Fasting is not easy. It’s a difficult Lenten practice to embrace. After all, eating good food is one of life’s joys. But too much of even a good thing is unhealthy.
For those of us who consume more than we should, eating less or denying ourselves fattening treats improves not only our physical health, but aids our spiritual life as well.
Saying no to the urge to eat more helps build the discipline we need to say no to the more serious temptations — like self-centeredness — thrust at us by Satan.
Fasting is meant to help us temper our desires and concentrate more on the needs of others. And if it doesn’t do that, it’s nothing more than a form of dieting.
Fasting is not an end in itself. Rather, fasting should serve as a means to a more compassionate lifestyle. By denying ourselves a bit of food, we begin in a very small way to experience hunger. And that taste of hunger should lead us to a higher level of concern for the countless men, women and children who suffer the terrible pains of hunger and poverty every day.
Our highly consumerist society with its constant bombardment of messages to buy more things we simply do not need tempts us to ignore the genuine needs of the poor. So instead of giving from our substance, as Pope John Paul II urged, we throw crumbs to the poor from our abundance.
The U.S. government does the same thing. The former chair of the board of directors of Catholic Relief Services, Bishop John Ricard of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Fla., said, "The United States is the richest nation on earth. And it is a scandal that we are the last among the industrialized nations in terms of per capita spending on development assistance for the poorest countries in the world."
But Congress doesn’t have any trouble finding money for unnecessary "pork barrel" projects, or appropriating over $160 billion annually for the development and acquisition of new weapons of war.
As Catholic citizens we need to urge local, state and national public officials to permanently fast from indifference toward the poor and greatly increase funds for poverty reduction.
In the Book of Isaiah, the prophet reveals the kind of fast that is truly pleasing to God: "To loose the bonds of injustice … to let the oppressed go free … to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them."
Because most of us are not suffering from injustice, not oppressed, not hungry, not homeless, not poor or naked, we don’t really understand the pain of those who do suffer these cruelties.
As followers of the Christ, who made himself poor, we are obliged to find ways to identify with those who have so little. And fasting is a way to begin. But we should not stop there.
Educating ourselves on the causes of hunger and poverty, assisting at a soup kitchen or homeless shelter, volunteering to help programs like Habitat for Humanity and sponsoring a child in the developing world are some of the ways we can begin to understand and respond to the pain of those who suffer.
"Then," in the words of Isaiah, our "light shall break forth like the dawn"; we will call out and "the Lord will answer … ‘Here I am.’"
Tony Magliano is a columnist for Catholic News Service.