Saint Ignatius High School

The Pillars of Lent: Fasting

Join Jim Brennan ’85 as he reflects on the transformative power of fasting during Lent. Discover how fasting helps us prioritize our lives, draw closer to God, and embrace the ongoing journey of perseverance.
The Pillars of Lent: Fasting

There are many things moving about the Autobiography of St. Ignatius. Personally, I appreciate his honesty in describing his spiritual conversion from being a lukewarm Christian to being on fire in his devotion to Christ. He recounts how early on in his journey, he took to doing “extraordinary penances,” looking to “equal or even surpass” the great saints who had taken on Jesus’ cross through self-sacrifice, but “knowing as yet very little about humility or charity or patience” (pg. 31).

About this time each Lent, I get to feeling that way about the penances I am doing.  When it comes to fasting, I aim high (one year I gave up coffee—I was a three-cup-a-day man then. It did not go well—especially for my poor family and students). I make great plans to give up things. And I often stumble. And having stumbled, I often give up. 

I suspect I am not alone in this. But I also think this “stumbling” (or at least struggling) may be part of the point.
In his Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas noted that “fasting is practiced for a threefold purpose. First, in order to bridle the lusts of the flesh… Secondly, we have recourse to fasting in order that the mind may arise more freely to the contemplation of heavenly things…Thirdly, in order to satisfy for sins…” (ST II-II Q.147 A.1). 

He’s right, of course. And while I’m tempted to leave the statement “bridling the lusts of the flesh” alone, I probably should mention that he speaks here of many physical desires we have that can get out of control: the desire for food, drink, leisure, and, well, where our minds went when we read the quote the first time.

But during Lent I think fasting takes on another dimension. We recall that in this season, we walk with our catechumens—those seeking to become part of the Catholic Christian family—in their conversions and rebirths. We are reminded that this conversion (theologians speak of metanoia, a “radical change of heart”) is ongoing, that it calls us to reorient our priorities, our habits, indeed our very lives from our selfish selves to living for the Lord.  This is hard. We fail at times. But we can and should persevere. 

Fasting is part of this ongoing metanoia. In “giving up” things for the sake of the Lord, we make Him our focus, we are reminded that it is Him we need, and it is He Who will ultimately fulfill our hearts’ deepest desires. Fasting helps us put the things of the world in their proper place. It enables us, as St Ignatius would have it, to use them insofar as they help us “praise, reverence, and serve” God, but put them aside if and when they get in the way of our relationship with Him.   

We stumble when fasting becomes about us, and not Him: when “20 pounds in 40 days” or “licking my caffeine addiction” are our real goals. Fasting should be about prioritizing the things of our lives; our aim should be breaking and creating habits so that we can be the women and men God made us to be.

Jesus said, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mt.26:40). We have noble intentions, but often the promise of immediate comfort or pleasure—gastronomic, sexual, social, or otherwise—gets in the way and we fall. 

Yet our failings don’t have to be the end of the story. 

We do well to look at these times, as we should in all important moments of our lives, to Jesus. He fasted as well. And He struggled. It was only in the midst of His fast that the Devil had the courage to approach and tempt Him, because it was there that He—Who “shared our human nature in all things but sin” (Eucharistic Prayer #4)—was most vulnerable. Jesus was able to withstand the temptations, but Matthew points out that “angels came and ministered to Him” (Mt. 4:11).

Part of fasting is the recognition that we need help in the spiritual life. Fasting, done well, humbles us. It is therefore the antidote to pride, the sin which underlies all other sin. It shows we aren’t as strong as we like to think we are. It reminds us that we are weak. That we need God’s grace in our lives. That we need help. Fasting is a cross we choose to carry over 40 days and by carrying those crosses we can join our sacrifices with the sacrifice of Jesus on Calvary.

And as we do this—and occasionally stumble—remember that Jesus showed us the way. Because carrying His cross on Good Friday as He journeyed toward Easter Sunday, He too fell. Three times.

But he got back up.

A.M.D.G. /B.V.M.H.