Why Is Fasting So Hard?


Remember man, that thou art dust and to dust thou shalt return. The Fatima Center prays you have a grace-filled Ash Wednesday and spiritually fruitful Lent.


After reading yesterday’s article, in preparation for Lent, some fellow men and I were discussing why it seems that our forefathers could endure so much more fasting than our generation. (Read about a more rigorous Lenten Regimen in Mr. Plese’s article.) Besides the obvious reasons that fasting is physically unpleasant and requires force of will, we came up with the following four reasons.


[1] Religious Fasting Is Counter-Cultural. The world does not accept fasting for the sake of Christ and for building up moral virtue. This is rather ironic because fasting is actually coming in vogue in many secular circles as one of the most effective ways of dieting, still eating the food you enjoy, keeping weight off, and living healthily. So if you are fasting to “look good” and to “be healthy” – which are somewhat selfish goods endorsed by the world – then your fasting is praised.

Yet, the Church’s wisdom teaches that fasting has natural and supernatural ends. Catholics were far more cognizant of this truth in times past when a Catholic culture pervaded the lives of believers. For example, in Christendom nearly everyone was Catholic. Therefore, the vast majority of people were fasting. As social beings, humans are heavily influenced by what those around them do and consider acceptable, even laudable. There is strength in numbers. Thus, if most people around you are fasting more intensely, then it’s much easier to ‘join in’. There are also far less temptations (e.g., certain items might not even be available in the market or local taverns/inns).

[2] Eating Was Simpler. In general, people had less food and less varieties of food. A person ate what they grew or at least what was locally available. Meat required the killing of an animal and that means greater wealth is necessary. So, most common people were accustomed to eating less and also suffering through natural hardships (e.g., when there was a drought). Hence, the Lenten fast was less of a drastic change from what they were accustomed to on a day-to-day basis.

[3] Church Law. As Matthew Plese’s past articles at this site have shown, Holy Mother Church has eased her norms over the centuries. Today she permits much greater laxity, to the point that fasting is essentially non-existent. Sadly, it is common for Catholics to succumb to being minimalists: their goal is to only do what the letter of the law requires under pain of mortal sin. (Note, when this is the goal, it is [nearly] inevitable that one will in fact fall into mortal sin.) Minimalism is the result of a lack of real love (supernatural charity) for God and the things of God. If a Catholic does not enjoy an intimate and spiritually nourishing relationship with God that stems from regular daily prayer, such as mental prayer and contemplation, then the motivation to fast is not very compelling. Real love is the greatest force which can induce man to sacrifice.

[4] The Vice of Effeminacy. Past Catholic generations were far less effeminate. Saint Thomas Aquinas explains that the vice of effeminacy is the unwillingness to put aside pleasure in order to pursue what is difficult. (See Question 138 of the Summa, Part II of the Second Part.)

In the past, men were accustomed to a harder life. Everything was more difficult. Simply consider going to a well to draw all the water you need and carrying it back home versus turning on a faucet. Washing clothes by hand instead of pushing a button. Collecting and chopping wood so as to start fires by hand instead of turning a knob on a stove. Walking from place to place instead of driving there. Having to sow your fields early in the morning, weed your land, collect your crops and then prepare the food instead of going to the local grocery store. Today we are all too busy trying to be entertained by music, movies, video games, social media, the Internet, etc. Technology has made mankind very soft.

Thus, in times past, men built up the habit of persevering in what was arduous. This was necessary to put food on the table and to survive. Consequently, the difficulties of serious fasting could be embraced and the good which comes therefrom was recognized and desired.

Join the Conversation

If these considerations are true, then we can recover the willpower to fast by fostering that which opposes these root causes.

Do you agree with these reasons? With some more than others?

Do you think there are other reasons for our current weakness in fasting?

Join the conversation below!