By Frans de Ridder, cicm

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"The Christian concept of fasting intensifies prayer, is a prayer of body and soul. It heightens the vigilance and openness with regard to God." - Anselm Grun

Fasting is not a performance (Jesus pointed out this wrong understanding in Mt 6:16-18) or mere physical exercise. The disciple of the body should enhance the discipline of the soul and increase our capacity or hunger for God.

What is fasting?

- It is recommended in the Bible.

- It is a freely chosen way of growing in Christian life; not a duty but a grace.

- It is more than just abstaining from meat on Fridays and Ash Wednesday or skipping a meal once in a while. It becomes a new lifestyle.

- It is growing in discipline in all aspects of life.

- It is nurturing inner freedom.

- It is opening oneself more and more for God, "until Christ is fully grown in us".

- It is found in other traditions like Islam and Buddhism. Mahatma Gandhi emphasized fasting as a great way of self-discipline and of growing in intimacy with God.

- It is a way of saving some money in order to share with the poor.

- It is a great way of growing awareness of the solidarity between all human beings, of the gap between poor and rich, and of the enslavement to the consumer society.

- It becomes a bodily felt sense of God in us.

(continued on page 2)

Important aspects of fasting

A way of reconnecting with Christ.

From Mt 9:14-15 and Mc 2:18-19 we learn that the guests cannot fast when the bridegroom is with them. This implies that when we "miss" the bridegroom, fasting could be a good way of re- discovering him, reconnecting with him, hungering as we do for him with body and soul. The explanation of Mt 9:15 connects fasting with the expectation of the groom: "when the day comes that the groom is taken away, then they will fast". Christ himself is the groom. And as the parable of the Ten Virgins (Mt 25:1-13) shows, he will come in the middle of the night. Thus fasting and vigils are based on a mystique of waiting for the Lord. Fasting is directed to the invisible groom, begging for his return.

Human beings do not live on bread alone… (Mt 4:1-4 and Lk 4:1-4)

Human beings need another kind of food in order to be fulfilled. Bread, drinks and money are useful, yet they are no guarantee of happiness.

Fasting makes us aware of the needs of the poor.

Two thirds of humanity do not have enough to eat. Fasting is a process of growing solidarity with them. How dare we, how can we call God OUR Father… when we are aware that two thirds of our brothers and sisters are living below the subsistence level. We are all members of ONE Body…(1 Cor 12:12-26).

Fasting is a process of growing towards inner freedom.

In our times many people are un-free, they are slaves of the consumer society, of the mass media, and of public opinion. There are countless addictions, also called the demons by the church fathers. Many people live like automatons. Fasting, which calls for a healthy discipline, is one way to break free of these.

Gandhi said: "There is enough in the world to meet everybody's need, but not enough to meet everybody's greed." Greed is the root cause of many evils. Fasting is the best antidote.

Fasting is a way of sharing with the poor.

Money saved by fasting (one could also include savings made by not smoking, drinking alcohol, indiscriminate spending or wasting resources) can be given to the poor. The sheer act of reflecting on this reality will help one discover the poor.

Fasting is a good way of nurturing our bodies back to health.

Letting our digestive system rest is recommended by people like Mahatma Gandhi. More people die from over-eating than from hunger. In the U.S. US$100 billion is spent yearly to fight obesity, this at a time when hundreds of millions of children and youngsters lack the most basic education, healthcare, prospect of a decent job or the means to form and care for a family.

Fasting and the vow of celibacy.

Sexuality is God's gift to humanity. In celibacy we honour our sexuality and we are a witness that sex (genital activity) is not the greatest reality in life. The human being is called to be the master of his or her sexuality and not the slave. Hence love, not sex, is the greatest! Love can do without sex. Sex cannot do without love. Abstinence is not only for priests and religious. It is a highly rewarding lifestyle even within marriage.

Not all married people are fulfilled in sex. But many men and women are fulfilled in a well integrated living of their celibacy. There is also the wisdom of not indulging in premarital sex.

