Invincible Summer: Fasting in a Dark Age

universe, milky way, creation, holy presence

In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer. And that makes me happy. For it says that no matter how hard the world pushes against me, within me, there’s something stronger – something better, pushing right back. (Albert Camus)

This past year has been one of heartbreak and pain within the Church. We’ve found ourselves face down on the earth, crying for our Church, our children, and our world. Together, we’ve felt the heartache of betrayal and mistrust as we’ve watched some of our leaders crumble into darkness and depravity. Often, we’ve looked around at our world and wondered at the chaos.

It’s a dark time for the Church. But it isn’t our first dark age. We’ve withstood worse, really, we have. Our Church has lived through philandering popes, through bloody persecutions, through mistakes, heresies, and despair. Many of them more recent than we’d like to admit. Darkness is always around us, pressing against the skin of the Body of Christ.

Love Fasting

How do we keep the darkness at bay? Fasting and prayer. The foundation for any spiritual healing will always be fasting and prayer. “Renounce yourself in order to follow Christ,” writes St. Benedict amid the ruins of his own world, “do penance; love fasting.”

Does anyone really love fasting? Fasting is hard. Fasting is deprivation. We come up with a laundry list of excuses for abandoning the practice Christ called us to and imitated for us in the Gospels. I’m pregnant, I’m nursing, I’m young, I’m old, I labor, I exercise – I know that I can find a dozen excuses and have used them all at one time or another. Maybe you have too?

When I try to kid myself that fasting isn’t practical for me, I think of my friend, Emily. She’s my age, with more children, more work, more demands on her life each day; but she fasts with a joy and a devotion I’m longing to imitate. I remember especially her fasts from flavors during pregnancy and while breastfeeding: she ate unseasoned, nutritious, dull foods. She denied her cravings and ate simply to nourish. When she can, she fasts from whole meals.

Emily isn’t Catholic, but her dedication to our most neglected discipline would delight St. Benedict himself When I ask her how she pushes through she tells me that she thinks of Jesus, and His love for the person she’s fasting for. She asks for His help, and He delivers.

We are at a point again in the life of the Church where excuses will not do. We need to look back at the wisdom of the Church fathers and step into the practice of fasting again with our whole hearts.

A New Season

Lent is almost upon us again. Lent, the great season of fasting and reparation. The season of renewal, when the whole earth prepares for the rebirth of Glory. The long fast is more than merely an opportunity to prepare ourselves for Easter, it is a time to die ourselves – with Christ and in Him. The Great Fast is an opportunity to offer up our penances for the whole Body of Christ.

The world is dark. We live in bloody and painful times. We want to fight it with its own weapons: with activism and revolution. Those aren’t wrong responses, but some demons can only be conquered with fasting and prayer. Activism without fasting will fall short, as we’ve seen again and again. This is because activism looks outward at the heartbreaking world around us, but fasting trains us to look toward Christ alone.

When we keep our eyes on Christ, the whole view changes. Like a candle glowing in the night, He warms us and lights us up from within. Look, see the home Christ has made for Himself in each of us! Watch Him nestle in His Eucharistic Body beneath your heart, whispering Hope against that outer darkness. And maybe, as we draw closer to Lent, you’re being reminded, as I am that:

  In the midst of hate..there was, within me, an invincible love.                                                                            In the midst of tears..there was, within me, an invincible smile.                                                                        In the midst of chaos.. there was, within me, an invincible calm.                                                                 (Albert Camus)

The Invincible Child who has already conquered is waiting to be welcomed into our whole lives. This Lent, let’s give Tiny, Eucharist Christ a chance to heal us from within. Let’s listen to His soft voice, and let’s begin the process of driving away the demons the beset us. We can fast with Him and for Him, unite our hunger to the pain of the Cross and embrace the joy He offers.

What is Fasting?

Fasting is not a break from bad habits. You can’t fast from cruel words or sinful actions. Fasting is the sacrifice of a good and necessary thing – food – for a better, more essential purpose.

