benedict’s message and, at the very least, get started. Just this year. Just this Lent. Just this once.
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