Lent: Living in the Fast Lane

“But the days will come when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then they will fast”

–Matthew 9:15–

            Lent, as we all know, is a time of special fasting and abstinence.  There are, of course, a number of physical benefits of fasting and abstinence.  We might lose weight, lower our blood pressure, bring down our blood sugar, or reduce our cholesterol.  I’ve read that fasting can even help the body purge itself of toxins.  Here, however, I would like to mention five spiritual benefits of fasting and abstinence.  It is because of these benefits that the Church asks us to fast and abstain from meat at various times during Lent.  So here are five spiritual benefits of fasting and abstinence.

            Benefit #1:  By saying NO to legitimate foods, we increase our ability to turn away from illegitimate pleasures.  In other words, fasting and abstinence help us to resist temptation. Note that Satan tempted Jesus in the desert only after Our Lord had fasted for forty days and forty nights (Matthew 4:1-11).  The evil one erroneously believed Jesus was at His weakest after all that fasting.  Yet I suspect that precisely the opposite was true.  Our Lord’s self-denial had made Him stronger for the contest.  Bishop Ronald Gainer tells how Saint Teresa of Avila, the great 16th-century Spanish mystic, loved to eat pears.  Yet she kept a ripe pear on her writing desk all throughout Lent and refused to eat it.  When one of her Carmelite novices asked her why she was thus torturing herself, she replied, “If I can’t say NO to a pear, how shall I say NO to the devil?”  Fasting and abstinence fortify us in the struggle against temptation.

            Benefit #2:  Fasting and abstinence help us to appreciate the blessings we normally enjoy.  Many years ago when I was in graduate school, my friends and I decided to abstain from cookies during Lent.  As the old saying goes, “You never miss the water till the well runs dry.”  Did we ever come to appreciate the delights of Archway, Keebler, and Nabisco!  Fasting and abstinence help us to relish the gifts we already possess and may take for granted.  It is a good thing to count our blessings.

            Benefit #3:  Fasting and abstinence enliven our compassion for those who normally do not have enough to eat.  That is one reason why so many churches have Friday Lenten fish dinners or soup suppers in support of the poor.  Rather than simply taking up a Sunday collection for the hungry, why not couple a collection with the experience of abstinence?  Fasting and abstinence make us more compassionate.

            Benefit #4:  Fasting and abstinence help us rid ourselves of the self-deception of self-sufficiency.  Suppose, for example, you were to abstain from eating cheeseburgers during Lent.  Did you ever stop to consider just how many people it takes to bring a cheeseburger to you?  Yes, there are the cattle ranchers, the wheat growers, and the dairy farmers, but there are also countless machine manufacturers, truck drivers, and refrigeration specialists.  Then there are the people who provide the electricity, oil, and gasoline to run the machinery and trucks.  Then there are the workers who pave the roads on which the trucks travel.  You get the picture.  In short, thoughtful fasting and abstinence help us to realize our utter dependence on other human beings.  None of us is a rugged individualist.

            Benefit #5:  Fasting and abstinence open us to receive blessings from above.  In the by-gone days of the commercial whaling industry, whaling ships would leave port with their holds full of ballast—usually rocks, broken bricks, or barrels of seawater.  When, however, the time came for the ships to take on the lucrative whale oil, the ballast would have to be jettisoned to make room for the precious cargo.  The same sort of dynamic takes place when it comes to fasting and abstinence.  In order for us to receive the blessings God has in store for us, we need periodically to empty ourselves of the foods and possessions we do not really need.  St. Augustine says, “God gives where He finds empty hands.”  Thus fasting and abstinence prepare us to receive divine blessings

            To sum up, fasting and abstinence: (1) enable us to resist temptation, (2) make us more grateful for what we have, (3), enkindle our compassion for the less fortunate, (4) shatter our illusions of self-sufficiency, and (5) prepare us to receive rich blessings from heaven.  These five benefits, when taken together, are like the five fingers that form a fist with which to give the devil a big fat knuckle sandwich.  That, by the way, could very well be Benefit #6.