The Psychology of Fasting

Fasting was an essential aspect of primitive Christianity, as it had been in Old Testament times. That the followers of Jesus would fast is taken for granted:

When you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.[1]

Jesus himself fasted for forty days on the eve of his public ministry; in doing so he echoed the fasts of the great saints of Old Testament time: Moses on Mount Sinai, Elijah in the wilderness. When we examine the various instances of fasting in Scripture, we find that the overall motive is to facilitate making contact with God: one must achieve a certain distance from mundane concerns in order to encounter God. As an immediate corollary of this fact, we see that fasting is particularly appropriate for repentant sinners: “O God, you know my folly; the wrongs I have done are not hidden from thee. . . . I humbled my soul with fasting.”[2]

As one would expect, fasting was practised in the early Church. “And concerning baptism. . . . before the baptism let the baptizer fast, and the baptized, and whoever else can; but you shall order the baptized to fast one or two days before.”[3] Two points are worthy of consideration here: the first is the obvious one that fasting was appropriate for the man who was going to encounter God in the sacrament; the second is that everyone joins in the fast as a sort of prayer for the catechumen.

During the Middle Ages, fasting among Catholics was severe and universal. It’s not hard to see why. In a rural society, provisions for winter were gathered and stored during summer and autumn. At the best of times, food would have been short in spring, the season of Lent. If the harvest had been poor, fasting would have been as much a physical fact as a religious observance. But the Christian is able to recognize God’s hand in the details of his life, and so fasting, even when it was unavoidable, was spiritually profitable. The Tuesday before the beginning of Lent—mardi gras or carnival—was the day to rid the kitchen of every trace of meat. Pancakes were eaten because they were cooked in lard, the last lard that would be used until Easter.

Nowadays, the fast has been reduced to the vanishing point, and yet we are still required by Scripture and tradition to fast. Our fast, however, must take another form, translating into contemporary terms the Lenten penances of the past. Severe fasting from food, however, is difficult if not impossible for most people today. For one thing, few of us live in the country. Our working days do not vary with the seasons, as they do on a farm, letting up in winter and intensifying in the summer and autumn. We work as hard in February as we do in August—probably harder, if anything. Hence the inevitable physical weaknesses produced by fasting, which would be quite acceptable to those mediaeval men and women without much to do, are ruled out for us. But there is a psychological effect of fasting that we are obliged to acquire. The psychology of fasting is typical of the Catholic approach to becoming a saint, a goal that each of us dedicates himself to by being baptized. Our spirituality is based on the premise that with practice one can grow in holiness. The principle can be succinctly expressed: one imitates the external symptoms of a certain spiritual state in order to internalize it. For example, every serious Catholic will want to keep the Sabbath holy by attending Mass and feel deprived when it is not available. The obligation is therefore a constraint only for the person who has not spiritually mature enough to desire this essential element of our religion. But by obeying the commandment, one gradually develops an understanding of the importance of participating in public worship every Sunday.

What then is the attitude that should make someone want to fast and which, according to our Catholic psychology, we try to attain by fasting? Think of situations where the very idea of eating is distressing. There are three. The first one is severe grief. When someone dies, neighbours often bring food to the home of the deceased, knowing that the family is likely to neglect eating at such a time. Secondly, illness usually takes away one’s appetite. And thirdly, people may also forget to eat when they are engrossed in some activity: a moment of inspiration for a writer or composer, for example, or a scientist struggling to solve an anomaly in his observations, or sometimes even a boy or girl doing homework.

Each of these has its parallel in Lenten fasting. The first one—grief—describes the Christian whose meditation on the suffering and death of Christ is so intense that he shares the sorrow of Our Lady at the foot of the cross. Someone we love has died, and died for us. Although we may not grieve to the extent that we should, our acting as if we did by fasting is a means of keeping Christ’s sacrifice alive in our minds. The second reason for fasting—illness—is something like the mental state of a Christian who has become aware of the heinousness of sin. If we could see our sins for the evil they are, we would be in such great distress that the thought of food would be unbearable. Few of us, alas, have that sensitivity, but by a sort of holy pretext we imitate the symptoms of a saint in order to approach his sanctity. And to the third—being lost in thought—corresponds the attention we learn to give to the things of God. Again, I suppose none of us would claim to have attained that degree of holiness, but we can move towards it by creating an emptiness in our lives that only God can fill.

There is thus an element in common among all of these reasons for fasting; each creates a vacuum, a condition that the spirit as well as nature abhors. That sort of vacuum will not come about as a result of the minimal fast required of Catholics today, but there are other forms of fasting that will serve. In Canada today, entertainment is the “food” on which we glut ourselves. Modern fasting, therefore, will achieve its goal if we make space for God by reducing or even eliminating pastimes that contribute little or nothing to our awareness of God. Consider television and the internet, for instance. Honestly now, what would be lost by limiting their use to, say, the news? If your answer is not “nothing would be lost,” I would say you have an addiction. Why not unplug them during Lent? News, if that’s your excuse for watching, can be had from the radio or newspapers. As well, why not ration or eliminate your viewing of movies, on Netflix or DVDs? And what about computer games or surfing the net, which is at best a waste of time and at worst an occasion of sin? Give some thought to how you spend your leisure time, and arrange your programme of “fasting” this Lent accordingly. If you are serious about your faith, “this is the acceptable time, this is the day of salvation.”[4]

I mentioned that the spirit as well as nature abhors a vacuum. The time released by your Lenten fasts must filled with something. Otherwise, you will lose rather than gain ground it in your spiritual journey. Recall the words of Jesus:

When the unclean spirit has gone out of a man, he passes through waterless places seeking rest, but he finds none. Then he says, “I will return to my house from which I came.” And when he comes he finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then he goes and brings with him seven other spirits more evil than himself, and they enter and dwell there; and the last state of that man becomes worse than the first.[5]

With what will you fill the space created by your fasting? In the Bible, prayer and almsgiving are the traditional practices that accompany fasting. Over the next couple of weeks, I shall consider each of these, finishing off with an exhortation to making an Easter confession, another traditional observance of Lent.

A word of warning: anyone who has fasted from food and drink will tell you that there are unexpected mental and physical side effects. We are psychosomatic unities, so that what happens to the body has it effect on the mind, and vice-versa. Hence the physical weakness and lassitude, which robs the faster of his energy has a psychological parallel in a weakening of the powers of the will and intellect. In other words, fasting from food can make a person irritable and an easy prey to temptations of all sorts. It’s as if the walls around a city suddenly collapsed, leaving it at the mercy of the enemy. The sort of fasting I am suggesting—namely, reducing or eliminating the distraction of too much media—will also have its effect, physical as well as psychological. Don’t be surprised, therefore, if you find it difficult to persevere in your good intentions; nothing worthwhile is attained with effort. If this Lent is your first serious attempt at spiritual growth, you must expect to stagger and even to fall. But take heart. You are not the first or the last to experience these difficulties. The earliest monks knew them well, and knew also what to do them. Once an aspiring young monk asked his mentor how he had become holy, as he clearly had. He replied, “I fall down, and I get up again. Then I fall again and get up. And again. That is the secret of holiness.”

[1] Matt. 6.16-18.

[2] Ps 68/69. 5, ß10.

[3] Didache, 7.

[4] 2 Cor. 6.2.

[5] Matt 12.43-45.