Many of us have made a New Year’s resolution that has involved losing weight, eating less, exercising more and becoming more healthy. This is all fine and well, but I would like to tell you about a scriptural and religious practice of eating less that could also greatly help us. It’s called fasting and it can be a very powerful way to pray.
Fasting is the refraining from food or drink as a penance for our sins or as a sacrificial prayer for another person. This limiting of food or drink for a religious purpose is done in imitation of Jesus’ fast in the desert for 40 days. Similarly, by giving up a meal during the day or eating more simply, we are offering up our sufferings for the good of another person or in reparation for our own sins. Fasting can be a very effective form of prayer if done with the right intention, in moderation, and with a humble heart.
For example, today there are only two days during the entire year when we as Catholics, aged 18-59, are generally obligated to fast: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. However, there are many more opportunities or occasions when we might give up a meal or a candy bar, soda, or coffee as a form of prayer.
Perhaps we have a sick relative for whom we would like to pray. Or maybe we want to avoid a particular sin which is troubling us. Perhaps we want to pray for our spouse. Or maybe we desire to do something extra today to make a difference in our world. By giving something up, we are offering a sacrifice back to God and thus humbling ourselves before him.
This sacrifice can be a powerful form of prayer. Traditionally, fasting meant that a person would take only one meal per day, although this can be altered depending upon the circumstances. Indeed, we can fast from other objects than food. Perhaps we might give up television or the use of the internet for a period of time for a given intention. Or we might do without something we really enjoy as a sacrificial prayer to God.
Why does fasting matter? First of all, the Bible is filled with examples of fasting. Jesus himself fasted and said that some things require both prayer and fasting to achieve. The reason for fasting is based on our complete dependency on God. When we give something up and begin to realize the effects of our decision, we start to see things differently and perhaps more clearly. Fasting is sacrificial. We are giving something up to remind ourselves how much Jesus gave up to save us. And when used as a prayer, fasting can be a very humble way to ask for God’s mercy or intercession.
Fasting can be a real challenge — just try it! But nothing seems to make us aware of our frail humanity more quickly than by doing without something we really want. The humility that this activity brings as well as the sacrifice that accompanies it can make a real difference in our lives. Let us begin to fast more often for ourselves and for our suffering world.
Fr. Girotti, who serves as vicar for canonical services and associate moderator of the Curia, is author of “A Shepherd Tends His Flock.”