As readers of this blog will know, I have recently been exploring the Catholic faith and practice. I grew up an evangelical Protestant but I've found myself drawn to the Roman Catholic Church.
Parallel to these theological explorations, I have been immersing myself in Catholic practice and discipline. One aspect of this has been my participation in Lent, from Ash Wednesday to Holy Week.
When I was growing up, I knew a number of people who did Lent-related activities -- some of my friends even organized 'prayer fasts' for several days at a time. I never participated, and never really understood the appeal of fasting. My faith has always been more rational than experiential, so it was almost like speaking a different language. However, many of them talked about the benefits and insights they gained, so over time my curiosity grew. This year, with the added incentive of immersing myself in Catholicism, I jumped in headfirst.
I organized my Lenten fast around the "Official Lenten Regulations for the Archdiocese of Seattle" (published here by St. Michael's Parish in Olympia). To briefly encapsulate: I would limit myself to a single meal each weekday, though I could add two smaller 'supplemental meals' if I needed to "maintain strength." I would also abstain from meats on each Friday of Lent. These restrictions would not carry over to the weekends.
This is what I learned:
1) Fasting sucks.
The first week of my fast, I felt terrible. Fortunately there were no restrictions on liquids, so I consumed a lot of those over the past few weeks. I also added multivitamins to my routine, mostly to ensure I wouldn't die of scurvy. It did get easier over time, but not by much.
2) Fasting recalls us to humility.
Before I fasted, I used to imagine that I could be pretty self-sacrificial if called upon. I loved God and I loved my neighbor, so the idea of casting my health, wealth, or personal security aside for the sake of another was not out of the question. After several weeks of fasting, all I can say is: yikes. There's a life lesson here: never imagine that you are more virtuous than you actually are. God might tell you to act like it. Fasting was an excellent way to remind me that I'm still fallible, still weak, and still desperately in need of His strength and support.
3) Fasting moves us to solidarity.
For most of human history, there was always a question of whether you would have food on the table today, tomorrow, or for the next season. Even today, in many parts of the world, there is still starvation and malnutrition. By voluntarily depriving yourself of food, you suffer alongside others. Is there a more central command in the Christian faith, than to take up your cross daily? "Greater love has no one than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13).
4) Fasting encourages self-control.
This is sometimes described as "mortification of the flesh." That sounds fairly barbaric, like an Inquisitorial rack, but the word pretty accurately conveys the Christian discipline. After all, we as Christians are constantly reminded of the need to die to ourselves and therefore live in Christ. The ascetics disciplined their flesh in more visceral ways as a reminder to suffer with Christ. Even the lesser degrees of mortification, such as fasting, help remind us to suffer with Christ and die with Him.
5) Fasting points us to prayer.
The first week of fasting was just awful. Prayer seemed to help quite a bit. It didn't make me less hungry -- certainly the rumblings of my stomach didn't decrease in volume or frequency -- but it helped me shift my attention to God. As I grow mature in my faith, I imagine I will identify considerable more meaning and importance in this aspect of fasting.
6) Fasting teaches us a 'vital rhythm' of Christian life.
The liturgical calendar tends to vary between fasts and feasts. During the weekdays we limit our meals, but over weekends we can enjoy three square meals, or even more. There are even a few Holy Days of Obligation (that is, feast days) during the Lenten season, such as the Solemnity of the Annunciation. This variance helps us realize that we are not called to enjoy a perpetual emotional "high" from our faith, nor should fasts continue without end. There are seasons for everything. For many years I felt keenly the absence of God and the lack of an experiential component of my faith. When I was older, I realized that this was deliberate: I was supposed to yearn for that sort of experience, so that it would be more powerful and more preserving when I actually experienced it.
7) Fasting reminds us of the Passion of our Lord.
Christ lived so that He could die. We preach a resurrected Christ, but we preach a Christ who was first crucified. Fasting reminds us that Christ conquered death, and redeemed suffering. Indeed, by fasting, we can participate in and recapitulate the willing self-sacrifice of our Lord. Because of the Cross, suffering is tremendously redemptive, not only for ourselves, but also for others.