Food and Fasting
I love food!! Don't you? Food is essential to life, part of the big four: air, water, warmth and...FOOD! Yet in most of the history of humanity, and even today in many places around the world, food is scarce But scarcity of food in history is the norm. Looking back, to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, we admit that they did not eat every day, and certainly not three-square meals. There were no ShopRites, ALDIs, or even an Acme. During Jesus' time, food was precious and scarce, too. Markets existed in towns, but with no refrigeration, and transportation limited to carts and pack animals, out in the countryside far from town, food was a prized commodity. So, when the boy in the Gospel today gives over his family's five loaves and two fish, we must acknowledge it as a generous and selfless act (see: Jn 6:9).
While food was so cherished, fasting was a regular practice. Much evidence on fasting exists in the Sacred Scriptures. It was a Jewish custom to fast twice per week (see: Luke 18:12), on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The Christians continued this custom, shifting the days to Wednesdays and Fridays. Fasting was part of the early Church. Jesus even tells his disciples that certain miracles can only be accomplished through prayer and fasting (see: Mark 9:9).
Why does fasting add to the power of prayer? Fasting gets our bodies involved. It purifies or hones our intentions. Fasting reminds the body who is in charge, not the belly but the spirit. It requires discipline. Fasting helps to unite the whole person towards a determined goal. That is the spiritual angle.
Modern science teaches us that physical benefits result from fasting as well. Recent studies suggest that fasting improves brain chemistry, makes us more alert, and gives a heightened sense of awareness. Makes sense: if a caveman hadn't eaten in a few days, he would need all the alertness he could muster to hunt down or gather up his next meal. Studies suggest fasting also improves heart health, can help tame insulin sensitivity, and can even suppress anxiety and elevate mood (see: The FastDiet , by Michael Mosley and Mimi Spencer, for a very readable review of scientific evidence). To sum up, when the body is constantly digesting food certain systems are active, but when the body is not in “food mode” other systems come online, repair the body and assist in survival. When we acknowledge that our ancestors lived periods of feast and periods of famine, it makes sense that God designed our bodies to do different things (both essential) based on different conditions.
So it is ironic that in a time when food was so precious, fasting was more prevalent. We could even say it was part of the culture of the Near East. In fact, most ancient cultures practiced fasting! By contrast, today in America, food is generally plentiful, while fasting seems to be a more infrequent occurrence. By-in-large, we take advantage of our three-square, and snacks, and coffee breaks, and ice cream….ooh the ice cream!
But fasting has always been a part of the Christian way of life, a basic asceticism, a way to say: something is more important than our bellies. And fasting is still a part of consecrated life (you know: monks, nuns, brothers and sisters). For a great book on fasting, I highly recommend: To Love Fasting: The Monastic Experience, by Adalbert de Vogüé.
I present this background in order to introduce a communal fasting endeavor set forth by the Bishops of the United States (USCCB). The Pro-Life Office is encouraging all Catholics to pray and fast for life on every Friday from August 3rd to September 28th. That's two months of fasting on Fridays. USCCB asks that parishioners pray one “Our Father,” one “Hail Mary,” and one “Glory Be” on each of these Fridays. Prayer and fasting, united! And when we do so as a whole Church our prayer is even more powerful. Will you join me? Will you please join the Catholics in the United States on this common endeavor?
Here is another prayer USCCB suggests:
O God, our Creator, all life is in your hands from conception until death. Help us to cherish our children and to reverence the awesome privilege of our share in creation. May all people live and die in dignity and love. Bless all those who defend the rights of the unborn, the handicapped and the aged. Enlighten and be merciful toward those who fail to love, and give them peace. Let freedom be tempered by responsibility, integrity and morality. We ask this through Christ the Lord. Amen