The three pillars of Lent are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of fasting and abstinence, but it is also customary for Catholics to take up a personal fast and “give up” something during the Lenten season.
But fasting is not something that we simply have to suffer through. It has a purpose, as Fr. Richard Simon explained on Father Simon Says™.
“Fasting is an exercise in freedom,” he said. “The purpose of it is to train your will to do God’s will. To train your will to obey the Lord. Freedom is the absolute requirement for the Christian life. And most people think that freedom is getting what they want, but they don’t understand that they don’t want what they want, it is their passions controlling them.”
“It is their desires, their hungers, their preferences that want what they want when they want it,” he continued. “So the self is not free. The self is subject to this sort of barrage of weakened human nature, but fasting is about freedom.”
There are two extremes that one can easily fall into when it comes to fasting. The first is thinking that it’s not actually necessary to give up something, thinking they can make up for it by doing good deeds. But by doing this, they miss out on the discipline and freedom that comes from fasting. The other extreme, though, is excessive fasting. If your Lenten fast becomes about proving how strong, how holy, how detached you are then you are also missing out on the real spiritual benefits
“Fasting is not the spiritual Olympics.”
Fr. Simon warned against excessive fasting, saying, “Fasting is not the spiritual Olympics. You understand that sometimes we get so into this that we say, ‘I just fast for days and, oh, I’m so devoted to God.’ Like it’s a kind of spiritual sporting event that you think, ‘Well, I can out-fast you.’ That’s not the point of it all. It isn’t to show how absolutely resolute we are, how absolutely strong we are. It’s an exercise in discipline.”
“Discipline means teaching,” he pointed out. “A disciple is a student. And when we think of discipline we think of something arduous and difficult. No, discipline is a learning process. And it’s a structure for learning.”
So this Lent, check-in with yourself to make sure your fasting is helping you learn, grow, and better hear what the Lord is calling you to. Practice giving up worldly pleasures and desires so that you can better choose what the Lord desires of you.
“Fasting is not an athletic competition,” Fr. Simon reiterated. “It is to open you to the Lord. Fasting is to dispose you to do God’s will. It isn’t a competition and you can’t do God’s will without hearing from God. So that’s the point. It isn’t the arduousness of the fast that is meritorious. No, the purpose of a fast is to make you able to say no to yourself and yes to what the Lord wants. It’s an exercise in freedom.”