Filling the emptiness

Fasting with religious intentions offers simplicity in tumultuous times

By Jennika Baines
SUN Assoc. Editor

In the weeks after Bishop Robert J. Cunningham’s installation in the Syracuse Diocese this spring, he took part in vespers services in every region of the diocese. While in DeWitt, he asked parishioners of Holy Cross Church to pray and, if possible, to fast once a week with the intention to increase vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

In doing so, Bishop Cunningham was engaging with a tradition that reaches back centuries.

Moses fasted before he received the 10 Commandments. Jesus fasted in the desert while the devil tempted him to turn the stones to bread. Paul fasted after his conversion.

Fasting is a familiar aspect of Lent for many Catholics and other Christians who give up candy, desserts or other treats for the 40 days before Easter, but it also offers an important way of connecting to the simpler, fundamental aspects of life and faith.

Catholics between 18 and 59 who are in good health are obliged to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. This obligation limits the fasting person to one full meal a day, though this meal can be supplemented by two small meals, which are referred to as collations.

Fridays during Lent, when Catholics are required to abstain from eating meat, are days of abstinence.

There is also a Eucharistic fast in which Catholics in good health are required to abstain from food or drink, except for water and medicine, for at least one hour before receiving Holy Communion.

But fasting can also be an act of restraint, such as refraining from coffee or sweets, cutting back on meals, or not eating meat. There is also a sun-up to sun-down fast or a “perfect fast” in which only bread and water is eaten for a 24-hour period.

Dr. William Jorgensen, a doctor of osteopathy and director of family medical residency at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Utica, said those who are over the age of 65, under the age of 16 or are pregnant should not take part in fasting. “If you take the American society as a whole, I think fasting is not a bad thing to consider, especially with the high rates of diabetes and obesity,” Dr. Jorgensen said, “but with these groups in particular, I think it’s better safe than sorry medically speaking.”

However, Dr. Jorgensen said he supports reasonable fasting with religious intentions. “I think that the bishop’s done very well in his role as a church leader for identifying [fasting] as a method of praying for vocations,” he said.

In 2001, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Pastoral Practices issued a summary of penitential practices. The statement focuses in particular on the role of fasting.

“All of us have to deal with areas of servitude, whether in regard to smoking or alcohol consumption, misused sexuality, uncontrolled  gambling, psychological hang-ups, spiritual obsessions, use of stimulants, immoderate use of the Internet, excessive amounts of television watching, or preoccupations with other forms of entertainment,” the report states. “By fasting and self-denial, by living lives of moderation, we have more energy to devote to God’s purposes and a better self-esteem that helps us to be more concerned with the well-being of others.”

Anne Marie Mullin, a parishioner of St Daniel Church in Lyncourt, said fasting has helped her to break any control that food has had over her life. She said she has made fasting a part of her life for a number of years.

“It just helps me to sort of detach myself from the physical dimension of life. It helps me to see that food does not control me and it puts things into perspective as to what is really essential to life,” she said. Fasting helps her to see more clearly the difference between “needs” and “wants,” she said.

Mullin said she tries to incorporate fasting into her lifestyle in many ways, from skipping seasonings or desserts to eating only bread and water for 24 hours.

She said this final kind of fast is particularly difficult during the workday. An important part of fasting is not to make one’s suffering apparent to others.

“It’s challenging when you’re with people you eat with in the lunch room or you’re in a meeting and people are looking at you and saying, ‘Well, why aren’t you eating?’” But Mullin said it is very important to her not to be seen as gloating or advertising her discomfort.

In Matthew 6:16, Jesus said, “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.”

For Nora Germaine, a parishioner of Immaculate Conception in Fayetteville, fasting is a matter of personal discipline having a direct effect on her spiritual connection to God.

She said she, her parents and her two sisters fasted and prayed for a family member and within three months their prayers were answered. She said she believes the fasting helped the prayers be answered that much more quickly.

Germaine said she believes her sacrifice also purifies her body and brings her closer to God.

“You have a helplessness about you because you can’t do something that your body wants to do. You have to turn to God because you have this weakness,” she said. “Your soul is more open to God.”

She said the day after a fast she wakes up feeling wonderful. But the day of the fast is a different matter.

“The bread-and-water fasts are the hardest,” Germaine said. “I love my two or three cups of coffee in the morning,” she laughed. Instead, she foregoes the coffee and drinks water and has a plain bagel for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

“The hardest thing is to have to cook dinner for my family,” Germaine said.

She said it’s also difficult to fast in times of celebration and plenty.

“You walk into Wegman’s during Christmastime and you just say, ‘Oh my gosh,’” Germaine said. But she said the simple symbolism of bread and water helps to remind her of the importance of her task in her life.

Mullin said fasting helps to remind her of what’s essential in life, too. “I’m blessed with what I’ve been given, what I have and what things I can purchase because of my job. But those things aren’t as important as I think,” she said.

In the report “Penitential Practices for Today’s Catholics,” the USCCB pointed out that American culture emphasizes personal possessions and self-preoccupation.

“Current philosophies would have us believe that we are here to be entertained and that we are born to be content,” the report states. “Our culture is in great need of justice and charity, virtues that cannot be achieved without grace and oppenness to conversion. There are always unconverted areas of minds and hearts; there are always factors in our social structures that need uprooting, repair or restoration.”

It’s for this reason that fasting, despite its ancient roots, is relevant even still.

“It’s very relevant for our age because of the pressures of society and how we are bombarded with ads for all the things we’re made to think we need,” Mullin said. “I benefit from emptying myself of the things that I, as a human being, think I need and focusing on what God knows I need.”

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