Jan Steen, "Prayer Before a Meal"

Fasting Part 1: The Purpose of Fasting

Fasting in Biblical Times

In principio, in the beginning, amongst the very first Commandments[1] God gave to Adam and Eve was one of fasting from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (cf. Genesis 2:16-17). Their failure to abide by this fast brought sin and disorder to all of creation. Thus the Original Sin of mankind included a dimension of gluttony.[2] Clearly, both this divine command and its violation are intricately tied to fasting.

In the Old Testament, both Elijah and Moses fasted for forty days prior to seeing God. Until the Great Flood, man abstained entirely from the flesh meat of animals (cf. Genesis 9:2-3). Likewise, in the New Testament, St. John the Baptist, the greatest prophet (cf. Luke 7:28), fasted. His followers were characterized by their fasting. And our Blessed Lord also fasted for forty days (cf. Matthew 4:1-11), not for His own needs but to serve as an example for us. Our Redeemer said, “Unless you shall do penance, you shall all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3).[3] Fasting and abstinence from certain foods characterized the lives of man since the foundation of the world.

The Purpose of Fasting

The Church has hallowed the practice of fasting, encourages it, and mandates it at certain times. Why? The Angelic Doctor, St. Thomas Aquinas, writes that fasting is practiced for a threefold purpose:

“First, in order to bridle the lusts of the flesh…Secondly, we have recourse to fasting in order that the mind may arise more freely to the contemplation of heavenly things: hence it is related of Daniel that he received a revelation from God after fasting for three weeks. Thirdly, in order to satisfy for sins: wherefore it is written: ‘Be converted to Me with all your heart, in fasting and in weeping and in mourning.’ The same is declared by Augustine in a sermon: ‘Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one’s flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, quenches the fire of lust, kindles the true light of chastity.’”[4]

St. Basil the Great also affirmed the importance of fasting for protection against demonic forces: “The fast is the weapon of protection against demons. Our Guardian Angels more really stay with those who have cleansed our souls through fasting.”

The Baltimore Catechism echoes these sentiments: “The Church commands us to fast and abstain, in order that we may mortify our passions and satisfy for our sins” (Baltimore Catechism #2, Q. 395). Concerning this rationale, Fr. Thomas Kinkead, in An Explanation of the Baltimore Catechism of Christian Doctrine published in 1891, writes: “Remember it is our bodies that generally lead us into sin; if therefore we punish the body by fasting and mortification, we atone for the sin, and thus God wipes out a part of the temporal punishment due to it.”

In 461 AD, Pope St. Leo the Great wisely counseled that fasting is a means and not an end in itself. For those who could not observe the strictness of fasting, he sensibly said, “What we forego by fasting is to be given as alms to the poor.”[5] To simply forgo fasting completely, even when for legitimate health reasons, does not excuse a person from the universal command to do penance (cf. Luke 13:3).

To Love Fasting

The Rule of St. Benedict, written in 516 AD by the illustrious St. Benedict, states in part: “O Lord, I place myself in Thy hands and dedicate myself to Thee. I pledge myself to do Thy will in all things: To love the Lord God with all my heart, all my soul, all my strength. Not to kill. Not to steal…To chastise the body. Not to seek after pleasures. To love fasting…”

How can we love fasting? Fr. Adalbert de Vogüé, O.S.B. explains: “To love fasting one must experience it, but to experience it one must love it. The way to get out of this circle is easy: trust in the word of God, in the example of the saints, in the great voice of tradition, and trusting in this witness, try it.”[6]

To love fasting is our goal. Fasting should never be performed without an intentional supernatural motive, such as love of God, to grow in holiness, to make reparation for sin, etc. Fasting will also be more meritorious and efficacious when accompanied by an increase in prayer and/or almsgiving. It should not be performed grudgingly and in anger. Likewise, it should not be performed for the vain purpose of losing weight or even the natural good of improving one’s health. In order for it to be authentic Christian fasting, it must have God as its end.

Purpose of Studying Fasting and Abstinence

Fasting is one of the chief means of penance we can perform to make satisfaction for sin, as Our Lady of Fatima repeatedly called for. Understanding the decline of fasting over time in the Church should inspire us to observe these older customs and to encourage other Catholics to do so for the purpose of making satisfaction for sin.

