Fr Billy Swan
Dear friends. I would like to share a few thoughts with you this week on fasting. The main reason is because of Jesus’ decision to fast in the desert for 40 days which connects his experience to ours for the 40 days of Lent. But also because I believe that the traditional practice of fasting is in crisis. It is not taken too seriously anymore.
When we were children, many of us gave up sweets for Lent or gave up something that we liked. Looking back, it wasn’t always clear why we were fasting – what was the purpose of it all. For many, when childhood ended, so did things like fasting for Lent. Therefore, we badly need to rediscover the meaning and value of fasting, especially for the 40 days of Lent.
First of all, there is a very practical reason why we fast. We do without so that others might do with. This means that if I give up a meal once a week, the money I save can go into the Trocaire box. Someone else will then benefit from my sacrifice. It’s that simple. Moreover, when I fast like this, I am entering into a real solidarity with people who have only two meals a day, or only one at best. When our bellies are full, we rarely think of these people. But when we fast we become one with them. Even for a while, we suffer with them, which draws us into the battle to combat world hunger, poverty and how we can help.
The second reason fasting is important is that, like the first reason, it is a means and never an end. The purpose of fasting is to assist the soul in turning back to God. This is a point that has been largely forgotten and neglected. The truth about us is that we all have needs and desires. But not all of these needs and desires pull in the same direction. If we spend our lives trying to satisfy all our desires then we end up like a balloon that keeps taking in air until eventually it bursts.
This is part of what drives a culture that consumes more than it needs; a culture that seeks to satisfy the body but not the soul. We are a delicate mix of body and soul and both are competing for our attention at any given time. But which steers the ship? Whether we are aware of it or not, our body is ordering us around most of the day: ‘feed me, please me, sleep me, pamper me, wash me, relieve me’. While the needs of the body are certainly important, fasting is one of the ways the Gospel teaches us to ensure that the body and its desires do not become our master.
Some time ago I watched an episode of The Late Late Show that included an interview with Philly McMahon, the Dublin footballer, who lost a brother through drug abuse. Strategies of dealing with drug addiction were discussed but what received little attention was the strategy of teaching ourselves and our children to say ‘NO’. No to drugs and no to anything else that leads to harm. We say ‘NO’ in order to say ‘YES’ to God and the life he wishes for us. This will not be ours without some degree of sacrifice and discipline which fasting teaches us. Fasting reminds us of the highest good there is which is God himself and to choose him and his ways above all things. Therefore fasting is always joined to an internal conversion of the heart, loving God more and to worship of him alone. Here is the difference between fasting and just going hungry for the sake of other motives like weight loss.
We change when our habits change. Fasting, especially during Lent, is a good habit when we do it for the right reasons: to do with less so others can do with more as we unite ourselves closer to God and his ways so that He becomes our master and not our desires.