Fasting is one of those classic tools of of Catholic Spirituality that has great benefits for every aspect of our being. It is a tried and true method of asceticism. For most of us this is not new information, but often times we forget completely about fasting until Lent comes around. This is unfortunate, however, because fasting can be of great spiritual, emotional, and physical benefit throughout the whole year. I recently finished the longest fast I have ever attempted and wanted to share six insights I gained while doing it.
1. Fasting is a perfect retreat for those of us who are too busy to go on retreat. How many of us can make a week-long or even weekend-long retreats? As the modern world gets busier and more demanding it is more difficult to find time away to focus on our relationship with the Lord. What I found during my long fast was that even while at work or running errands it was easier to focus on the Lord. It was like that small feeling of hunger was a reminder of the presence of God and of the availability of myself. I found myself praying more and even having more clear discernment on things. It was basically like being on retreat for five days. When I finished I even had the same feeling of being refreshed that I get after being on retreat. I am not advocating replacing an annual retreat with fasting but if you have no other choice it is a great option.
2. "I could never do a full fast because . . ." Fasting is difficult, there is no question about that, but most of the difficulties go away after about twenty-four hours. Headaches, aches, dizziness, etc. all pretty much go away after about twenty-four hours of fasting. I am sure there are medical reasons not to try a black fast but most of us can do it and just need to try. I understand more than anyone about being "hangry" (hungry/angry) but fasting often brings to the surface deeper problems we need to work on.
3. Fasting quiets our prayer. I have said it before and I will probably say it again--fasting helps mental prayer. I cannot tell you how many people who have asked about struggles in mental prayer that have solved them through fasting. Most people doubt the advice at first but it honestly can help rid our minds of distraction during prayer. I do not know why it works, but it does. On the longer fast I found it helped more and more the longer I fasted.
4. Fasting and Holy Communion are an awesome combination. Receiving communion during a fast was for me a very special experience. Fasting creates a spiritual and physical longing and because of the genius of our faith we can be satisfied in both ways. Like many beautiful aspects of our faith, fasting is both spiritual and physical and the physical influences the spiritual. Holy Communion is the same. When these two meet it is really extraordinary. Particularly during the long fast, receiving communion was just an incredible sensation both spiritually and physically. You really get a tangible experience of what it means to be satisfied by the Lord alone.
5. Fasting and "Blessed are the poor." When you fast there is a constant thought about not having the food you normally would. For some reason it also makes me think of the other ways I am impoverished. It is like I finally see the empty cup of my soul that needs to be filled. Fasting is a way to become poor in spirit.
6. Fasting and Solidarity. Most of the major struggles with fasting go away after a day or two but at least once a day or in the middle of the night I experienced intense hunger. I am such a wuss and it was a real struggle. I could not help but think about those people who have been without food but also had no end of the hunger in site. I found myself praying a lot more for the truly poor of the third world. Fasting helped me to see that I have so much and I take it for granted.
I cannot recommend it enough to you to try a longer fast than you normally would. When I finished I felt both physically and spiritually rested. I cannot wait to try it again.
P.S. If you decide to try fasting please remember me in your prayers. God bless you!
Dave VanVickle is a Catholic speaker and writer focusing on the Universal Call to Holiness and Authentic Catholic Spirituality. He is currently employed as the Director of Evangelization for the parishes of the Catholic Community of Wexford, PA.