Lent is here, and there's no better time than to begin the spiritual practice of fasting. Fasting is the utmost of prayers, causing breakthroughs within us and around us that prayer alone does not always do. Intractable problems are relieved. Jobs are found. Kids come back to church. Confusion dissolves into clarity. Hardship is handled. Doors open. Healing happens. And our hearts are cleansed to receive and give more love. A friend of mine once said to me, as his eyes filled with tears, "It's hard for me to fast, but I see so many beautiful things happening in my life, and to the people around me, that I can't stop."
Once you discover the blessings, heavenly aid, and power of fasting, you will not want to give up this important spiritual practice, even when Easter arrives. Fasting pulls down from God's throne a shower of graces.
But do we have to fast? Who says so? Jesus. Fasting, believe it or not, is a practice that Jesus assumed his disciples were doing. There are three very challenging and much ignored words that Jesus says in the gospel of Matthew, Chapter 6. He says, "When you fast," and goes on to say, "do not look gloomy like the hypocrites." He doesn't say, "If you perhaps might one day decide to possibly give fasting a go, that is, if you feel like it." Jesus assumes that we are fasting in order to spread the kingdom of God. Fasting was a common practice in his time, and the book of Acts indicates that prayer and fasting were very important to his first disciples, aiding in their ministry and discernment (Acts 13:2, Luke 2:36-38). Moses fasted forty days and nights before receiving the Ten Commandments. Jesus fasted forty days and nights before beginning his public ministry. The Catechism of the Catholic Church also calls us to fast.
Fasting purifies our souls, helping us to fight off temptation and conform our will to God's. When we say no to our appetites, we might see certain aspects of the flesh rise up in ourselves, like irritability, self-pity, anger, pride, lust, etc. We can blame it on the fasting, but actually, this practice simply allows us to see what is already inside ourselves, so that we might experience spiritual purification. It is no wonder that all the saints fasted. Without fasting, we can only get so far in the spiritual life, and our prayers for others and for the world will only be so effective. Prayer without fasting is like a bird trying to fly with only one wing.
An authentic Christian life is nurtured by acts of self-denial, which open the heart to love. If we were to follow our body's and our mind's every selfish inclination, we would successfully drown out God's voice and direction from our lives and mute the power of our prayers and Christian witness. Fasting tames our self-serving nature, and also unites us with the majority of the people in our world who live on simple diets like just rice and beans, since that's all they can afford.
Traditional fast days in the Church were Wednesdays and Fridays and Saturdays, and a most efficacious fast is to have bread and water on two of those days. As with all spiritual practices, danger can creep in, when one does it for the wrong reason: out of pride, or vanity, or without attention to personal health problems, or if one forgets that the entire reason behind it is to love God with all our mind, soul, heart and strength, and our neighbor as ourself. Fasting with the heart brings us closer to Jesus Christ. It is all about our intimate relationship with the One who loves us most.
God pays serious attention to our prayers when we fast because we're willing to sacrifice for what we believe in. A version of Mark, Chapter 9, verse 29 describes a situation where the disciples asked Jesus why they were not able to cast out a demon from a boy. Jesus responded: "This kind can only come out through prayer and through fasting."
The power in fasting has amazed me to no end, causing good things happen that otherwise might not. My husband and I adopted a beautiful baby boy a couple years ago, after waiting for a child in the foster care system for three and a half years. During the first week that we took the baby home, we came to a horrible crossroad. Our adoption worker called to tell us that the baby's biological mother, who had never met us, was choosing a different adoption service. The baby, with whom we were madly in love, was going to be taken away from our in two days on a Friday, and there was absolutely nothing we could do to prevent it. Shocked and grief-stricken, I began to cry, and my husband crawled into bed, pulled the covers over his head, and wouldn't move. We almost despaired. But by God's grace, we remembered there was something we could do. We could pray, and we could fast. For two and a half-days straight, we ate little-to-nothing and prayed constantly. Come that Friday, the day the baby was supposed to be taken away, the baby's birth mother and grandmother were sitting in our living room, grateful to choose us as parents.
St. John Vianney, the patron saint of parish priests, known for reading souls and converting an entire town in a few short years, was a great proponent of fasting. A parish priest once complained to him about the indifference of the people in his parish, and St. John Vianney answered, "You have preached, you have prayed, but have you fasted? Have you taken the discipline? Have you slept on the floor? So long as you have done none of these things, you have no right to complain."
He also once said, "My friend, the devil is not greatly afraid of instruments of penance. That which beats him is the curtailment of one's food, drink, and sleep. There is nothing the devil fears more, consequently nothing is more pleasing to God. Oh, how often I have experienced it! When I was alone, it happened at times that I refrained from food for entire days. On those occasions, I obtained, both for myself and for others, whatever I asked of Almighty God."
Mary, the Mother of God, has also spoken of the power of fasting through her messages in Medjugorje. She is urging the world to fast on bread and water on Wednesdays and Fridays-not just in Lent.
On July 21, 1982, she said: "The best fast is on bread and water. Through fasting and prayer, one can stop wars, one can suspend the laws of nature. Charity cannot replace fasting. Those who are not able to fast can sometime replace it with prayer, charity, and a confession; but everyone, except the sick, must fast."
A few months later, on December 25, 1982, she stressed again, "You have forgotten that through prayer and fasting you can avert wars and suspend the laws of nature."
If you find this hard to believe, I will conclude with a true story of prayer and fasting doing just that. I used to work as a resident minister at the University of San Francisco where I met a student named Dennis, who told me of something that happened to him in 1986, when he was home in the Philippines, a very Catholic country. During that time, people were no longer willing to tolerate the great injustice, corruption, and repression of basic human liberties by the country's dictatorship under Marco, which kept much of the population in extreme poverty. The people were demonstrating, marching and protesting in the streets. The government responded by employing tanks to begin firing at civilians. The Catholic bishops got word of this and publicized throughout the nation that everyone should begin to fast and pray the rosary. As this was happening, Dennis was marching in the street. A tank began to advance towards him, and he thought to himself, "I'm about to be killed. This is my last moment on earth." But suddenly he felt a wave of exquisite peace pass through him, and he fell to his knees, as though he were being lowered down gently. "It was so unreal," he said. "At one level, I knew that my life was in danger, and on another level, I was completely at peace, not worried about a single thing." Those who were standing around him fell to their knees, as well. All of the tanks came to a halt at the same time, and the soldiers began to climb out of them. They found themselves incapable of advancing or firing. Then protesters and small children walked towards the tanks and began handing the soldiers flowers. Later several interviews with soldiers revealed that they, too, had felt a wave of peace come over them and nothing in their entire beings would allow them to fight. They had overthrown the orders of their military superiors. This miraculous event came to be known as the Edsa revolution.
Through fasting, we take on a sliver of the cross, relieve some of Jesus' sufferings, help transform the world, and in return, gain a bit of heaven ourselves. If you wish to make a lasting difference in this world and experience spiritual breakthroughs in your life, try fasting this Lent-and beyond.