Fasting is a voluntary abstinence from something good, usually food. It’s a familiar spiritual practice for most of us, but it’s also a practice we tend to take up only during Lent or only when the Church tells us we have to. That’s unfortunate because fasting is, in the words of St. Basil the Great, a powerful “weapon of protection against demons.” Similarly, Christ tells his disciples that certain kinds of demons can only be cast out by prayer and fasting (Mark 9:29). With this in mind, we should want to be well-practiced at fasting and have this form of prayer in our spiritual arsenal at all times.
The origins of fasting
Fasting is a tradition with ancient roots. Think of Israel’s Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), David’s fast after the death of his child or Nineveh’s fast of repentance (see Leviticus 23; 2 Samuel 12; and Jonah 3). Prayer and fasting is fairly common in the New Testament as well. The prophetess Anna and John the Baptist both fasted in preparation for the coming of Christ (see Luke 2; Mark 2). Jesus himself also fasted. Recall his forty days of fasting in the desert at the start of his public ministry and his instruction to his disciples to pray, fast and give alms (Matthew 4, 6). We also know fasting was a practice of the early Church (Acts 13 and 14).
“Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one’s flesh to the spirit, makes the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, quenches the fire of lust and kindles the true light of chastity.” - St. Augustine
Why you might pray through fasting
There are many reasons to fast; some reasons are good and some are bad. Some bad reasons to fast would be to lose weight, to feel more worthy of God’s love or to compare yourself to another person. Fasting should always be done out of love. (Really, the same can be said of every action in the Christian life. Our motivation should always be love of God and love of neighbor.)
It’s also worth noting that fasting from sin doesn’t really count as fasting. Yes, we should eliminate sinful habits and whatever else keeps us from God, but just because we're giving something up (in this case, sin), it doesn’t mean we’re actually fasting. We’re just doing what we’re supposed to be doing!
What are some good reasons to fast? Fasting helps us to prepare for liturgical feasts like Easter, to master our instincts, to develop good spiritual habits, to grow in humility and dependence on God, to offer a sacrifice on behalf of an intention and to be more united with Christ. If any of these good reasons resonate with you, consider taking up a fast.
How to pick your fast
Deciding how exactly you intend to fast (from what, for how long, for what intention, etc.) is essential for getting started. Here are some things to consider:
- Start small
If it’s been a while since you fasted from anything regularly, start small like skipping snacks between meals on Fridays or not having your afternoon coffee once a week. Starting small is smart because it helps limit pride about our “great feats” of fasting and it helps build habit and momentum. You can think of fasting like running. If you suddenly decided to start running a long distance each day, you might be able to keep it up for a time, but you would quickly burn out without a foundation of running previously. Similarly, when we elect a significant and sudden fast, we can probably do it for a few days, but our resolve quickly fades. It’s better to take up a small fast that we will actually complete than to pick an impressive one that we will quickly abandon.
- Keep it simple
Fasting doesn’t need to be elaborate. That’s what makes food such an obvious choice for many people. With food, we can be certain that we will desire it at certain times of the day, that giving it up will be a sacrifice and that (for most people in good physical health) skipping an occasional meal should not have any real negative effects. Still, we can legitimately fast from lots of other things too: drink, conveniences, media, hobbies, pastimes, the Internet, etc.
- Make sure your fast is good for you and your relationships
Use good judgment. Your fast should be a legitimate sacrifice, but it also should not become a punishment for you or a burden for your family. Fasting from using your car to get to work would probably be a true sacrifice, but if it makes your kids late for school and makes you angry when you get home for work, it’s probably not a good idea. Remember: you’re voluntarily choosing to fast out of love.
- Watch out for rationalization
If you get an idea for a fast and find yourself immediately rationalizing why not to do it, that might actually be a good sign to consider fasting from it. Rationalizations tend to be surface-level reasons that conceal a deeper, truer motivation. In the case of fasting, rationalizions sound like, “Yes. That would be a good fast, but
that’s how I relax each day.” Or, “Yes. I could do that, but that’s the one thing I get to have for me.” Rationalizations are different than justifications, which are reasons founded in truth that correspond to
true motivations. They sound more like, “Yes. But my doctor says I need to make sure I eat three full meals a day.” Or, “Yes. But giving that up always makes me irritable and unable to sleep.”
- Keep it between you and God and your spiritual director
We have good scriptural grounds for fasting in secret (see Matthew 6). At the same time, if someone notices our fast and asks about it, there’s nothing wrong with explaining it. Similarly, including our spouse, close friends or spiritual director in our decisions about fasting can also be a great idea. They can help us keep our head straight and our plan on track. Remember, fasting is a powerful tool against evil, and we can be certain the devil will try to confuse and discourage us during a fast. Good friends are important and helpful, and their assistance or guidance does not diminish our sacrifice.
- Come up with a plan for your fast
Having a start date, end date and general plan for a fast will take the decision out of the moment and also increase your likelihood of follow-through. For example, setting two alarms for the morning inevitably means snoozing the first and falling back on the second. Similarly, if you plan to decide your fast in the moment, then you’re more likely to slide in your commitment. Pick a specific moment and duration for your fast, and you’ll be more likely to complete it. Example: “I will fast from television Monday through Thursday for the next three weeks.”
How to pray your fast
Once you have settled on the particulars of your fast with the above in mind, you're ready to start.
- Pick an intention
Fasting is a great opportunity to offer a sacrifice on behalf of an intention. Consider offering your fast for something very particular. This will give you particular motivation and strengthen your resolve.
When you begin your fast, invite God to be with you. Then, offer your fast for your chosen intention, ask for the grace to complete it and tell God that you accept as a gift whatever he chooses to bring out of it. If your fast happens at a specific time during the day, you can repeat a prayer like this each time the moment of your fast arises. If not, you can repeat it each day of the fast during your normal time of prayer.
- Keep it up!
Fasting is not a test, and it certainly does not require a perfect score. This is prayer, and God calls us to faithfulness in prayer, not perfection. If you happen to break a fast or forget to do it, don’t quit or get discouraged. Simply recommit to your fast, invite God into the fast as above and continue as best as you can.
Download the complete Prayer Enrichment Guidebook
The Prayer Enrichment Guidebook introduces seven traditional styles of Catholic prayer, including lectio divina, the Examen and centering prayer.
The entry for each prayer practice introduced in this guidebook contains:
- A brief overview of the prayer practice
- Its origins
- Why one might practice it
- How one can practice it
This Prayer Enrichment Guidebook is an aid for all Christians to deepen their relationship with the Lord through new forms of prayer. It is an ideal supplement for Catholic teachers, catechists, ministers and anyone who seeks to encounter God in a new way.