Rather than “supersize” their desires through overindulgence, Catholics can enlarge their souls through fasting and abstinence, according to Father George Heyman, who teaches biblical studies at both St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Pittsford and Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School.
Americans live in a culture that promises instant gratification; a world of lottery dreams and fast-food meals, noted Father Heyman, pastor of Catholic Community of the Blessed Trinity, which comprises three faith communities in Wolcott, Red Creek and Fair Haven. However, “Lent teaches us that we gain more in losing than we do in reveling in excess. And why? Because Jesus opened the way to eternal life only by denying the physical one he possessed for 33 years,” the priest said.
Jesus himself modeled fasting during his 40 days in the desert, where he was tempted by the devil before he set out on his life’s mission, Father Heyman said. Jesus’ fast echoed the 40-year sojourn of the Israelites in the Sinai, he added, noting the Hebrews had only manna and quail to eat. The Gospels of Mark and Luke emphasize the humanity of Jesus, who had to overcome his desires, Father Heyman said.
The U.S. bishops’ Committee on Pastoral Practices, in its 2000 document “Penitential Practices for Today’s Catholics,” also emphasized the role of Jesus as a model for fasting
“Jesus, in Matthew’s Gospel, calls us to pray, to fast and to give alms,” the committee said, adding that Jesus emphasized having a cheerful attitude when fasting and not broadcasting the fact that you are doing it. “As a church, we ponder and pray over this call every Ash Wednesday. In a profound way, the three spiritual exercises identified by Jesus are directed toward the nurturing of relationships.”
Furthermore, the committee wrote: “Fasting assists us in getting our own house in order.” Fasting, the committee wrote, helps Catholics overcome “servitude” to smoking, drinking, gambling, Internet use and misused sexuality, among other things. Fasting enables Catholics to “have more energy to devote to God’s purposes and a better self-esteem that helps us to be more concerned with the well-being of others.”
Contemporary Lenten fasting and abstinence regulations call Catholics age 14 and up to eat no meat on Good Friday, Ash Wednesday and all Fridays of Lent, and Catholics between 18 and 59 to eat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday only one full meal and two smaller meals that, taken together, do not equal one full meal. Father Heyman noted that such fasting and abstinence are ancient practices, rooted in the desire to control desire itself.
“Religiously speaking, both the Egyptians and the Mesopotamians realized that harnessing ‘desire’ was a good thing to do,” he said, adding that fasting enables human will to triumph over human drives. “Israel was no different, and utilized fasting as a means to distance oneself from ‘worldly allurements’ so that, freed from normal human worries, one could find God.” The ancient Israelite prophets, of course, cautioned that fasting without also practicing justice toward the poor, the hungry and the naked was “mere external spectacle,” he added.
On that note, many modern-day calls to fasting are coupled with calls to justice and charity. In recent years, Catholics in this diocese and throughout the world have participated in fasts to end war, stop abortion, improve migrant-worker rights or stem hunger.
Operation Rice Bowl, a Lenten program of prayer, fasting and sacrifice sponsored by the U.S. bishops’ Catholic Relief Services, counsels Catholics to consider fasting “in solidarity with our brothers and sisters around the world.” Operation Rice Bowl, which asks Catholics to donate money for relief and development efforts, also asks Catholics to consider preparing meatless dishes during Lent, culled from recipes of nations CRS assists, such as Eritrea and Congo.
Judy Taylor, education and advocacy communications manager for the Diocese of Rochester’s Catholic Charities, oversees Operation Rice Bowl for the diocese, and noted that fasting helps Catholics contemplate the plight of the hungry.
“We can’t all have a mission experience,” she said. ” We can all fast as if we were experiencing the lives of our brothers and sisters who know hunger on a daily basis. It’s also a good reminder of the abundance we enjoy while so many — in our own neighborhoods as well as across the globe — lack the means to basic nutrition.”
Another group using the practice of fasting for social justice is the Rochester Labor-Religion Coalition. The group is sponsoring its 10th annual 40 Hour Fast, and this year is calling for an improved health-care system. The coalition said that the fast will “be a time of prayer and reflection, sacrifice and action for social change.” The fast opens with a soup supper, program and prayer service at Mercy Outreach Center, 142 Webster Ave., Rochester, at 6 p.m. March 1, and ends with a noontime lunch on Thursday, March 3, at St. Joseph Neighborhood Center, 417 South Ave., Rochester.
Fasting make us more fully human, Father Heyman said.
“If, from the first moments of human learning, we are taught to deny and harness our self-reflective desires, then Lent offers the Christian a time to truly live life, the life of Christ that already lies within us because of our baptism,” he said. “The ‘supersized’ world we see advertised is only a charade aimed at clogging our arteries and killing us forever.”