Fast In Thoughts

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What is the real purpose  of fasting  and  mortification that forms its integral part of  Christian spiritual life?

For most of us,  fasting  and mortification means a period of  abstinence  from  certain items of  food or certain kinds of  pleasures. Some avoid meat and meat products. Some others add fish and egg also to this  list.  Often we see some  habitual drinkers  abstain from alcohol for the  whole of Lent. Many among the  regular smokers also  avoid  tobacco products during this period.

No doubt, all these are  good things. But the  more pertinent  question is what purpose these good acts serve.  An explanation  often put forward  by many is that  fasting helps us in keeping the desires of flesh  under control and at the same time  helping us grow in virtues. Then we should ask  another question. Are habitual vegetarians better  than  a Christian  who observes occasional fasting, in these two  traits? We should not  forget that  Hitler was a pure vegetarian! We know  many  cases of   heinous crimes including  genocide, murder and  rape committed by ‘committed vegetarians’.  So food is not  what   defines the  character  of a man. This is not to  dispute the role that  food plays in  our life, but  this role  should not be extrapolated to the  extent that  everything bad is associated with  the food that one eats.

Then what is the  real purpose of fasting  and mortification?  Fasting, penance, and mortification are  the results of a voluntary decision. Nobody  compels us  to  observe  a  period of  mandatory abstinence.  We are   telling ourselves that we  should be  happy with a  vegetarian  diet, or  that  we will not  touch liquor,  or that we will  give movies a miss, or that we will disconnect from social  media  for a  specific period.

It is basic  human nature that  we will be  attracted to  something that we are denied.  A classic example is what happened in the garden of Eden. Eve  ate the  forbidden fruit  neither  because of hunger nor of the lack of  other  good fruits in the garden. The tendency to long for  what we do not have  is innate in human DNA. This is why  we start counting the days from the very start of  fasting.  We  console ourselves in the hope that another few weeks and we will enjoy non- vegetarian delicacies; another few days and  we will  again start drinking and so on and so forth. To put it another way,  the thoughts  about the   thing we  decided to abstain from, will  haunt our mind more  often during  the days of fasting and mortification.

The danger  behind it  is that  we  will be  constantly looking towards  the occasion of the   culmination of  fasting  rather than  its real goal which  is  to prepare  ourselves spiritually  to celebrate  what  comes  at the  end of  fasting.  It is  pathetic to  see Christians thinking about the great  days of Christmas and   Easter simply   as  occasions  to break their  fast. giving  scant regard to  what  these festivals  represent. 

What are we  looking for during the days and weeks of  fasting  and  mortification? Is it the hope  of   enjoying a  sumptuous feast  with   delicacies of  our choice, that we voluntarily denounced for a certain period? Is it a return to our old ways of life where everything   was  dictated by the   desires of  flesh? If  Christmas and Easter are celebrated  as occasions  to return to  our old  way of life  that was   suspended for a short  period, it  is the  greatest harm  we, as Christians,  do to   the memory of  our Lord. If we think that  fasting is all  about  abstaining from certain food items or  certain pleasures only,  in that process, what   Jesus Christ  did for us  gets relegated to second place,

Is this  the fasting that God wants?  In the  words of  Isaiah, ’Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?’ (Isa 58:5). Surely the  meaning  of  fasting  is something different. To know what true fasting  means, we should turn to Jesus  and  the way  he   spent   those  forty days in the wilderness .

The  answer to   all our questions is there in  the  fasting of   the Lord. Luke writes:’ Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the  wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the  devil.  He ate nothing at all  during those days, and when they were over, he was famished’ (Lk 4:1-20).  Here we  should note a big  difference between the  fasting of Jesus and what we call our fasting. In our case it is we who are taking the  decision  to  start fasting.  But the  gospels never say that it was  Jesus’ decision to  go  on a fast.  In his case, the  Holy Spirit was  leading  him to  the wilderness for  fasting!

This is the  first lesson.  It is not for us to take  the decision to   start fasting,  The inspiration  should come from the Holy Spirit. The reason  for many of our fasting sessions commenced with much expectation getting dropped midway is because it was  our own decision. Fasting, mortification  and self- denial are  things  that should never be  done trusting in our intelligence or strength. If the fasting  is one  prompted by the Holy Spirit it will definitely  yield thirty and sixty and a  hundredfold results. All others are worthless exercises that are bound to  be like flowers  with a life of just one day. They ‘flourish in the  field, but when  the  wind  passes over it, and it is gone (Ps 103:15)

In spite of completing the  days of fasting by fighting  with our self, if we fail to  continue the momentum, it is because  our  efforts were done  without seeking the help of the Holy Spirit. They are surely destined to go in vain. 

