This post is co-authored with Thomas M. Hart, O.S.B., Assistant to the President for Mission, Saint Vincent College.

The prayers throughout Lent exhort us to a three-fold practice: prayer, fasting, and works of mercy. We generally like to step up to the challenge on the first and the third, but not so much on the second. Why is that?

Fasting today is almost always thought of as a burden, something imposed.  With its almost total demise in the Church, many people would be inclined to say: “Who in his right mind would say, like the sixth century Saint Benedict, ‘Love fasting’?” The indictment extends even to religious orders, where one can scarcely even have a rational conversation on fasting without being laughed out of court.

Yet the early Christians said we should love fasting.  If the Didache is any guide, fasting was an essential and integral ingredient in a Christian’s regimen. The prominent fast was prior to one’s baptism (not just the one to be baptized, but also for the one who baptizes). Thereafter, fasting was to be a regular weekly feature every Wednesday and Friday. Most importantly, Christians were to fast for those persecuting them.  Is it possible to imagine how our civic and public debates would be elevated if we were to do the same? Closer to home, what if we fasted for someone with whom we are not reconciled?

The ancient Lenten fasting was more extreme.  To get a sense of it, Philip Jenkins argues we should look at Ramadan:

Muslims today have a month-long-season called Ramadan that looks quite ferocious to most Christians. Between the hours of dawn and dusk, Muslims can eat or drink absolutely nothing. This is very demanding in a hot climate, and in 2013, Ramadan falls in July. They take this fasting very seriously indeed.  Christians looking at that example may wonder where on earth Muslims got this bizarre idea, but the answer is simple. When Islam arose in the seventh century, members of the new faith just took over the older Christian practice of Lent. In those times, the Christian Lent did not mean anything as simple as giving up chocolate or luxuries. It meant really demanding fasting, exactly like the modern Ramadan, a scale of self-denial that seems unimaginable to most Western believers today.

Despite our contemporary retreat from such fasting, so many of the people we revere saw it as essential.

  • Saint Benedict, the man who wrote as, “a father who loves you; . . . who lays down nothing harsh, nothing burdensome” and whose Rule is the foundation of countless religious orders, said “love fasting.”
  • In To Love Fasting, Adalbert de Vogüé writes about “the fearful moral power” of Gandhi’s fasts which opened people’s eyes to systemic evil.
  • Servant of God Dorothy Day used the spiritual weapons of prayer and fasting to serve the poor. Her fasts of three, five, and ten days helped her to courageously oppose our military-industrial complex’s addiction to violence and war.
  • For Cesar Chavez, who is praised in the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, fasting was central to his vocation, first for the purification of his own motives, and then for those in positions of authority who contributed to social evils whether by malice or complicity. If Chavez could fast anywhere from twenty-four to thirty-six days, who can say that we are any weaker?
  • The Camaldolese, an order of hermit monks professing the Rule of Saint Benedict, have never let the monastic custom of fasting lapse all these centuries, and have intentionally kept it as a living practice.

From these examples, it is clear that fasting is not starvation but an opportunity to experience the power of God in a deeper way.  It helps us confront our failures, approach the failures of others with a spirit of charity and reconciliation, and overcome evil that causes suffering.  Why do we resist fasting? Why do we view it as a juridical obligation done twice a year? If we came to “love fasting,” might we discover a deeper desire for God, and find the surprising ability to love our neighbors (and enemies!) better than we ever knew we could?

So in our time then, why not consider reintegrating the ancient three-fold character of Lenten observance? Saint Peter Chrysologus (ca. AD 430) said it best: “Fasting is the soul of prayer, mercy is the lifeblood of fasting. Let no one try to separate them; they cannot be separated. If you have only one of them or not all together, you have nothing.”