If you haven’t been following the last couple of posts, you either need to read them or go see the movie The Princess Bride to know what I’m talking about in this one. The movie is probably better, though.
So here’s where we’ve gotten in this holiness talk so far: being holy means being the part of the Body of Christ you were made to be, but we weaken that body part through the dark covering of sin, so we need to receive the Eucharist, that same Body we are meant to be in, to nurse ourselves back to health to be the best knuckle or calf or molar we can possibly be.
But as the Eucharist nurses us back to health, there’s one other thing we have to do. You’re not going to like it, so you might want to stop reading now if you’re not up for a challenge.
I’m sure at least my mom is still reading. So Mom, here it is:
You have to fast.
And now we are getting into what a lot of people consider “crazy conservative extremist radical” territory. Most people think fasting and other bodily mortification is stupid, unnecessary, outdated, ineffective, or downright wrong. Most Catholics probably don’t do it much. But it’s what we are called to do. And we’re called to it for a number of reasons.
First, we need to wake up. Just like Fezzik kept dunking Inigo Montoya’s head in the hot water, then the cold water, then the hot water, then the cold, so Christ calls us to allow the Spirit to dunk our wills underwater. The Holy Spirit moves us to fast from certain perfectly normal, healthy bodily pleasures so that we become more awake to the spiritual realities of the world. Too often we allow our comfort to turn into complacency, our peace to satisfaction, our relaxation to tepidity. But, as God tells us in Revelation 3:16, if we “are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth.” We must not lose the heat of our passion for Christ, and often our bodily comfort causes this to happen.
Another reason is the fact that, as a member of the Body of Christ, which is also known by it’s badass name, “The Church Militant”, we are participating in a war. We are Christ’s arm-y (pun intended), fighting with Him against the work of Satan and our own sin to rescue souls for the salvation they are meant for. As the infantry of God, we must train for the battle. Any soldier knows that in battle, you must be detached: you must be prepared to go without food or sleep or relaxation or communication for hours or days at a time if needed. And so you practice that detachment in boot camp. Well, we also should be training our bodies and our wills, learning how to say no to temptation. And so you have to simulate the battle. Am I faced with a temptation right now? No. But if I can say no to this meal, or say no to using hot water in the shower, or say no to using a pillow or blanket tonight, then I am training myself to be ready to say no to My Favorite Sin when it comes knocking at the door.
A third reason is that mortification demonstrates sorrow for sins. How do I show my wife I’m sorry when I do something stupid? I give up something I like for her. I skip watching the football game on Sunday so that we can do a puzzle. I wake up extra early to make pancakes for breakfast. I give up my time in the recliner to clean the bathroom. By giving up something we enjoy, even something that is perfectly good and moral in its own right, we demonstrate sorrow for sins. Remember, every time we sin, we offend Christ. Even if we hurt another person or ourselves, the true horror of our offense is that we disrespected the gifts of grace and blessing that we are given every day through the Trinity. So we need to apologize. We need to repent.
And here’s the last and weirdest reason (that I know of, at least). As already discussed, we believe that we are united in the Body of Christ. There is a connection between us all. So, if we choose to undergo some little suffering, we can ask Christ to use that sacrifice to relieve the suffering of someone else, and we trust that He is able to see to it that that happens. Think of it this way: as the Body moves around, doing God’s will, some body parts are exposed to pain that others aren’t, or some carry a particular weight or have to work particularly hard to move the Body at certain points. Fasting is me, the left foot, saying, “Jesus, I know the right foot (who is my dad or mom or sister or friend or that guy at work) is really tired and hurt right now. I volunteer for you to hop on me for a while, just on your left foot, so that he or she can have time to heal. I willingly take on their burden, if it be your will to allow it.” We are in it together. We can help each other. We can help shoulder the load of the suffering of this world. We can help carry each others’ crosses.
So, here’s what I know about fasting: it keeps us from getting spiritually complacent, trains us to say no to sin in times of temptation, shows God that we are sorry for our sins, and can help relieve the suffering of our fellow man. So, we should do it. But how?
Well, what has been suggested to me by my spiritual director in the past (you should get one…they can help you better than a freaking blog can), is that I perform one big fast a week, and at least one small one a day. So here’s a few suggestions.
Big Fasts: Skipping either lunch or dinner (i.e. not eating between breakfast and supper, or between lunch and breakfast the next day); eating nothing but bread and water for 24 hours; not eating anything for 24 hours.
Little Fasts (aka mortifications): Not using condiments at a meal; not going back for seconds; walking with a pebble in your shoe all day; sleeping without a pillow; sleeping without a blanket; sleeping on the floor; taking a cold shower; not using my computer for 24 hours; not watching t.v. for 24 hours; not talking about myself for 24 hours; not drinking soda or coffee for 24 hours; doing extra cleaning or yard-work that is particularly unlikable; turning the AC or heat off in the car while I drive; turning the radio off in the car while I drive; punching myself in the face ten times while doing somersaults. Ok, that last one was a joke; I just wanted to see if you were paying attention.
So all of the above are ways we can say no to good things for the numerous spiritual benefits mentioned before. But a few words of caution about fasting:
1) Fasting without prayer is worthless. Don’t do any mortification without telling Christ why you’re doing it, for whom you are doing it, and uniting it to His cross. Spend time with the Eucharist any day that you do a Big Fast.
2) Fast in ways that no one else notices. Remember what Christ says in Matthew 6.
3) If you get grumpy when fasting, it’s pretty much worthless. The only suffering that is Christ-like is joyful suffering. Don’t be a baby.
4) Don’t let fasting lead to pride. Remember, you are fasting in part because of all of your past sins. As St. Josemaria Escriva says, “You? Proud? Of what?” We cannot boast of anything but Christ, because the only good we have and do comes from His grace. Anytime you feel like a hero for fasting, remember that our suffering is but a fraction of Jesus’ Passion.
So that’s all I’ve learned about being holy. It means being who I was created to be by detaching myself from the world through prayer and fasting and finding my true identity in the Eucharist.
We are all called to holiness. We are all called to sainthood. We are all called to Heaven.
Will you answer the call?