Prof. Michael Ogunu
Lent is the annual period of 40 days preceding Easter, which the Church sets aside as a time of prayer, fasting and penance. In this solemn and holy season, the faithful are invited to renew their hearts and deepen their spiritual life by imitating Christ’s retreat in the desert and by contemplating the events of His passion.
Fasting is one of the prescribed forms of penance during the Lenten period, whereby one atones for one’s sins and humiliates oneself before God in response to the advice of St. Peter the Apostle who said, “Humble yourselves before the mighty hand of God that He may lift you up in season” (1 Pt. 3:6).
Fasting was in the Old Dispensation, one of the great means of making atonement; it was called “to afflict the soul” (Lv. 16:29) but to be acceptable it had to be accompanied by sentiments of sorrow for sin and mercy towards others (Is. 58:3-7). Under the New Law, fasting is an earnest expression of grief and penance. Our Lord wishing to expiate our sins, fasted forty days and forty nights, and taught his Apostles that certain evil spirits cannot be cast out except by prayer and fasting. We might wonder what value and meaning there is for us Christians in depriving ourselves of something that in itself is good and useful for our bodily sustenance. As stated by Pope Benedict XVI in his 2009 Lenten message, “The Sacred Scriptures and the entire Christian tradition teach that fasting is a great help to avoid sin and all that leads to it”. True to her teachings, the Church has established the Lenten fast to offer her children the opportunity of making expiation for their faults. Many a sin takes its rise directly or indirectly in the craving for pleasure, in excess in eating and drinking, and nothing is so effective in making atonement as mortification in eating, reaching as it does the very root of the evil by mortifying the craving for sensual pleasure. Since all of us are weighed down by sin and its consequences, fasting is proposed to us as an instrument to restore friendship with God. Such was the case with Ezra, who, in preparation for the journey from exile back to the Promised Land, calls upon the assembled people to fast so that “we might humble ourselves before our God” (Ezr. 8:21). The Almighty heard their prayer and assured them of His favour and protection. In the same way, the people of Nineveh, responding to Jonah’s call to repentance, proclaimed a fast, as a sign of their sincerity, saying: “Who knows, God may relent and forgive, and withhold his blazing wrath, so that we shall not perish” (Jon 3:9). In this instance, too, God saw their works and spared them.
The practice of fasting is very present in the first Christian community (cf. Acts 13:3; 14:22; 27:21; 2 Cor. 6:5). The Church Fathers, too, speak of the force of fasting to bridle sin, especially the lust of the “old Adam”, and open in the heart of the believer a path to God. Moreover, fasting is a practice that is encountered frequently and recommended by the saints of every age, as pointed out by Pope Benedict XVI. Saint Peter Chrysologus writes: “Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. So if you pray, fast; if you fast, show mercy; if you want your petition to be heard, hear the petition of others. If you do not close your ear to others, you open God’s ear to yourself” (Sermo 43: PL 52, 320. 322).
Fasting as a form of mortification raises the soul to God. St. Francis de Sales says: “The soul can never ascend to God unless the body is brought into subjection by penance”.
Pope John XXIII in his encyclical entitled “Paenitentiam Agere” (On the Need for the Practice of Interior and Exterior Penance), July 1, 1962 explains that “Doing penance for one’s sins is a first step towards obtaining forgiveness and winning eternal salvation”. “Our first need”, says the Pope, “is for internal repentance; the detestation, that is, of sin, and the determination to make amends for it. This is the repentance shown by those who make a good Confession, take part in the Eucharistic Sacrifice and receive Holy Communion … for external acts of penance are quite obviously useless unless accompanied by a clear conscience and the detestation of sin”.
Contrary to the tendency of some priests to de-emphasize external penance such as fasting from food, the Pontiff emphasized the need for outward acts of penance as well. “The faithful must also be encouraged to do outward acts of penance, both to keep their bodies under the strict control of reason and faith and to make amends for their own and other people’s sins”. He cited the example of St. Paul who, though caught up to the third heaven (reached the summit of holiness), yet he had no hesitation in saying of himself, “I chastise my body and bring it into subjection”. On another occasion, the Pope reminds us, he (Paul) said: “They who belong to Christ have crucified their flesh with its passions and desires”. St. Augustine issued the same insistent warning: “It is not enough for a man to change his ways for the better and to give up the practice of evil, unless by painful penance, sorrowing humility, the sacrifice of a contrite heart and the giving of alms he makes amends to God for all that he has done wrong”.
