Sunday, February 10, 2008

Fasting: Therapy for the Soul

What do you hunger for? We most often think of hunger in terms of our physical needs. What is our next meal going to be? During Lent, we are invited in a special way to focus instead on our hunger for God.

Pope John Paul II referred to fasting as “therapy for the soul.” He went on to say that “practiced as a sign of conversion, it helps one in the interior effort of listening for God. Fasting is to reaffirm to oneself what Jesus answered Satan when he tempted him at the end of his 40 days of fasting in the wilderness: ‘Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’” (Papal address of March 10, 1996)

Fasting is not very popular today, but perhaps we need it now more than ever. We live in a consumer world where there is so much of everything, not just food but also trinkets, amusements, and electronic toys. Every advertisement tells us that we need just one more thing to make our lives complete, to bring us the elusive happiness that we seek. And yet, we don’t even take the time to savor what we have been given so generously by God. We live in a fast-food world, where we eat on the go. All the time-saving gadgets that we possess somehow have managed to steal more time than they save. Our families are always on the run. We have so much stuff that we need to buy bigger houses to store it or to have tag sales just to get rid of some of it!

Fasting is an invitation to slow down and simplify. By paying attention to what we eat and what we own, we become more thankful for the food and things that we do have. We become more aware and appreciative of the gifts God has provided. We also come to realize that no thing and no one but God can fill the true hunger that lies within each one of us.

On Ash Wednesday, we are reminded that “we are dust and to dust we shall return.” Lent is a time for penance. It is a time to remember our mortality and our sinfulness. It is a time to seek forgiveness and to attempt to make restitution. During Lent, we are called to fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. It should be a time of conversion and preparation. We are a people of hope. We know that Easter is coming, but we also know that we are in a time of waiting. When the day comes for the ultimate Resurrection, will we be ready? Will we have made ourselves new?

Fasting has traditionally been associated with limiting one’s food intake but its meaning is broader than that. Fasting means stripping away all those things that stand between you and God. What do you set up as little “gods” in your life? What are those things that take your time away from that which really matters? Is reading that novel more important than spending time in prayer? Is watching television or surfing the internet more important than spending time loving and being with your family? Is engaging in idle talk a good use of your time? Is it important to pass judgment on those around you, or would shutting off your inner critic make you a more loving person?

Fasting calls us to set priorities in life. What is of true value? It is an invitation to moderation. Yes, we should enjoy the great gift of life that God has given us, but we should always remember that God is the One that has provided these gifts. In a consumer world, it is all too easy to forget our utter dependence on God. Fasting can help us remember.

In contrast, many people in the world are suffering from malnutrition and the lack of even basic necessities. We have the luxury of fasting by choice. We can make the decision to live simply so that others can benefit. We can donate money we save by living moderately to the poor in our community and the world at large. We can stand in solidarity with the poor throughout the world and acknowledge that our world has limited resources and we are called to share.

Therapy is often difficult and painful, but it is pain for a purpose. It is designed to bring about a positive outcome, to bring healing of body, mind, or soul. From the child who must take bad-tasting medicine to the cancer patient who is forced to endure chemotherapy, physical cures often hurt in the process. Psychological treatment can also cause heartache as one comes to terms with the shadow sides of her personality and has to face the roots of problems in her life. In the end, however, relationships and people can once again be made whole.

So, too, does spiritual therapy often entail some discomfort, but the healing that it helps bring about is all the more worthwhile. As we face our own sinfulness, spiritual therapy aids in making amends and rooting out the sources of the problems. As we, with God’s grace, work to heal our own shortcomings and focus instead on our hunger for God, we become better able to bring healing, love, and forgiveness to those around us.

This Lenten season, I invite you to reconsider the role of fasting in your life. All of us have something in our lives that we can give up for God. It may seem impossible to think of giving up that something special that you cling to. It may be scary to think of stripping away the bad habits in our lives that stand between us and God. But something wonderful happens when we make the decision to give something up for God – God gives us the strength to do it. This Lent can be a real time of getting ready for Resurrection. It can be a time of commitment and spiritual growth. Beseech God to use your fasting to help heal your soul and bring you into a closer relationship with the only One who can truly satisfy your hunger.

This article was originally printed in Canticle magazine. It is used with permission.

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