As for Jesus, he was  filled with the  Holy Spirit before he started fasting. This is the reason  for Jesus staying  calm when the Spirit led him to a place  not of his choice. The  wilderness was   not  a destination of choice for  Jesus. Yet  he  did not  feel worried or disturbed because he knew that the Spirit  will not lead  him  to a   wrong  place.  If the Spirit  could lead Jesus to the  right  place at the right time, we are also  entitled to this  special  guidance from the Spirit. But often what we experience  is that we somehow end up going the wrong way.  We also have the Spirit of  God within us  right from the moment of our  baptism. But the  Holy Spirit finds himself unable to help us because we  have knowingly or unknowingly disabled the Spirit by our own deeds.

Admittedly, we are  not as  filled with the Spirit as Jesus was, but  it does not  prevent us  from seeking the  guidance of the Spirit, especially when  we  commence such important things as  fasting, because we  need the  help from   the above to  take  any spiritual exercise to its desired conclusion. It was  about this spirit that  Jesus  promised; ‘And I will ask my Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to  be  with you  forever’ (Jn 14:15).  He is entrusted with the  responsibility of   leading us to the  fullness of  truth. ‘When the Spirit of truth  comes, he will guide you into  all the truth’ (Jn 16:13).

So  it should be  our prayer to the Holy Spirit before entering the fast track  of fasting to  guide us. Then only the  results   will    last long.  Jesus was  candid  enough to tell us that  we cannot do anything  good without his help. ‘Apart from me you can do nothing’ (Jn 15:5).  After the ascension of  Jesus, our heavenly help comes in the  form of the Holy Spirit. If  Jesus completed his forty days of   trial with the   help of the Holy Spirit, we  too should follow the  same  path to perfection.  Fasting and  mortification  are   ways to  be  with  Jesus in spirit.  John writes:  ‘Whoever says, “I abide in him (Jesus Christ)”, ought to walk just as he walked’ (1 Jn 2:6).  Throughout  the period of  fasting in  the wilderness, Jesus walked  with the Holy Spirit beside him. If we are to emulate him, we have no other way  except    asking the Holy Spirit to be  with us, every  moment of our  journey, especially during those days when we are  committing ourselves to  undergo the rigors of  fasting, penance and mortification.

The first step in this direction is to   humbly admit that  we are  incapable of anything good without help from the above.  Once we are into this  realization and seek  the  help of  the  Holy Spirit before  starting the fasting, half the  task is accomplished. To put it another way, the decision to  fast or to  do  acts of  penance and  mortification, should not  be taken with  our  reason or logic alone. Instead, the progression  from  our everyday  life to  a life of  prayer and fasting should  be a natural one.  For the  journey from routine life to a  life of penance to be easy and hassle free, the Holy Spirit  should  be beside us  all the way. Then we will never feel the dryness that  we are always  afraid  of whenever we think  of  fasting. Then the taste of   those  delicacies  that we abstain from will not    haunt us  every now and then.

After the baptism in the water- rich Jordan, the Spirit takes  Jesus straight to the wilderness where nothing  but  a dry and barren  landscape  awaited him. Replanting  is always painful for us. Especially when  it is from  a comfortable zone to  a place where  things would not  move as we plan. But for Jesus it was not so.  For him the  first day in  the wilderness was similar to the  last day  he spent in Jordan.  Here comes the  difference between us and our  Master. For us, fasting means simply abstaining  from certain pleasures.  But nowhere in the  gospels we  read that  Jesus went to  the wilderness to  abstain from food. Then what for did he   go to the desert?  The Evangelist  writes that  for forty days Jesus was tempted by the devil in the wilderness. Only after that   the gospel mentions; ‘He ate nothing at all during those days’ (Lk 4:2).

As far as we are concerned, the physical elements of  fasting come first  because  it is related to flesh. After all  we are  men of flesh. For Jesus, the  spiritual elements take precedence and temptation comes first, because though a human being like us, he was  living in another entirely different realm, a life  filled with the Holy Spirit.

How did Jesus withstand the temptations of those forty days? He was  with the Father, and  he spent the  time in prayer.  It is  not  a coincidence that  the devil preferred the time when  Jesus was  in prayer to   tempt him. It is the experience of  all of us. When we  are in prayer, the  devil  will try to tempt us  in every possible way. He will try to distract us from  focussing on a one to one relation with God the  Father. The  devil knows that  prayer, fasting, and mortification   are   powerful weapons  against him and his kingdom. ‘This  kind can  come out  only through prayer (and fasting)’ (Mk 9:29). It was  the folly of the  devil to  think that  he could tempt a person who said these words  immediately after  a prayer  and  fasting  session   that lasted  forty days!

