Fasting and Abstinence. We hear these words so often interchangeably, and we constantly hear questions like “what are you giving up for Lent?” or “what is abstinence?” While these words are most often heard during the Lenten season, fasting and abstinence are great ways to grow and strengthen our prayer life year round. These are two tools that will help us grow in holiness and truly help us find God. However, fasting and abstinence does not mean giving up cheeseburgers for Lent to get some “holy points” and also lose a couple of pounds for spring break. Whatever you decide to fast from or abstain from, it should be something that will help you and challenge you to grow in your faith.
What Is Catholic Fasting? Why Do Catholics Fast?
Fasting is the act of doing with less, which means to give up a certain amount of something to help us focus on God instead. For example, the Catholic church recommends fasting for adults during certain days of Lent, where they can only eat one full meal and two smaller meals (that do not equal one full meal). Why is giving a meal up even important though? Fasting helps us take focus away from the earthly materials that tie us down, such as overeating or obsessing over our bodies. We become slaves to material goods like food, pleasure, and more, instead of realizing that we are truly dependent on God alone. So when we fast, we are called to give up that meal, that warm shower, warm bed, etc, to spend time focusing on the heavenly reward with God. Therefore in order for fasting to be successful, we must spend that time in prayer with God and listen to Him. Fasting helps us immensely when done correctly, because it unites us with the suffering of Jesus during the time he spent here on earth. We offer up these small sufferings of giving things up, but we do it out of love and with great joy. These small sufferings unite us to his cross and help us understand the pain and suffering that he went through to redeem us on the cross. Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice by giving up his life out of love for you and I, and in doing so, he gave us the ultimate example of true unconditional love.
What Is Catholic Abstinence?
Abstinence is similar to fasting, but abstinence is the act of avoiding and doing without something. For example during Lent we abstain from eating red meat, and before marriage we abstain from premarital relationships. Abstinence means truly giving something up for a certain period of time (or indefinitely), and in return choosing God over everything. We abstain in order to grow closer to God and understand what he went through during his time on earth.
Why Is Fasting So Powerful?
Fasting must be done out of love for God, and not out of pride or dieting to get a better summer body. So when we fast, we must not brag towards others, complain about how we are not eating well, or that our back hurts from sleeping on the floor. If you are fasting from food, do not bend over in hunger and tell everyone how starving you are. Pray about it and share your suffering with God alone. If you are abstaining from comfort, give up your bed or warm shower in silence, and do not complain about how cold the water is to your friends. Pray about it and share it with God.
Matthew 6:16-18 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”
When you fast, remember why you are doing it. It can be hard to bite our tongues and not complain about how tired we are from not eating well enough. It can be easy to get tied up in the small pleasure of hearing your friends think highly of you for fasting such a big thing. But let us remember who we are truly fasting for, and why we are choosing to fast. We are fasting because we want to grow in virtue, to grow in holiness, and to strive for Heaven. These small sufferings unite us to God and help us understand not only His pain on the cross, but how heavy our sins were for Jesus to carry.
If you fail and fall during your period of fasting, remember to come back to the Lord and not despair over a shortcoming. Simply get back up and realize that we are completely dependent and desperate of Jesus Christ’s love and healing. Everytime we fall we grow in virtue if we seek Him and choose Him above all things.
When we fast, we are protecting ourselves from the devil and his attempt to make us slaves to sin. Like St. Basil the Great said, “Fasting is the weapon of protection against demons.” So let us put on our battle armor and fight the battle we are called to fight. God is with us through every step of the way, and we are never through this battle of life alone.