Friday, September 1, 2006

Disciplines of Jesus' Disciples: The Fruits of Fasting

Fasting, as Richard Foster observed over 25 years ago in his Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, is much neglected among Christians. While things have improved somewhat over the intervening years, due in no small part to Foster's efforts and those of his associate, Dallas Willard, it is fair to say not many Christians regularly fast. This is a detriment to us both individually and collectively. Writing directly from my own experience, which I try to avoid most of the time, fasting brings a clarity and focus that comes to me in no other way. It is a discipline in which I allow my spirit and flesh to intersect. Among other things, fasting detoxifies us of all we tend to put in our system, it takes off that edge we often feel. It aids in prayer because, while fasting, whenever I feel hungry (and I do), I pray and ask God to teach me the truth expounded by Jesus during his 40 day fast; we do not "live by bread alone, but every word that comes from the mouth of God (Matt 4,4). Of course, the Word, the final Word is Jesus Christ himself.

Fasting, through its physical effects combined with prayer, helps to me slow down and focus more clearly on relationships. It shows me how often I react instead of acting with intention. It aids me in examining my conscience because, at the end of the day, being a bit hungry and tired, I don't have the energy to deal with my usual excuses and internal machinations. Being more honest with myself enables me to be more honest with God, which, in turn, enables me to be more genuinely myself- the person God, our Father, made me, wants me, and graciously helps me to be.

In the Eucharist, our Lord becomes for us "the Bread of life." The words taught by the Word tell us this clearly: "I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh" (6,51). Just this past Sunday, the twenty-first of Ordinary Time in this year of grace, we ended a three week recitation of John chapter six, known as the "Bread of life" discourse. By fasting, not only do we, as disciples imitate our Master, we take Jesus at his word that he doesn't merely have the bread of life to offer us, but that He himself is the Bread of life.

If all this reads like so much pseudo-spiritual clap-trap, I offer you a friendly and non-competitive challenge. I challenge you to try fasting. Don't do it all at once. Eat nothing and drink nothing, except water, for 12 hours (i.e., skip a meal). During this time, whenever you want something to eat or something to drink besides water, pray spontaneously, using your own words, or a formal prayer (i.e., Pater Noster, Gloria Patri, Anima Christi, Actus spei, Actus caritatis, etc.). Pray at the beginning of your fast and have an intention or intentions (i.e., something or someone you want to lift up to God). Then, after doing that once or twice a week for a week or two, fast for 24 hours (i.e., skip two meals). If at all possible end your fast by either going to confession (your intention could be to make a good confession, which requires a thorough examination of conscience) or by going to Mass, or go to confession and then Mass. I can think of no better way to break my fast than by eating the Bread of life and drinking the "true drink" from the cup of salvation.

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