fasting, Lent, spirituality

Frank Answers About Our Problem with Fasting

In your Frank Answers dealing with questions about Lent you stress the practice of fasting. Fasting is a problem for many people today. We don’t receive much guidance from the churches on Lenten fasting and we’re often in social situations where meat is served even on Fridays. How can we observe the Lenten fast in today’s world?

First of all, let’s be clear that fasting has been a normal part of Christian life since the first century. On Ash Wednesday we hear from the Gospel of Matthew Jesus’ teaching on the three notable duties of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting (Matthew 6:1-16). Jesus assumed that his disciples would keep the discipline of fasting. “Whenever you fast..”, not if you fast. The important thing in his teaching is that none of these disciplines, including fasting, give you spiritual bragging rights before God or before others.

The church order known as the Didache (Teaching of the Twelve) at the end of the first century prescribed Wednesdays and Fridays as fast days (to distinguish Christians from the Jews who fasted on Mondays and Thursdays). Tertullian at the beginning of the third century explained the Friday fast as a participation in the passion of Christ. Wednesday became a weekly penitential day on which Psalm 51 was prayed. This remained a Christian practice in the Eastern and Western Churches down through the centuries. The Great Fast of Lent includes forty days of fasting, not including Sundays, because Sunday is the Lord’s Day, the day of resurrection. [On the origins of the Great Fast of Lent (Quadragesima or the Forty Days) see Frank Answers About Our Problems with Lent.]

The Gospel for the First Sunday in Lent has historically been the temptations of Christ in the wilderness after his Baptism.

The first temptation in both Matthew 4 and Luke 4 is the temptation to turn stone into bread to satisfy his hunger. Adam and Eve were tempted by food — the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. As the serpent in the Garden of Eden tempted the first humans with food, so the devil tempted Jesus with food. The first temptation has been interpreted as a temptation of the Son of God to use his power to satisfy his own needs. Jesus responded by reminding the devil of the Torah’s teaching in Deuteronomy that “man does not live by bread alone.” But let’s not forget that the tempter was reminding Jesus of real needs for a real human body.

Second, it’s true that fasting is a problem in our overstuffed society. The ancient church fathers and the Eastern churches to this day recommend and prescribe much fasting.  But, as the question points out, modern Western people have great difficulty with fasting (as opposed to dieting). The great scholarly work of Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity (Columbia University Press, 1988; revised edition 2008) exposes our modern problem with fasting. Simply put: our modern Western bodies are not the same as the bodies of earlier times and other places in the world.  Brown reminds us of the sharp discontinuities between our overly-fed modern Western bodies and the under-fed bodies of ordinary human beings in antiquity (as well as in some parts of the world today).  In plain fact, some bodies are capable of thriving on less than we are, and often have to. In part, a cosmology or worldview is involved here that eludes us today. This is seen in the practices of the desert fathers and other ascetics in the ancient world.  Let me quote from Peter Brown at length:

“There is no doubt as to the terrible privations that were involved even in the relatively stable life of the Pachomian monasteries. But we must remember that the body-image which the ascetics brought with them into the desert gave considerable cognitive and emotional support to their hope for change through self-mortification. It takes some effort of the modern imagination to recapture this aspect of the ascetic life. The ascetics of late antiquity tended to view the human body as an ‘autarkic’ system. In ideal conditions, it was thought capable of running on its own ‘heat’; it would need only enough nourishment to keep that heat alive.  In its ‘natural’ state—a state with which the ascetics tended to identify with Adam and Eve—the body had acted like a finely tuned engine, capable of ‘idling’ indefinitely, It was only the twisted will of fallen men that had crammed the body with unnecessary food, thereby generating in it the dire surplus of energy that showed itself in physical appetite, in anger, and in the sexual urge. In reducing the intake to which he had become accustomed, the ascetic slowly remade his body. He tuned it into an exactly calibrated instrument. It’s drastic physical changes, after years of ascetic discipline, registered with satisfying precision the essential, preliminary stages of the long return of the human person, body and soul together, to an original, natural and uncorrupted state” (p. 223).

St. Jerome fasting and praying naked in the desert

The ascetic, of course, engaged in permanent fasting and praying. The two go together in the history of spirituality. Setting aside time for prayer, worship, and/or meditation would be a complement to fasting. One might even meditate on the body and fasting. The best time for prayer or meditation is often in the morning upon arising and before getting into the affairs of the day. Prayer or meditation might provide you spiritual fortification for dealing with the affairs of the day.