Fasting is simply the restriction and reduction of food intake. Long ago, Church communities fasted intensely and in unity. Instead of choosing personal devotions for the season, they went into the season knowing what was expected and united together to support each other in this challenging devotion.

Lenten Fasting

Lent is a whole season of fasting, even into the early 20th century, Catholics fasted every day of Lent. This fasting requirement permitted one meal each day, holding to the wisdom of the desert fathers for those unaccustomed to more intense, monastic fasts. After Vatican II, though our bishops have gradually lessened the requirements until we’re down to only two days of required fasting each year.

In this season of spiritual attack, maybe we should rediscover the wisdom and power of the traditional fast.

It’s time to reclaim the Church’s best weapon against evil. Fasting is a living prayer – a way of turning the body into a cry to God for mercy. When we fast, we allow God to have that little suffering and use it. It also unites us to God in a more intimate way. Christ fasted for forty days in the wilderness; for 2000 years, His Church has imitated Him in this.

If you truly can’t fast from meals each day, try fasting from flavors. Eat simple, wholesome, and uninspiring meals instead of your favorites. Avoid eating between meals. Don’t eat out. All of these can become steps toward full fasting. As the Orthodox saint, Theophan the Recluse reminds us, it’s essential to “Throw out of your head the idea that you can, through a comfortable life, become what you must be in Christ.”

The Invincible Summer

This Lenten season, as we join Christ in the desert, the hope within us will grow brighter. The dark of winter is passing away, new life is bursting out around us. But winter never goes without a fight. In Lent, we confront that darkness as we anticipate the Resurrection with fasting and prayers.

The world is dark. Spiritual winters are long and cold. They feel isolating, sometimes despairing. But we have within us the strength of Love Himself, and so we can confront the winter darkness. We can defeat the demons of today that press against the Church to crush her. We can discover, within us the joy of the “Invincible Summer,” Christ Himself, Who warms and heals, challenges and guards us.

Let’s clear the way for Christ to push back against the world, by entering into this Lenten season empowered by the discipline of fasting.

 

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6 thoughts on “Invincible Summer: Fasting in a Dark Age”

  1. I too appreciate your insightful post.

    However I must take strong exception to this statement: “Fasting is not a break from bad habits. You can’t fast from cruel words or sinful actions.”

    There are a few saints of the Church who not only disagree with you on this matter (though probably not anything else you wrote), but who frequently made a point of preaching exactly that notion. Some of them were among the ranks of the Fathers of the Church.

    Here is a sampling from the writings of some of them, including two early Church Fathers and three Doctors of the Church. I posted quite a few from Chrysostom, not to rub it in, but because I think the depth of his thinking on fasting is so beautifully written (especially the last one) it deserves to be listed here:

    We ought to fast, and to abstain from all vice, and from all that will lead us into sin, as well as from extravagance and superfluity. – St. Francis of Assisi

    Conquering the tongue is better than fasting on bread and water.
    ~St. John of the Cross

    There is both a physical and a spiritual fast. In the physical fast the body abstains from food and drink. In the spiritual fast, the faster abstains from evil intentions, words and deeds. One who truly fasts abstains from anger, rage, malice, and vengeance. One who truly fasts abstains from idle and foul talk, empty rhetoric, slander, condemnation, flattery, lying and all manner of spiteful talk. In a word, a real faster is one who withdraws from all evil.