Married couples practise celibacy with all other people besides their spouse. It is also known that among couples who practise natural family planning, which is a form of celibacy on a regular basis, there is almost no adultery or divorce. Hence, as Saint Paul hints in 2 Cor 7:5 and following, sexual fasting with mutual consent, for an agreed period, to leave yourselves for prayer can be another way of creating space for God.

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Fasting in the Bible

"When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites... But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you."

- Mt 6:16-18

"Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry. The tempter approached and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become loaves of bread." He said in reply, "It is written: 'One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.'"

- Mt 4:1-4

"As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ... If (one) part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honoured, all the parts share its joy."

- 1 Cor 12:12-26

"This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:

releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke;

Setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke;

Sharing your bread with the hungry,

sheltering the oppressed and the homeless;

Clothing the naked when you see them,

and not turning your back on your own.

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,

and your wound shall quickly be healed;

Your vindication shall go before you,

and the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer,

you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am!"

- Is 58:3-12

"Jonah began his journey through the city, and had gone but a single day's walk announcing, 'Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed', when the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth. When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in the ashes. When he had this proclaimed throughout Nineveh, by decree of the king and his nobles: 'Neither man nor beast, neither cattle nor sheep, shall taste anything; they shall not eat, nor shall they drink water.'"

- Jon 3:5

"While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them. Then, completing their fasting and prayer, they laid hands on them and sent them off."

- Acts 13:3

"They appointed presbyters for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, commended them to the Lord in whom they had put their faith." - Acts 14:23 "He said to them, 'This kind can only come out through prayer.'"

- Mk 9:29 (A variant reading adds "and through fasting.")

"You have been told, O man, what is good, and what the Lord requires of you: Only to do the right and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God."

- Micah 6:8

Other references

Old Testament

Is 58:3-12; Joel 2:12-17;

Ps 35:13; 1 Kings 21:27; Jon 3:5

New Testament

Mt 6:16; 9:14; Lk 18:12;

Acts 13:3; 14:23; Mk 9:29;

1 Cor 15:28; Mt 25:1-13

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Some inspirational texts on fasting

"Everyone who fasts notices that some functions of the psyche change. The perceptive ability increases. The imagination becomes livelier. Concentration remains unchanged. The senses grow sharper."

- Dr Otto Buchinger

09.jpg"Common fasting would be advisable for a religious community or a parish when problems arise that cannot be solved by good will alone, for example tensions between groups, hardened confrontations that refuse to be settled. In such cases fasting would clear the air. By fasting of this kind the community acknowledges its powerlessness to get rid of its problems by itself. With its whole heart it appeals to God that by his Spirit he may bring about reconciliation. Surely fasting would be a more honourable appeal to God than the often pale petitions offered in our divine services. Fasting indicates seriousness in one's prayer."

-Anselm Grun

"Fasting gives prayer confidence and makes it glow… Prayer gives the power to fast and fasting the grace to pray. Fasting strengthens prayer, prayer strengthens fasting and brings it to the Lord." - Saint Bernard

10.jpg"My religion teaches me that, whenever there is distress which one cannot remove, one must fast and pray.

"Though I bear joyfully the pangs of hunger and many other discomforts of fasting, let no one imagine that I do not suffer. These fasts are bearable only because they are imposed upon me by a higher power and the capacity to bear the pain also comes from that power.

"A genuine fast cleanses the body, mind and soul."

- Mahatma Gandhi

"By fasting we want to identify with the millions condemned to fasting because of the arms race. We shall share their suffering and thus break down the barriers in our own hearts and in the hearts of our brothers and sisters."

- Fast for Life Movement

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11.jpg"I join you (Muslims) today filled with admiration for the communities who for the past month have fasted from sunrise to sunset. Such sacrifice as that of the Ramadan promotes spiritual growth. It demonstrates the power of self-discipline, nurtures feelings for those who are starving; and provides an opportunity for renewal."

- Nelson Mandela

"More than 10 years ago, I started fasting on Fridays. I decided to take a light breakfast and go without lunch. Not taking anything for lunch gives a special physical sensation. Yet it is precisely this physical sensation, an empty stomach, and, at times, some "intestinal grumbling", which reminds me that it is Friday!