The ordinary Christian had Wednesdays and Fridays and the Great Fast of Lent to keep the body tuned, as well as other fasting times throughout the year. But our ancient ancestors in the faith were starting from a better state than we are in recalibrating our bodies to “an original, natural…state,” one that the ancients thought would also foreshadow their resurrection bodies.  Considering where we modern Westerners are starting from, a half-hearted fast on a few Lenten Fridays is not going to get us anywhere near this original or future state.

Third, our churches could do more to help us in recovering the physicality as well as the spirituality of fasting, including in what is served in Lenten suppers. In the last congregation I served before retiring, I asked a celebrated chef who is a member of the congregation to prepare a Lenten cook book with recipes for meatless or fish-based meals. Vegetarian cook books abound.

I have come up with a half-measure fasting for myself. Fasting is the spiritual discipline of subjugating the flesh by depriving it of flesh—meat. That is the time-honored element to “give up” during Lent. (Meat was not an ordinary part of the ancient diet; it was served at feasts.) One could include all meat products in this fast, but I start just with the flesh. No meat on Fridays. If possible, make Wednesdays (the other traditional Christian fast day) also a meatless day. Then add no meat for breakfast and lunch: no bacon or sausage, no lunch meat. If your schedule requires ordering fast food, many places offer veggie burgers and tuna sandwiches. This is doable. By the time we get to Holy Week you could fast daily in anticipation of the Easter feast.

It is important to emphasize that fasting is not for the sake of dieting, detoxifying, or supporting world hunger. Those are good and noble purposes, but they can be done at any time. Nor is the Lenten fast just about self-denial. It is a penitential discipline of mortifying the flesh to prepare our bodies, ourselves, for regeneration and resurrection.

I have developed a motto for the Lenten disciplines of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving that may be helpful: tone up, tune in, reach out. Fasting is an ascetic practice. “Ascetic” comes from the Greek word ascesis, which means “discipline,” such as athletes submit to when they are exercising to run a race. St. Paul used this term in 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 to compare the Christian life to running a race. The runner needs to tone up his body, tune into his mind, and reach out to the goal of the finish line.  Athletes are known for eating a lot, but they are also careful about what they eat. Certainly lots of protein from lean meat, fish. poultry, and eggs, but also fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and healthy fats. They leave high-sodium, high-sugar, heavily processed foods on store shelves. They follow a set diet, eating some things but fasting from others. So, too, in fasting we are submitting to a disciplined diet of eating some things, but not others.  It’s not hard; it just requires ascesis – discipline.

Duluth high school cross country runners

Soon Easter will be here and then we will have fifty days of feasting–not fasting—during the Easter Season. We don’t even fast on Wednesdays and Fridays during Easter. But after the fiftieth day (Pentecost) we will be back into ordinary time. During ordinary time fasting is integrated into the weekly lives of Christians.

As I wrote above, the traditional fast days for Christians were Wednesdays and Fridays. The Friday fast isn’t what it used to be even for Catholics. But many Christians, even Protestants, have become interested in practices of fasting as a spiritual discipline. There’s no question that a well-regulated fasting regimen can be good for one’s health in a society that tends to overeat.

No matter what the content of the fasting is or isn’t (usually non-meat), people unaccustomed to the discipline of fasting may need help. What has now been called intermittent fasting may be helpful, whether your fasting regimen is one day a week or several. The point of intermittent fasting is to eat only at certain hours during the day. Most proposals of IF limit eating to 8 hours within 24 hours, and never before going to sleep at night. One aid I have seen to help people with IF is called an Intermittent Fasting Calculator. You can check it out here:

Here is one typical chart demonstrating IF. If I were doing this I would make my 8 hours closer to 9AM -5 PM. I tend to wake about 5AM and go to bed at 10PM and take a short nap in the afternoon, which is not uncommon among seniors my age.

In any event, fasting has been an important aspect of Christian spirituality. In the liturgical calendar there are about as many fast days as feast days, which suggests moderation in the whole of life. From a biological perspective, fasting is about detoxifying the body, which can be assisted by practicing abdominal twists, especially if your last meal the day before had been big and rich. Keeping the body well regulated is also a spiritual practice.

Pastor Frank Senn

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