External penance includes particularly the acceptance from God in a spirit of resignation and trust of all life’s sorrows and hardships and of everything that involves inconvenience and annoyance in the conscientious performance of the obligations of our daily life and work and the practice of Christian virtue.
The gratifying of our sensual appetite betrays us both to the flesh and to the devil; we overcome them both by fasting by which God restrains our vices and passions, elevating the soul to Himself, and bestows upon us His heavenly gifts and graces. Fasting drives away all our evils, heals both soul and body and brings us to our Sovereign God. Penitential fasting appeases the wrath of God provoked by our sins. By fasting, we are enabled to overcome our passions and concupiscences. This is why the saints have made a practice of fasting even outside the seasons appointed by the Church. Generous Christian souls imitate them and if they cannot keep the strict fast, forego some food at each meal in order thus to curb their sensuality.
St. Peter Chrysologus urges us to “immolate our soul by fasting because we can offer nothing better to God;” but he also reminds us that the seed of fasting does not germinate unless it is watered by mercy. To produce the desired fruit, our fasting must be accompanied and nourished by works of charity, that is, by spiritual and corporal works of mercy. According to him, “He who prays should also fast and he who fasts should be merciful”. Fasting, prayers and almsgiving form the triple remedy which work together to purge away sins, cleanse man’s soul, and reconcile him to God. Hence Pope Innocent III in soliciting prayers for the success of the Fourth Lateran Council admonished the entire Catholic faithful as follows:
“To your praying add fasting and almsgiving. It is on these wings that our prayers fly the more swiftly and effortlessly to the holy ears of God, that He may mercifully hear us in the time of need”.
The faithful practice of fasting contributes, moreover, to conferring unity to the whole person, body and soul, helping to avoid sin and grow with intimacy with the Lord (Benedict XVI). Saint Augustine, who knew all too well his own negative impulses, defining them as “twisted and tangled knottiness” (Confessions, II, 10.18), writes: “I will certainly impose privation, but it is so that he will forgive me, to be pleasing in his eyes, that I may enjoy delightfulness” (Sermo 400, 3, 3: PL 40, 708). Denying material food, which nourishes our body, nurtures an interior disposition to listen to Christ and be fed by His saving word. Through fasting and praying, we allow Him to come and satisfy the deepest hunger that we experience in the depths of our being: the hunger and thirst for God.
“Fasting with prayer”, says a Christian writer, “is the most powerful armour that God has given to each member of the body of Christ to overrule, break, surmount, annihilate, destroy and neutralize all power of darkness of this world and the forces of wickedness of all kinds and categories”.
Fasting exposes us to the glory of God and gives us the opportunity to experience His presence and glory. It tempers loquacity and is an outlet for compassion and a guide upon obedience. Fasting destroys evil thoughts and roots out the insensibility of the heart. It is a gate to paradise; when the stomach is constricted, the heart is humbled. He who fasts prays with a sober mind, but the mind of the intemperate person is filled with impure fancies and thoughts. Louis of Grenada O.P says that “Fasting, abstinence and sobriety are meritorious of grace and glory if they are done for the love of God. They also serve a means of reparation and atonement for sin whereby we can remit a portion of the debt for which we ask pardon each time we recite the Our Father”. Another benefit to be obtained from abstinence and fasting, says the spiritual writer, is that they help us to acquire wisdom and prudence. It is the common doctrine of the saints that gluttony deadens the intellect and senses while, as St. Basil teaches us, “fasting is the guardian of the soul, the weapon of the strong, the preserver of chastity, strength in battle and a garrison of peace”. “Fasting sanctifies priests…, it is the ornament of women and the source of restraint for men”.
If the Christian faithfully practices fasting and other forms of penance, he will discover that these are practices in which he most resembles Christ. St. Peter tells us that as Christ suffered in the flesh, we should also suffer with him, for if we are partakers in His pain, we shall also share in His glory.
Professor Michael Ogunu is the Supreme Chancellor of the Knights of St. Mulumba, Nigeria and the National President of the Secular Order of Discalced Carmelites in Nigeria
Copyright © Professor Michael Ogunu 2015
Version: 28th April 2015