As Lent was approaching, reflecting on which penances and spiritual practices I felt would help me best grow in holiness and prepare for the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus, I felt a strong call to focus my attention on the practice of fasting. The Season of Lent is synonymous with prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, and, of the three, fasting has always been the most difficult and burdensome for me. I recalled that when I had successfully and fruitfully fasted in the past was only when I was depending upon God to give me the grace to do so and not because of my own efforts. In fact, it seemed in the past that the harder I tried to fast using my own strength and willpower, the more colossally I failed each time. Resolving to try harder did not yield the results I wanted; instead, I tended to fast for a few days or weeks only to give in to temptation and at times abandon my resolutions. With this realization, I resolved to ask Jesus for the grace to fast well, with the proper disposition and intentions, and to depend on Him to supply the grace to do so.
In the book The Ways of Mental Prayer by Rev. Dom Vitalis Lehodey, we are instructed that “In the spiritual life there are two great principles which should never be forgotten: Without grace, we can do nothing; with it, we can do all things.” Reading and reflecting upon these principles, I was struck with the reality that I could apply this wisdom to my difficulties regarding fasting. By asking prayerfully for the grace to fast well, I could expect that God would hear my prayer and grant me this grace as I undertook my Lenten fasts and penances. I remembered that I have always been told by wise spiritual directors that God grants our prayers if they will be beneficial for our salvation; therefore, why would He not grant me this grace if I ask humbly and earnestly? After all, Jesus promised us in the gospel of Matthew, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. (Matt 7:7-8) Hopeful and expectant that this year during Lent I would be able to fast more generously, I thanked Jesus in advance for this grace, trusting that He would supply the strength and resolve I needed to do so.
As Catholics, we are obliged to fast and abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and to practice abstinence on all Fridays during Lent. Fasting permits us to eat one full meal along with two smaller meals that together do not equal a full meal. In addition, we are encouraged to undertake some other forms of sacrifice or penance during Lent to help us to prepare for the Holy Triduum, the most important days of our Church year. If you are like me and have difficulty fasting from certain foods and giving up things we enjoy, do not despair! With God’s grace, we can learn to make these sacrifices by starting with small offerings – a dessert here, a cup of coffee there – and be assured that Jesus accepts our penances if they are done humbly and with good intent.
We deny ourselves food and other pleasures for many reasons, often to lose weight and be healthy. However, in fasting, there are more perfect reasons for giving up the foods we enjoy. The best motive for self-denial is to do it for Jesus. We can offer up our sacrifices to Him in reparation for our sins in union with His Passion and Death on the Cross. God loves us so much that He sent His only son to suffer and die for our sins. He didn’t want us to suffer here on earth alone, but instead, he took on our human nature to accompany us in bearing our crosses. Shouldn’t this Love motivate all of us to make little sacrifices and endure a little discomfort and hunger for Him?
Knowing that our sacrifices can help others can also motivate us to give up pleasures such as food and entertainment. After I began writing this article, our family received the devastating news of my youngest sister’s cancer diagnosis. Once the shock began to wear off and we began to accept this new, difficult reality, my resolve to fast and sacrifice was strengthened, as I knew I would be offering my penances for her peace, comfort, and healing. I began asking Jesus to receive all of my fasting for the good of my sister and to help her gain strength, healing, and grace on her journey.
Along with helping others on earth, we can offer our fasts and sacrifices for the Holy Souls in Purgatory, who are desperately in need of our assistance. We can remember those family members and friends who have gone to eternal life before us and offer them help by our prayers and actions.
Humbled by my own failure to successfully fast from the things I love, this Lent I am trying something different and leaning on God for the strength and grace to fast. As many of the saints point out, fasting is crucial to growing and maturing in holiness and union with Jesus. As St. Augustine put it, “Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one’s flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, quenches the fire of lust, and kindles the true light of chastity.” We can pray for one another to receive the grace to fast humbly and well so that we will be able to more joyfully and completely celebrate the great Resurrection of our King!