Fasting for Vitality

Fasting for Vitality February 22, 2012
Melania the Younger, Desert Mother

For most of my life, I’ve misunderstood ascetic practices as shallow, utilitarian forms of self denial.

For instance: fasting is many times associated with denying the body to strengthen the soul. This superstitious approach is too extravagant and detached from ordinary experience. We all know of ascetic practices that only deny the flesh in a superficial sense and result in a more vital and healthy body and spirit.

Exercise, good eating, regular sleep: all of these things and more are not that far from the reality we find in fasting and ascetic practices like abstaining from meat and giving up something for Lent.

All forms of ascetic practice must be life giving, even when they seem to be death giving. After all, the most radical forms of self-denial were practiced at Gethsemane and Golgotha. Not only the generic, symbolic Cross: more radically, death on the Cross shows the ascetic way of life, the way of love.

Christ died for life. His death was itself an act of extreme vitality.

It is not enough to understand what Lenten ascetics practices are for. I must try, fail, and try again to LIVE through Lent. The great ascetics did not deny themselves as much as they transcended the need and desire for that which they did not have. They were most alive when they were dying.

Their example, of course, was Christ.

The Christian embrace of suffering and sacrifice is not a way to become less vital, less alive, less embodied. No. It is not a simple, unnatural escape from the flesh or the body. Just the opposite: Christians have the potential to be alive in a wild, erotic way. A way that bears witness to and longs for the truth and beauty of a suicidally vital God. A God who did not spare anything to show his dark, glorious, and mysterious life through a love beyond love.

All holy men and women of God, Pray for us!

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  • Sam writes, “[F]asting is many times associated with denying the body to strengthen the soul. This superstitious approach is too extravagant and detached from ordinary experience.”

    I find it strange that you call this idea superstitious and extravagant. A little simplistic maybe…

    I just happened to come upon recently what I thought was a good explanation of the purpose of ascetic practices:

    “We frequently meet with the word ‘peace’, especially in the apostolic formulas of salutation, together with the word ‘grace’. In such a connection both include the whole interior contents of Christianity and the Christian life: grace is the root whence springs the sweet, heavenly fruit of peace, developing to perfect maturity. — Here below, indeed, this peace is more or less imperfect, because it is mingled with sorrow, pain and sadness; perfect and imperturbed it will be only above in heaven, where all woe shall cease. The more a man rids himself of attachment to the world and recollects his heart in God, the more he mortifies and overcomes his passions, the more he lives a life of faith and grace, the more also will he taste the consolation and sweetness of that interior peace which the Lord pours out, as a stream, on humble and self-sacrificing souls (Is. 66,12). True piety is joy and peace in the Holy Ghost — it is godliness. ‘Delectare in Domino et dabit tibi petitiones cordis tui’ — ‘Delight in the Lord, and He will give thee the requests of thy heart’ (Ps. 36,4).”

    Rev. Dr. Nicholas Gihr, “The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass; Dogmatically, Liturgically and Ascetically Explained”, 3rd ed. 1908, p. 720.

  • The Pachyderminator

    This is Ash Wednesday, a day for prayer and not for combox disputations. Nevertheless, I do feel called on to comment.

    It seems to me that to compare fasting to things like “exercise, good eating, regular sleep” is to miss the point entirely. There is a certain kinship, of course, but it’s just flat-out wrong to say that the purpose of ascetic practice is to achieve a more passionate bodily existence. Fasting is supposed to be detached from ordinary practice. It’s supposed to be different from what we do every day. It may not be about denying the body, but it’s certainly about going beyond the body, affirming that the perfect life will only come after we have put it aside. It’s a detachment from passing, temporal things for the sake of a stronger attachment to eternal, spiritual things.

    You’re right, of course, that putting the body aside at death will not be permanent. The night is dark, but joy comes with dawn. Ascetic practice is life-giving, but that’s precisely because it is a practice of death. Death is to be passed through, not denied. As long as we are in the mortal world, the spirit can be at odds with the flesh. There is a form of going without food for the benefit of the body, but it’s called dieting, not fasting, and as far as I know it’s not prominent in the Catholic tradition.

    • The desert mystics who lived on the Eucharist alone, did not deny their bodies life, they were the most alive bodies I can imagine. This is what I mean, Pachy.


    • Julia Smucker

      “Exercise, good eating, regular sleep: all of these things and more are not that far from the reality we find in fasting and ascetic practices like abstaining from meat and giving up something for Lent.”

      I read this as meaning that such practices can tilt the balance closer to a truly healthy life – the kind of vitality human beings are made for – relative to those cultural ideals that encourage self-indulgence. Was I misreading?

  • I too am a bit perplexed by calling the traditional understanding of fasting “superstitious.” To me it seems like a simple psychological reality: denial provides discipline, we must learn to say “no” to ourselves (and in the case of certain physical desires, to what traditional theology calls “the flesh”) in order to be able to persevere in delayed-gratification. Someone who has often mortified himself will be much more able to do so if faith or charity every REQUIRE it (say, martyrdom, or giving up food to children during a famine) if we’ve practiced it in the past, if we are not attached to these things, if we are not ruled by our desires, by our “flesh.” There’s nothing superstitious about this, and I see little difference with this understanding and with, as you say, exercise as a discipline (of both body and will) against Sloth. Fasting counters offenses against temperance by balancing them with an opposite extreme that, hopefully, will make our will then strong enough to keep the middle path during “ordinary” life.