Why Do We Fast? How Should We Fast?

In the L&S forum, there is a long debate over the minimum required for a fast, such as a Eucharistic fast.

It was suggested that this deeper question of why we actually fast be moved to a different thread. So I am volunteering to do that.

It seems that our forefathers viewed fasting in a more wholistic way than we do. We seem to be more concerned with fulfilling the “letter of the law”.

As Constantine asked in the other thread, “Why do we fast?”. What should be our disposition? I hope he will weigh in on this thread and I’d love to hear everyone’s opinions.

While thinking about this, I found a little section in the Catholic Encyclopedia, which I found interesting. It deals with the exemptions to fasting and then goes on to give an interesting opinion.

The ecclesiatical law of fasting embodies a serious obligation on all baptized individuals capable of assuming obligations provided they have completed their twenty-first year and are not otherwise excused. This doctrine is merely a practical application of a universally accepted principle of moralists and canonists whereby the character of obligation in human legislation is deemed serious or light in so far as the material element, involved in the law bears or does not bear a close and intimate relation to the attainment of a prescribed end. Inasmuch as fasting considered as a function of the virtue of temperance bears such a relation to the promotion of man’s spiritual well-being (see Lenten Preface in the Roman Missal), it certainly embodies an obligation generally serious. To this a priori reason may be added what Church history unfolds concerning the grave penalties attached to transgressions of this law.

The sixty-ninth of the Apostolic Canons decrees the degradation of bishops, priests, deacons, lectors or chanters failing to fast during Lent, and the excommunication of laymen, who fail in this way. The fifty-sixth canon of the Trullan Synod (692) contains similar regulations. Finally Alexander VII (24 Sept., 1665) condemned a proposition formulated in the following terms: Whoso violates the ecclesiastical law of fasting to which he is bound does not sin mortally unless he acts through contempt or disobedience (Denzinger, op. cit., no. 1123).

Though this obligation is generally serious, not every infraction of the law is mortally sinful. Whenever transgressions of the law fail to do substantial violence to the law, venial sins are committed. Inability to keep the law of fasting and incompatibility of fasting with the duties of one’s state in life suffice by their very nature, to extinguish the obligation because as often as the obligation of positive laws proves extremely burdensome or irksome the obligation is forthwith lifted.

Hence, the sick, the infirm, convalescents, delicate women, persons sixty years old and over, families whose members cannot have the necessaries for a full meal at the same time, or who have nothing but bread, vegetables or such like viands, those to whomfasting brings loss of sleep or severe headaches, wives whose fasting incurs their husband’s indignation, children whose fasting arouses parent’s wrath; in a word, all those who can not comply with the obligation of fasting without undergoing more than ordinary hardship are excused on account of their inability to fulfil the obligation. In like manner unusual fatigue or bodily weakness experienced in discharging one duty and superinduced by fasting lifts the obligation of fasting.

However, not every sort of labour, but only such as is hard and protracted excuses from the obligation of fasting. These two conditions are not confined to manual labour, but may be equally verified with regard to brain work. Hence bookkeepers, stenographers, telegraph operators, legal advisers and many others whose occupations are largely mental are entitled to exemption on this score, quite as well as day-labourers or tradesmen. When these causes begetting exemption by their very nature, do not exist, lawfully constituted superiors may dispense their subjects from the obligation of fasting.

Accordingly the Sovereign Pontiff may always and everywhere grant valid dispensations from this obligation. His dispensations will be licit when sufficient reasons underlie the grant. In particular cases and for good reasons, bishops may grant dispensations in their respective dioceses. Unless empowered by Indult they are not at liberty to dispense all their subjects simultaneously. It is to be noted that usually bishops issue just before Lent circulars or pastorals, which are read to the faithful or otherwise made public, and in which they make known, on the authority of the Apostolic See, the actual status of obligation, dispensations, etc. Priests charged with the care of souls may dispense individuals for good reason. Superiors of religious communities may dispense individual members of their respective communities provided sufficient reasons exist. Confessors are not qualified to grant these dispensations unless they have been explicitly delegated thereunto. They may, however, decide whether sufficient reason exists to lift the obligation.

I was happy to hear that “brain work” exempts me from fasting. :rolleyes:
And then there is a comment that I totally agree with.

No student of ecclesiatical discipline can fail to perceive that the obligation of fasting is rarely observed in its integrity nowadays. Conscious of the conditions of our age, the Church is ever shaping the requirements of this obligation to meet the best interests of her children. At the same time no measure of leniency in this respect can eliminate the natural and divine positive law imposing mortification and penance on man on account of sin and its consequences. (Council of Trent, Sess. VI. can. xx)

Your thoughts, and please be charitable. :slight_smile:

First of all, you do realize that the Church no longer abides by everything from the Catholic Encyclopedia article that you quoted from, e.g.:

"In the United States of America all the days of Lent; the Fridays of Advent (generally); the Ember Days; the vigils of Christmas and Pentecost, as well as those (14 Aug.) of the Assumption; (31 Oct.) of All Saints, are now fasting days. "

The only required fast days in the US are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

I’m not quite sure what you’re looking for. Do you feel that what is stated in your quote is too lenient? When the Church makes a rule, often she is giving us just the bare minimum requirement. For example, we are only required to go to confession and receive communion once a year. Is that a healthy way to live your spiritual life? Hardly. We are only required to go to Mass once a week. Some people think that is too much to ask, but there are many graces and blessings that come from going to Mass several times a week, every day if possible.