Did you get the  difference  between our fasting and  the  fasting  of  Jesus? Or our prayer and the  prayer of Jesus?  When he  decided to   go on a fasting, the primary purpose of  Jesus  was to  fight with the devil and  conquer him. In other words, his  fasting was  with  the intention of   resisting  the   temptations and saying ‘ Amen’ to the  will of his Father.   Abstaining  from  food was a natural  corollary to  this   main purpose.  When he was engaged in a fierce battle, he simply did not care for food. That is all. 

A soldier who relishes  good dishes during peacetime, will not enjoy  sumptuous   meals during  war.  When he is on the war front, he will often sacrifice  food, and if at all food is  served, he  may not be able to  relish it because for him fighting the enemy is  far more important than  satisfying his  appetite. Being a   good soldier of   his  Father,  Jesus forgot to eat anything during the   time when  he was  engaged in a  face- to- face  battle with the devil. Or was it  that  he  simply did not  want to spare even  a few minutes   for  food, lest  his attention would be  distracted from his primary  goal, that of conquering the devil? It is  obvious that  his  primary purpose  was  not  simply  abstaining from  food, but fighting the  enemy. Its proof comes in the   next verse. We read that  ‘when they (those forty days) were over, he was famished’ (Lk 4:2). It was when the  intensity of  the fight with the devil  subsided, that  Jesus started feeling  hunger!

 So we should  understand one thing, that fasting   started with the intention of   avoiding certain  food items or certain pleasures  for a  certain period  will not  yield much  benefit for us spiritually. As long as  we  continue the  fasting,  our mind  will  keep on reminding us of  the very same thing  that we try to avoid. But if we start the   fasting  for a greater purpose, we will give  only  second place to  the desires of  flesh.

 We have seen the mode of  fasting and  the  purpose of fasting. Now it is time to  think about the  results of fasting. Do fasting, penance  and mortification have any results? For an answer, let us  go back to Jesus. We see that  the  end of a rigorous fasting that lasted  forty days brought not any reprieve, but  more powerful temptations. This is  where our  calculations go wrong.  Often we think that  we  have  become  stronger after  fasting and prayer.  But  the devil knows that  instead of  becoming stronger many of us will come out weaker after  it. This is the  result of the unceasing   battle between the  desires of the  flesh and the  desires of the Spirit, both working in opposite directions.

 Seeing an opportunity to trap us the moment we come out of  fasting, the devil will come with more  powerful  temptations. This is the time  to test whether our fasting and  acts of mortification did produce  any  sustaining results.  Those  who have  completed the fasting in its true spirit, will defeat  the  weapons of  devil’s  temptation one by one with the sword of Word.

On the  other hand,   those who  approached  fasting as just another  religious ritual, will break the  fast at the appointed time and   straightaway surrender  to the first available temptation  that  the  enemy  has planted on his  way out from fasting. Let us  remember the words of Jesus, though said  in a  different  context; ‘And the last state of that  person is worse than the first’ (Lk 11:26) 

 Moses was  with the Lord for  forty days and forty nights, that  too in the mount of  the Lord. Yet,  when he came down, anger overpowered him. It can happen so.  On our way back from the  presence of God, our  untiring  enemy will be there at  every turn offering us the  attractive  cups of  pride,  envy,  wrath, gluttony, lust, sloth, and greed. He will never  miss the  exact spot where to lay his  trap, because  a little while   before, he had seen us climbing the  hills of  fasting and  mortification!

When the devil approached Moses in the  form of wrath, the tablets containing the  commandments  written by  God’s hands were with him. In a fit of rage, he  ‘threw  the tablets from his hands and  broke them at the foot of the mountain’ (Ex 32:19). For a moment, he  forgot that  they were something so precious  because of the handwriting  of  God  that adorned it.

It was easy to destroy, but  to get it  back Moses had to spend another forty days and forty nights in prayer in Sinai, the  Mount of God. But there was a difference  this time. ‘He was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water’ (Ex 34:28).  His prayer was accompanied by  a  rigorous fasting, perhaps as penance for the sins of  his people as also for   the  moment when  he  threw away the tablets. In spite of this solitary  prayer and  fasting that lasted forty days, Moses had to be  content with  another set of tablets where the  handwriting of  God was  conspicuous by its absence. It had to be  written by  Moses!

We need to  change our perceptions about  prayer, fasting, and mortification. They have only    one  purpose   and that is to be  with God or rather to come more and more closer to  God. This is not a one time affair, but a renewed life in Spirit that should   continue  till death. This is where we need the help of  the Holy Spirit the most.  

May the  Holy Spirit bless us with the grace to  observe fasting and mortification  in its true sense and  come back with  more  spiritual strength  so as to take on  the  three enemies viz.  the world, the devil and the flesh.

Let us pray:  Come, Holy Spirit; renew me. In Jesus’ name, Amen! 

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