Fasting is having a moment right now. After decades of health experts telling us that grazing on small meals was key to health and happiness (remember the South Beach diet?), in true cyclical fashion the opposite is now touted as true. Apparently, limiting our intake to two or three bigger meals is actually better for our bodies — and 16 hours of the day should be spent not eating.
According to experts, there are all kinds of reasons that “intermittent fasting” is good for us. It improves mental clarity and concentration. It lowers blood insulin and sugar levels. It improves fat burning abilities. It lowers blood cholesterol. It increases our growth hormone. It reduces inflammation. It activates cellular cleansing by autophagy. And it even might prevent Alzheimer’s. You get the idea.
And while those perks can definitely be life-changing — what’s usually not mentioned is that fasting is also a transformative practice for our spiritual lives, too. In fact, the Catholic Church has been recommending this practice for ages and still continues to do so, especially in recent times of scandal and spiritual crisis.
Of course, there’s more to fasting than merely not eating. So, if you’re new to this concept entirely, or if you’re already fasting for health reasons, here’s why incorporating a spiritual dimension into your fasting might be the extra push that your soul needs.
Fasting can strengthen your resolve
If you’re struggling with a decision or trying to discern the ever-present question, “What am I doing with my life?” integrating fasting with prayer will give you that boost in dissolving distractions. By denying the body — just a little bit — we’re far more clear-headed and able to be mindful. This puts us in a better mental space to be in touch with our spiritual needs, and, as a result, it makes us more confident in our decisions.
“Fasting is a good safeguard for the soul, a steadfast companion for the body, a weapon for the valiant, and a gymnasium for athletes,” St. Basil the Great explains. “Fasting repels temptations.…In war, it fights bravely, in peace it teaches stillness.”
And it’s this stillness where we can find the clarity we so desperately crave.
Fasting instills discipline
The Church already has several days designated for the community to join together in fasting. That said, many Catholics are completely oblivious of these days or see fasting as an afterthought — or even an annoying inconvenience (I’ve definitely been all of these). The thing is, it’s actually an opportunity to master discipline over our lives and our desires.
So, if you’re just starting to take fasting seriously, consider actually fasting on those designated days because you can tap into a community that can help guide your prayer life and meditation — and this, is in itself, a discipline.
The Catholic practice of fasting is centered around Lent, the 40 days in spring we use to intentionally prepare to celebrate Easter. We abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent, and Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days for more robust fasting. Because Jesus died for us on a Friday, there has been a long tradition of Catholic fasting on Fridays throughout the year, but this has become a more informal practice in recent years.
According to St. Francis of Assisi, though, going the extra mile and fasting on other days will help “to control greediness, and to keep the sensual appetites and the whole body subject to the law of the Spirit; and although we may be able to do but little, the enemy nevertheless stands more in awe of those whom he knows can fast.”
Fasting makes us more humble
With all the crazy, amazing distractions in our pocket these days, we can sometimes sort of accidentally feel like gods. We can talk to someone across the globe on a whim. Within three swipes we can buy a new wallet. With another three swipes, we can notify all of our friends about the new wallet. And we can document the wallet, forever, with just a click.
Fasting is an antidote to the amazing technological abilities we wield in the 21st century, because it reminds us of our human frailty. If done right, it can remind us that we, indeed, are mortal beings who become tired, weak, and bewildered, and need the steadfastness of a loving God.
All that said, if you find yourself ever boasting about your fasting, you’re definitely doing it wrong. It’s not a competition.
Fasting brings you closer to God and others around you
Sacrifice is the ultimate gesture of love. While not all sacrifices are equal (because, you know, giving up your life for another isn’t the same as foregoing a brownie after 7 p.m.), when we’re mindfully fasting as a form of prayer, we are offering up little gestures of sacrificial love, which bring us closer to Jesus’ suffering for all of us. And just like Jesus fasted for 40 days in the desert, through fasting we can better understand our weaknesses and have better empathy when we confront the weaknesses of others. We become more in tune with ourselves and other people when we make fasting a mindful practice of prayer.
So sure, you can maybe fast for your health and your body will thank you — but if you also fast for your spiritual growth, you’ll be following an ancient tradition that will only make you stronger, and ultimately, a far freer, happier person.