    As much as you subtract from the body, so much will you add to the strength of the soul.
    ~St. Basil the Great

    Take heed that you not fast only in abstinence of meats. True fasting is to refrain from vice. Pardon your neighbors. Forgive them their trespasses.
    ~St. Basil the Great

    It is folly to abstain all day from sin, but fail to abstain from sin and selfishness.
    ~St. John Chrysostom

    The fast of Lent has no advantage to us unless it brings about our spiritual renewal. It is necessary while fasting to change our whole life and practice virtue.
    ~St. John Chrysostom

    He is mistaken, who thinks the fast consists only of abstinence from food. True fasting is departing from evil.
    ~St. John Chrysostom

    Fasting is the change of every part of our life, because the sacrifice of the fast is not the abstinence but the distancing from sins.
    ~St. John Chrysostom

    Let the mouth also fast from disgraceful speeches and railings. For what does it profit if we abstain from fish and fowl yet bite and devour our brothers and sisters.
    ~St. John Chrysostom

    Whoever limits the fast to the deprivation of food, he is the one who, in reality, abhors and ridicules the fast.
    ~St. John Chrysostom

    I have said these things, not that we may disparage fasting, but that we may honor fasting; for the honor of fasting consists not in abstinence from food, but in withdrawing from sinful practices; since he who limits his fasting only to an abstinence from meats, is one who especially disparages it.

    Dost thou fast? Give me proof of it by thy works!

    Is it said by what kind of works?

    If thou seest a poor man, take pity on him!

    If thou seest an enemy, be reconciled to him!

    If thou seest a friend gaining honor, envy him not!

    If thou seest a handsome woman, pass her by!

    For let not the mouth only fast, but also the eye, and ear, and the feet, and the hands, and all the members of our bodies.

    Let the hands fast, by being pure from rapine and avarice.

    Let the feet fast, but ceasing from running to the unlawful spectacles.

    Let the eyes fast, being taught never to fix themselves rudely upon handsome countenances, or to busy themselves with strange beauties.

    For looking is the food of the eyes, but if this be such as is unlawful or forbidden, it mars the fast; and upsets the whole safety of the soul; but if it be lawful and safe, it adorns fasting.

    For it would be among things the most absurd to abstain from lawful food because of the fast, but with the eyes to touch even what is forbidden. Dost thou not eat flesh? Feed not upon lasciviousness by means of the eyes.

    Let the ear fast also. The fasting of the ear consists in refusing to receive evil speakings and calumnies. “Thou shalt not receive a false report,” it says.
    ~St. John Chrysostom

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful critique, Phil!

      I definitely should have been clearer in my wording, because you are completely right: the Church Fathers often link fasting and the cultivation of virtue together. They tend to treat fasting itself as a given – the easiest, and least of the steps toward holiness.

      I think that this is because they lived at a time when fasting itself was simple, accepted, and deeply ingrained in the life of the Church. The early Church year was rich in fasting, and when a community understands and embraces a practice, it’s easy – and good – to build upon that practice. The Fathers, and of course Francis himself, were known for living a level of austerity that inspired their communities to imitate them. But our current approach to fasting is quite different.

      Where fasting was once considered a regular and basic devotion, it is now exceptional, and we find a million excuses to keep our meals consistent, hearty, and even meat-laden during days of penance. But the Church, when she says “this is a day of fasting” is calling us to fast from food. She is asking us to deprive ourselves physically.

      When we learn to fast again, when we rediscover just how much easier it is to deprive ourselves of meat and milk than it is to turn our hearts wholly to heaven, then we can return to the wider use of the word. But right now, when we are so far from the spirit of fasting that inspired the Fathers, it’s my opinion that we need to rediscover fasting at it’s most clear and childlike; so that, like the saints, our love of fasting will train us to fast “not only” with the body, but with the whole life.

      I hope that clarifies my perspective. I’m so grateful you took the time to respond and encourage me to clarify. God Bless you.

  2. “Long ago, Church communities fasted intensely and in unity.“
    Not so long ago, actually. Here in Lebanon, even just 20 years ago, fasting daily till noon and refraining from meat throughout lent was common. But priests have done such a good job of making us feel that fasting was a nonessential exercise, and that only works of charity and refraining from sin counted, that the habit of fasting has dropped off tremendously. I often felt like yelling out, during the homily of the start of lent (ash Monday for Maronites), where yet again the priest was reminding us that fasting wasn’t as important as being good, If fasting was so irrelevant , why did Christ fast for 40 days?

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