The history of fasting in the Catholic Church, like other disciplines, has undergone considerable changes throughout the centuries. Unlike dogma, which is unchangeable, disciplines like fasting may change over time. However, in a modern Church that legislates fasting only two days a year, we find a woefully lacking answer to Heaven’s incessant calls for penance and reparation.[7]

While the purpose of fasting has remained the same, how fasting is observed has changed. As more Catholics seek to rediscover the traditions of earlier centuries and piously observe these traditions, they are often confused by the changing disciplines and exceptions for certain times, places, and circumstances. St. Francis de Sales remarked, “If you’re able to fast, you will do well to observe some days beyond what are ordered by the Church.”[8]

This series of articles will explain, in one of the most complete compilations yet written, fasting and how it has changed over the centuries. Unfortunately, most summaries of fasting are either inaccurate or incomplete. However, rather than being a mere academic exercise, the purpose of studying the history of fasting is ultimately to help us rediscover these more ancient practices in an attempt to better observe Our Lord and our Blessed Mother’s call for penance and reparation for sins.

The next article will cover how fasting and abstinence were observed in the early Church up until the 5th century.

[1] Cf. St. Basil, Sermo de jejunio, pp. 31, 163, 98. Note, the very ‘first’ commandment God gave to Adam and Eve was “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it, and rule over …” (Genesis 1:28). However, there is a direct correlation between this commandment and that of fasting which will be explored throughout this series.

[2] Original Sin is primarily a sin of pride and secondarily of disobedience. Every sin actually has some dimension of pride because in each sin man places himself above God, believing he ‘knows better’ than God and trusting to himself more than to God. Similarly, every sin we commit involves disobedience because sin is an offense against God by breaking His law. The act of eating forbidden fruit clearly carries a dimension of gluttony as well.

[3] Luke 13:3 is an excellent passage to memorize because it can help you identify a good Bible from a bad one. The infallible and inspired Latin Vulgate clearly uses the word ‘penance’ (sed si pœnitentiam non egeritis). However, many modern translations have made a deliberate decision to excise the word ‘penance’ from the Scriptures because, supposedly, modern man finds this concept ‘distasteful.’ Perhaps it is more accurate to say that effeminate men shy away from penance and don’t want to discipline and subdue their passions and rebellious flesh via penance, a most necessary discipline.
Two other passages you can use to assess the accuracy and fidelity of a Biblical translation are Genesis 3:15, which should read “she shall crush thy head,” and Isaiah 7:14, which ought to state “Behold a virgin shall conceive.”

[4] Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 147, a. 1 (http://www.newadvent.org/summa/3147.htm).

[5] It must be stated that we do not gain merits in the performance of penance, no matter how severe, if we are in the state of mortal sin. Staying in the state of grace is essential for meriting. For more information on this essential prerequisite to fasting, see https://acatholiclife.blogspot.com/2020/03/in-state-of-mortal-sin-we-gain-no.html

[6] C.f. To Love Fasting: The Monastic Experience (St. Bede’s Publications, 1993). Fr. Adalbert de Vogüé (1924-2011) was born in Paris, became a monk at age 20, taught at the Sant’Anselmo in Rome, and lived the last 35 years as his life as a hermit. His commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict is considered by many to be the definitive work on the Rule.

[7] Dear Reader, please remember that all our penances, including fasting, can help make reparation for sin. And every sin must be repaired in God’s perfect justice. Hence, if there is more sin, there must also be more corresponding reparation. If our modern age is guilty of great sin, then Church leaders should be calling for more penance and fasting, not less! Here we do well to recall Sister Lucia’s words to Fr. Fuentes in her final public interview in 1957! “We should not wait for an appeal to the world to come from Rome on the part of the Holy Father, to do penance. Nor should we wait for the call to penance to come from our bishops in their diocese, nor from the religious congregations. No! Our Lord has already very often used these means and the world has not paid attention. That is why now, it is necessary for each one of us to begin to reform himself spiritually. Each person must not only save his own soul but also help all the souls that God has placed on our path.”

[8] The importance of this principle cannot be overemphasized. Catholics are notoriously legalistic and minimalistic. In other words, they often have the attitude of “what is the minimum I have to do to fulfill the law.” This kind of attitude makes it impossible to love fasting. For that matter, it is very hard to love God with such an internal disposition.