And, of course, the Church requires only a 1 hour fasting before receiving communion. And that is strictly before receiving communion. We aren’t even required to fast 1 hour before Mass, just before receiving.

There are some people who can fast with no problem. I’m not one of them. I hate it. That doesn’t mean I don’t do it. The reason I fast are numerous - for my own sins, spiritual petitions, pro life causes, etc. etc. How do I fast? I take what is the easy way out. I usually have one snack a day (raisins or some such) and then one main meal. I do it because I need the spiritual discipline. I heard or read somewhere that we should say no to ourselves at least once every day. It is good spiritual discipline not to give in to every whim and desire we have. Our passions will betray us every time. We need to be the master of our passions, and fasting is a good way to get there.

Don’t know if that’s what you’re looking for, but those are my thoughts.

If the Eucharist is the food that sustains our souls, then fasting is the exercise that strengthens our souls. One priest explained once that fasting is an exercise when we look at everyday, ordinary things such as food and with a conscious mind choose to not have it (or a type of food, such as meat). Many of our sins begins from simple, everyday, ordinary things and we do not realize we’ve chosen to sin because we do something so ordinary and regular. That is why today a lot of people think that many sins are okay because they are in fact ordinary and regular to our daily lives. When we fast we train our minds and our souls to forgo the ordinary things because we seek extraordinary things. When we train ourselves to stop, think and then decide to do something else out of the love for God, we do it not only with food, but with every action we make.

The other approach to fasting I have learned is knowing that everything else can be put aside. Only God is important. So if we do not eat or drink for a period of time, we train ourselves to acknowledge that it is God who sustains us.

Why Do We Fast? How Should We Fast?

I’m going to look mainly at the question of why we fast. It is not my purpose to give a ready made conclusion but rather to open up a path or two towards getting people to discover the truth about fasting for themselves.

If we look at the reality of fasting it has the effect of increasing our desire. It increases our hunger and thirst for bodily food and drink. However, its purpose isn’t to just starve ourselves out of some kind of misplaced sadistic motive. The purpose, it seems to me, is what comes at the end, the encounter with the object of desire, the meal at the end. We desire the good of food and drink more and experience a greater joy when we are united with it at the end of the fast than if we had just taken food at the usual time. Fasting introduces us to a different rhythm of life that becomes a sign of the life that we are called to in Christ. And because we are one person, body and soul, what the body experiences is also an experience of the soul. If we increase the desire of the body through fasting and then enjoy the communion of reunion at the end by having a feast day then the ‘higher’ faculties of the soul (intelligence and will) also go further in their activities of knowing and loving. The purpose of fasting is to grow in desire, to grow in love in hope of the day when we will encounter our saviour.

There’s plenty more that can be said I know, this is but two cents worth.

Beautifully said. Thank you! :thumbsup:

I think this is an interesting sermon. If anyone gets a chance to listen to it, I’d love to hear any opinions. :slight_smile:

Lent, Fasting, Abstinence, and Penance

Not so old thread, but one of my favorite Orthodox blogger priests posted something about fasting. I know, I know, this is not the Eastern Catholic forum, but read what he has to say and I bet many of you will agree. What he speaks of transcends the ritual traditions of the Church and speaks of what fasting really is. You can neglect what he says about Hesychasm, which is Eastern praxis. I will quote notable portions of the article here, but you can read the entire post here:


There are other segments of Christendom who have tiny remnants of the traditional Christian fast, but in the face of a modern world have reduced the tradition to relatively trivial acts of self-denial.

And it is this same path of inner knowledge of God (with all its components) that is the proper context of fasting. If we fast but do not forgive our enemies – our fasting is of no use. If we fast and do not find it drawing us into humility – our fasting is of no use. If our fasting does not make us yet more keenly aware of the fact that we are sinful before all and responsible to all then it is of no benefit. If our fasting does not unite us with the life of God – which is meek and lowly – then it is again of no benefit.

Fasting is not dieting. Fasting is not about keeping a Christian version of kosher. Fasting is about hunger and humility (which is increased as we allow ourselves to become weak). Fasting is about allowing our heart to break.

Why do we fast? We fast so that we may live like a dying man – and that in dying we can be born to eternal life.

My doctor said to me “Take off the weight. I don’t care how you do it, but take it off.”
We collect excess weight on our souls without really knowing it. Fasting, partial or
full, gets rid of our spiritual fat that is killing the soul.

Do it and you’ll notice the difference. And don’t do it for weight loss but for the right
reason. It helps you believe in what is really important.

Just a thought.

Hmm. Food for thought.

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