There’s something about the season of Lent that draws us in each year. Intentional self-reflection is inviting, and giving or taking something up for 40 days is an oddly compelling challenge. I think we’re attracted to the opportunity for positive change.
Giving something up is a way to recognize our unhealthy attachment to that thing. Giving up sweets, social media, or coffee — or giving up something we know isn’t good for us — can help us grow in patience, self-control, and discipline. These qualities are not easy to cultivate, but they make a big difference in the way we live.
When we link fasting to prayer, though, it really becomes transformative. It’s a human thing to fall into the trap of thinking that fasting is just about us. That’s where prayer comes in because prayer draws us out of ourselves. And moving out of ourselves is exactly where the real increase in love, freedom, and joy begins.
Fasting inspires a simple moment of prayer
You know how some activities bring out the best in us and some bring out the worst? I’d say fasting has the ability to do both. When I get hungry, I can get hangry. When I desire the food I am abstaining from, I can get pretty testy. You might be able to relate. What if we could turn that temptation toward irritability into something else? Fasting gives us this opportunity.
Fasting isn’t just dieting. It is abstaining from particular food, drink, or actions to help us become better versions of ourselves — to help us come closer to God and who God wants us to be. We can do this by creating a simple moment of prayer out of our desires, rather than allow the feeling of being hangry win the day. When we feel ourselves getting testy because of our sacrifice, we can pause, maybe close our eyes, take a deep breath, and say, “God, help me to trust your presence in this moment;” or, “Come, Holy Spirit;” or another simple prayer of your choice. God’s loving presence is not absent from our efforts and struggles — it is real and available to us if we turn toward it.
Fasting brings mindful attention to the hungry
Fasting is hard because, when done intentionally, we give up something that actually matters to us. It’s not comfortable to give up things we are used to having. I remember the year I gave up coffee for Lent — it was so uncomfortable that I haven’t been brave enough to try again. Other years, I’ll be honest, I gave up something that I like but can do without — which is not much of a sacrifice.
So, let’s say we go for it and give up something that will be tough. How can we transform our hunger pangs or serious cravings into something that matters? One way is to take those moments of discomfort and turn our minds to those who constantly want for food and comforts that we regularly have.
Although fasting makes us hungry, most of us don’t ache for food in a way that we can’t control. When we remember those who don’t have food, warmth, the ability to shower, or other comforts we can take for granted, we become more grateful for what we have and are moved to care for those who have not.
Fasting inspires prayer in action
If mindfully recalling the hungry inspires you to action, listen to that! Saints like St. Benedict saw the power of making prayer and work into partners: contemplation in action. When we join prayer and work together, one flows into the other and vice versa — they become a dialogue where we hear and respond to God and the needs of others in love.
Your local parish probably has a food pantry in need of volunteers. If you get involved there, you’ll meet people who are hungry. You can extend your care for them by praying for them. When we serve and get to know the poor in our communities, something happens to us — we become more grateful, more tender, a bit more like Jesus. We love more deeply.
Lent is not a time to re-up on our New Year’s resolutions, suffer for the sake of suffering, or prove that we have strong willpower by not eating that piece of cake. Lent is a time to prepare for new life — to discover and receive greater joy in life, more freedom in life, more love in life. Fasting gives us a taste of this new life when we choose to join our sacrifice to prayer — the hunger or need we feel becomes an entry point for God’s grace to seep in our lives, and for us to share that love with others.