By Christopher West
We are nearing the fourth week of Lent and Catholics around the world are embracing various forms of fasting and abstinence in preparation for the holiest week of the year. But why do we fast? How does saying no to food or other bodily pleasures actually increase our love for God?
Christian fasting is not rooted in suspicion towards or rejection of the physical world, the human body or the pleasures of food. Precisely the opposite. Only those who know how to fast properly know how to feast. We fast, first of all, the Catechism says, to “prepare us for the liturgical feasts” (CCC 2043).
Fasting allows us to feel our hunger. And feeling our physical hunger can, if we allow it, leads us to feel our spiritual hunger, that is, our hunger for God. Think of the woman at the well: she came there physically thirsty and left with the promise of living water flowing from the well of salvation.
If feeling our hunger can awaken our spiritual senses, never feeling hunger can dull them. Furthermore, when we always satisfy our hunger, we can become enslaved by the pleasures of this world. Fasting and abstinence “help us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart” (CCC 2043). And this kind of freedom is especially important for people like me who love to eat.
Oh, do I ever! In fact, at the end of a meal I often feel a pointed (and even poignant) sadness. I sometimes find myself picking the minutest of crumbs off my plate in an attempt to stretch the enjoyment until every last morsel is gone. But I’m only putting off the inevitable. This meal is going to end. It’s going to end! One more crumb and its over. Done. Finished. Something in me screams: No! I want this to last forever…
And there it is – my yearning for the infinite – my yearning for God. The sadness I feel at the end of a meal can either lead to gluttony (the idolatry of food) or I can accept the “pain” of my desire and allow it to open me to the living hope of the eternal banquet. Fasting, properly practiced, is a wide open door precisely to this hope.
God desires to feed us – and not just from any poor boy’s menu, but with “juicy, rich food, and pure, choice wines” (Is. 25:6) with “bread come down from heaven” (Jn. 6:41). Scripture describes heaven itself as a feast – a wedding feast (see Rev. 19:9). And let us not forget Christ’s first miracle: at the end of the party when the wedding guests had already finished the wine, Christ provides gallons and gallons of the finest wine imaginable. As the glory of Pentecost indicates, we are all called to get “drunk” on this new wine (see Acts 2:13).
This kind of “holy intoxication” is a favorite theme of the mystics. For in the Song of Songs, the King invites his bride into the “wine cellar” (1:4). Teresa of Avila offers this commentary: “The King seems to refuse nothing to the Bride! Well, then, let her drink as much as she desires and get drunk on all these wines in the cellar of God! Let her enjoy these joys, wonder at these great things, and not fear to lose her life through drinking much more than her weak nature enables her to do. Let her die at last in this paradise of delights; blessed death that makes one live in such a way.”
Wow! If authentic Christian fasting is meant to prepare me for this kind of feasting, bring it on! But what, we might ask, is the difference between this kind of “holy indulgence” and the frat-party beer bong? It’s this: we become gluttons and drunkards when we seek satisfaction of our desire for infinity in the earth’s wine, but we become saints when we seek satisfaction of our desire for infinity in heaven’s wine.
Should we, then, reject the earth’s wine? No! That is the essential error of Puritanism and Manichaeism – the idea that the physical world and its pleasures are evil. No, they aren’t evil. Properly embraced, they are little sacraments, little foretastes of heaven.
In fact, how does God communicate heaven’s wine to us? Precisely through earth’s wine: “Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation. Through your goodness we have this wine to offer, fruit of the vine and work of human hands. It will become our spiritual drink.” But in order to enter the infinite delights of this liturgical feast, we will need to learn to fast.
Christopher West is a Catholic author and speaker, best known for his work on Pope John Paul II’s series of audience addresses titled the Theology of the Body. He is a research fellow and faculty member of the Theology of the Body Institute in Exton.