Then, as St. Paul puts it, we are made aware that God is growing in me. (Gal 4:19) Praying with body and soul is indeed a reality. Was it difficult? No! In fact I look forward to Friday! It becomes a special day of intimate relationship with God. It fills me with the glow of God's presence in me.

At times during the lunch time, I go for a walk or for a swim, just to be with the Lord. It makes another text (Micah 6:8) so real! This is what the Lord God asks of you, only this: to act justly, to love tenderly and to walk humbly with your God! The little bit of money thus saved, I would give to the poor or for charity. I know it does not solve the problems in the world. It is much more a matter of conscientization, of being aware and feeling a certain solidarity with the poor in the world.

12.jpgDo I compromise? No! When invited for a meal or during special seminars, retreats or on holidays I would excuse myself and go for a walk. When people question me, I would explain my choice.

The question remains: Must I do that, does my church or my mission congregation asks this of me? No! It is my choice and I experience it as a special grace in my vocation as a priest."

- Father Frans de Ridder

(continued on page 6)

Some hard hitting words from St. Paul

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On sexuality:

"For you can be quite certain that nobody who actually indulges in fornication and impurity or promiscuity - which is worshipping a false god - can inherit anything of the kingdom of God"

- Eph 5:5

On food:

"Many behave as enemies of the cross of Christ. They are destined to be lost. They make food into their god and they are proudest of something they ought to be ashamed of."

- Phil 3:18-19

On money:

"The love of money is the root cause of all evil and here are some who, by pursuing it, have wandered far away from the faith, and so given their souls any number of fatal wounds."

- 1 Tim 5:10

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Spirit of fasting and abstinence

"By fasting we fulfil our existence as creatures, first created by God's hand, we again find our fulfilment in God. We do not stop with the gifts, but stretch out to the Giver, as the goal of our longing. With body and soul we yearn for God by fasting; with body and soul we adore him. Fasting is a cry of the body to God, a cry from the depth of the abyss where we come face to face with our powerlessness and vulnerability and lack of fulfilment, in order to let ourselves sink into the abyss of God."

- Anselm Grun

FASTING IS A God-given and church-recommended way of growing in Christ. It is a special time when, as believers, we make our priorities right once again. It is about a mentality, a spirituality and a new lifestyle! It is about living no longer for ourselves, but for Christ. It is about removing the obstacles until God may be all in all.

(1 Cor 15:28).

What the church recommends is a minimum - on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, Catholics abstain from meat and also take only one full meal (fasting). The other days in the season of Lent, and all the Fridays throughout the whole year, as Catholic Family, we abstain from meat and practise penance in one way or another.

This is a sign of something very important: God is our true life! We take our faith seriously and we want Christ to be our true life! We want to be alive with the life of Christ. Hence it is something very positive, liberating and fulfilling.

(continued on page 8)

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Left, children play on working railroad tracks in a slum area of Jakarta, Indonesia, in this Jan 17, 2005, file photo. Families live in shacks alongside the railroad. Father Frans de Ridder says that money saved from fasting can be given to the poor. CNS photo

There may be special reasons why a Catholic cannot observe what the church prescribes. This is not a reason for alarm or guilt but a call for living the spirit of fasting and abstinence, which is to make our priorities right once again, that God is our Number One. How?

— Spend some extra time in personal prayer, meditating on the readings of the day.

— Go to a weekday Mass.

— Visit sick and old people.

— Make a special donation for Charities Week, or help a poor person.

— Do some research on church teaching on social justice and the plight of the poor.

— Commit oneself to doing household chores.

— Decide to eradicate a bad habit - smoking, drinking, gambling - or discontinue a dubious relationship.

— Decide to stop an addiction like viewing TV, playing computer games, watching or reading pornographic material.

— Young people in a special relationship can make a new commitment not to engage in premarital sex. Real love waits!

— Married people can decide to practise natural family planning.

— Initiate family prayer or daily meditation, "dwelling together in the love of God".

Family prayer could be followed by quality time as a family. A family that prays together stays together! A family that plays together stays together! What matters is the "spirit" of fasting and abstinence. "The written letters bring death, but the Spirit brings life". (2 Cor 3:7). It is a mockery to abstain from meat on Fridays yet feast on expensive seafood with wine and exquisite dessert.

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