Bacon and eggs go together. Salt and pepper go together. Man and woman belong together. It is so neat that God has created things to go together! When things go together, there is a unity and a completion that takes place. It is the same in our spiritual life. Various virtues seem to go together: in order to be patient with someone we need humility. In order to practice charity, we need faith and hope.
Have you ever had a time where you wondered: “what is taking God so long to answer my prayer?” Our faith tells us that sometimes what we are asking God for is not His plan for us, rather he will answer our prayer in a more perfect way that will bring us closer to Him. Our faith also tells us that perhaps our prayer will be answered, but in God’s perfect timing. However, I propose that there might be another reason why God asks us to wait: our prayers are not complete…in other words our prayer is not finished yet.
Let’s look at an example. A man tells his wife that he loves her. A woman tells her husband that she loves him. That’s wonderful and good. It needs to be said! But how is love shown? You see, sometimes words are not enough. We can mouth the words, but it is nothing if it is not with the heart. For example, many popular songs say: I would walk 1000 miles, swim in the ocean and climb the mountain for you! I remember thinking to myself: “okay buddy, starting swimming and start climbing.” In a sense, these popular songs make a good point…love entails sacrifice. Could God perhaps be asking us to make a sacrifice…a form of self-denial before he answers our prayer?
Two questions were once asked by our retreat master on one of our annual retreats. The whole of our spiritual life hinges on these questions and I turn them over to you for your reflection: What does Jesus mean to me? Is He everything to me?
We talked in the last post about attachments…now we must speak about one way of letting go of attachments…a way in which we can respond to the Father’s love for us and imitate Christ. It is the way that can make our prayer complete…the way of sacrifice and fasting.
I know our first reaction is “But I don’t want to fast!” It is just like getting a kid to eat broccoli…you say, “Honey it is good for you! You will grow and become stronger!” It is sort of the same thing…we are children in the spiritual life…and fasting is like spiritual broccoli. Ponder on these words of St. Peter Chrysologus: “Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to others, you open God’s ear to yourself.”
Fasting is necessary and essential in becoming disciples of Christ. How do we know this? Jesus fasted. Before His public ministry he was led into the desert for 40 days and 40 nights eating nothing and drinking nothing (Matthew 4:1-11). Not only did Jesus fast, but he expected his apostles to fast. Some of the greatest saints: St. Padre Pio, St. John Vianney, St. Catherine of Sienna and so many others became great saints because they were willing to fast.
So what is fasting? Fasting is a voluntary denial of a certain pleasure as a sacrifice offered to God. Pope Benedict XVI says, “It is good to see how the ultimate goal of fasting is to help each one of us to make a complete gift of self to God.” It can mean denying certain nourishment for the body such as food or drink. There are several types of fasting on nourishment: Biblical fast (not eating or drinking anything until after 3:00 pm) Black fast (no food all day or all night), Ecclesiastical fast (Church calls for one full meal and 2 small snacks) and Abstinence (denial of certain types of food such as meat). It is also possible for people to deny themselves sleep which are called “vigils.” People can rise early in the morning to pray, or stay up and pray, or rise in the middle of the night and pray. There were times where Jesus spent all night in prayer. Before choosing the twelve apostles, “all night he continued in prayer to God” (Luke 6:12) So these were the two forms of fasting that Jesus practiced: fasting of physical nourishment and vigils.
Fasting is so necessary and essential for us. As a sacrifice, it cleanses the soul of sin and strengthens us in virtue and releases graces upon us and the whole world. Since man is composed of soul, body and spirit, we can say that fasting is good for body, soul and spirit. Fasting, as much as health demands, helps us maintain good health and avoid gluttony (overindulging). Indeed, we need healthy bodies to do God’s work!
Fasting is also good for the soul and spirit. It helps us to maintain self-control, so that in times of temptation we have the strength to resist. In other words, fasting is strengthening our will against indulging in certain pleasures that would not be good for us. Fasting prevents us from being slaves to pleasure, and makes us more grateful for God’s creation. “But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (Matthew 6:17-18). Sometimes when certain pleasures come frequently, for example food or sports, things tend to lose their excitement. Fasting helps keep things new and fresh!
Fasting can serve as a penitential act with value that calls down God’s mercy and it makes atonement (satisfaction) for sins that have occurred in the world. Indeed, many prayers are not answered because sometimes our prayers are not complete until we sacrifice something. I was once told by a very wise priest: “Prayer is elevation of the soul to God and fasting is elevation of the body to God.” Fasting is necessary in prayers of intercession. We can recall in the Gospels how the Apostles were not able to drive a demon out of a person because it could only “be cast out by prayer and fasting.” (Mark 9:29). Prayer must be accompanied with sacrifice to be complete.
Finally, fasting disposes us to a higher form of prayer that we call contemplation where the soul is lifted upward to God. To receive the Spirit of God entails silence before Him deeply immersed in the mysteries of God. If someone is fasting, they are disciplined and less distracted. St. John Chrysostom says, “Fasting is the support of our soul: it gives us wings to ascend on high, and to enjoy the highest contemplation! […] God, like an indulgent father, offers us a cure by fasting.”
Now I know that this may have sparked your enthusiasm for fasting! I know that we are all ready to fast more for the Lord and that is great! But…hold the horses! One final note is to be prudent…do not fast more then your health permits. Fasting should never make you incapable of fulfilling your duties of state in life. Also, in your fasting, are the Fruits of the Spirit more present in your life? Are you a more loving, joyful, peaceful, patient person? All fasting must be done cheerfully. You do not measure holiness by how much someone suffers or sacrifices, but by the love that is in it. It is for Jesus…always for Him. Also, extraordinary penances must be approved by an authority such as a spiritual director or superior. Obedience always before sacrifice!
St. John Vianney once said: “When we must do something we dislike let us say to God, ‘My God I offer you this in honor of the moment when you died for me.’” Reflect today: What does Jesus mean to me? Is He everything to me?