It is that time of year when we begin to prepare for the liturgical season of Lent. This season of Lent is a time of preparation, a time of repentance, and a time of sacrifice. Oftentimes, we fall into the routine of thinking, “All right. It is time for Lent. What am I going to give up this year?” The thoughts that usually follow are: “Well, it would be better for everyone in the office if I didn’t give up coffee. And I gave up sweets last year. I think that I will give up TV this Lent. It will be a sacrifice, and I could use some extra time with my children.” While it is creditable that we take the time to discern that which we should sacrifice for Lent, we must not lose sight of the reasons why we are sacrificing in the first place.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The fourth precept (‘You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church’) ensures the times of ascesis and penance which prepares us for the liturgical feasts and helps us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart” (2043). This mastery over our instincts is one of the reasons that help explain why we fast and offer sacrifices during Lent. As humans, we have been given the gift of having not only an intellect, but also a will. Exercising the power of our will is an important and necessary aspect of being human. Without our will and our self-control, we would be like animals, acting purely out of instinct. Unfortunately though, training our wills is like exercising. We constantly need to practice self-control and discipline in less important situations in order to persevere in larger and more difficult situations. I once heard from a sister that the reason people fast is to discipline themselves in order to become stronger for the larger temptations to come. A person who has never walked a mile will have a more difficult time running a marathon than someone who has been training for years. In the same way, we need to train our bodies in smaller temptations in order to resist larger temptations that may come our way.
Fasting is also a way of detaching ourselves from worldly created things in order to love our Lord with a more complete love. Throughout our life, we find that we hold on to the things of this world. Whether it is money, work, a car, or even other people, our hearts are constantly being pulled. These things in and of themselves are not negative. Actually, many of the things to which we are attached are good, but they cannot and should not be our primary love. Jesus says, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). Jesus explains that we need to love the Blessed Trinity with all that we have and all that we are. It is as if we are trapeze artists; we need to cling to something with our whole self, not just a part of one thing and a part of another. When we let go of all created things and begin to cling to our Lord with everything, our love for others will not diminish. Rather, our love for others will become greater and more purified because our reason for loving will not be out of utility, but rather because He loves them, because He has given them as gift to us. In the same way, we will appreciate other created things such as nature, food, and art in light of Him and as His gift to us, which will be much more fruitful than enjoying them simply because they bring us pleasure.
Finally, fasting provides us with a tangible way to remember the sufferings of Christ throughout our day. The sacrifice or penance that we choose should remind us daily of the sufferings that Christ endured. The pang of hunger that we feel or the physical discomfort that we may experience is nothing in comparison to the pain that our Lord went through for us. By being reminded of this, our hearts will hopefully be drawn to more deeply understand the love that He has for us and the ways in which we can love Him in return.
Yes, the benefits of fasting are numerous, but we must not stop there. A spiritual director once explained that I must feed myself spiritually to replace that which I am fasting from physically. We must not forget the importance spiritual nourishment during this Lenten season. This spiritual nourishment should take place on a daily basis. Whether it is praying a Rosary in the car instead of listening to music, reading the Bible, or meditating on the Stations of the Cross or the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, it is important to provide spiritual nourishment for our souls. Through the faithful practice of these spiritual gifts, we may gain strength, comfort, and consolation in order to persevere all through Lent. Let us approach the Lord in prayer and faithfully consider that which our Lord is asking of us this Lenten season and always.