The Plain Duty of Fasting

Is not the neglect of this plain duty (I mean fasting, ranked by our Lord with almsgiving and prayer) one general occasion of deadness among Christians? Can anyone willingly neglect it and be guiltless?1

Fasting is a duty given by God, and this is recognized not only by Catholics and Orthodox, who have this duty written in their canon law, but even by Protestants: the above quote is from John Wesley, the founder of Methodism. Wesley elsewhere reminds us of the antiquity of the duty to fast: when commenting on Mt 6:6, he says, “Our Lord does not enjoin either fasting, alms-deeds, or prayer; all these being duties which were before fully established in the Church of God.”2 Indeed, the Israelites had a duty to fast on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:29), and they also had a strong habit of fasting, seen, for instance, during the war with the Benjamites (Jdg 20:26), and when Ezra read the Law to all (Neh 9:1), besides examples of individuals like Moses (Ex 34:28) and Elijah (1 Kgs 19:8).3 Fasting is a practice steeped in Jewish tradition, as well as Christian. The tradition of fasting on Wednesday and Friday—Wednesday in remembrance of Christ’s betrayal, Friday in remembrance of His Passion—goes back to the Patristic age, if not earlier; the same is true of Lent, or the Great Fast, as it is known by Byzantine Christians. Among the various ancient Christian traditions, numerous other fasts became customary: forty days before Christmas, the two weeks before the Assumption, the time before the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, the three-day Fast of Nineveh prior to Lent, the four sets of Ember days. Suffice it to say, fasting has a long, long tradition, both in Christianity and before it, and it is, as Wesley reminds us, a “plain duty.”

Yet, we cannot say that the practice of fasting is particularly strong among most Catholics. Current canon law is very light on obligatory fasting, particularly once the clause allowing equivalent penance is taken into account.4 It is worthwhile for every Catholic to ponder in his or her heart the question: Do I truly perform a penance on fast days? Penance is still a duty, even if the method of fasting may no longer be obligatory. But should we really be striving to perform the duty of fasting and penance in the most minimal way possible, with the least effort required? Fasting is not only a duty: it is a wonderful, grace-bestowing spiritual practice. We need only consider the words of St. Basil the Great:

Run cheerfully to the gift of fasting. Fasting is an ancient gift, not one antiquated and obsolete, but ever fresh and at the height of its vitality … It is because we did not fast that we were banished from paradise. So let us fast that we may return to it … Fasting begets prophets and strengthens mighty men. Fasting makes lawgivers wise. It is a good guardian of the soul, a safe companion for the body, the best weapon, a training regimen for contestants. It drives away temptations. It readies for piety. It is the companion of sobriety and the craftsman of self-control. In war it teaches bravery, in peace stillness … Fasting sends prayer up to heaven, as if it were its wings for the upward journey. Fasting is the expansion of households, the mother of health, the pedagogue of youth, an adornment for seniors, a good companion on journeys, and a safe housemate for married couples … While oil fattens the athlete, fasting strengthens the practitioners of piety. Hence, the more you deny the flesh, the more you render the soul radiant with spiritual health.5

Fasting is a key tool for the Christian athlete, the Christian warrior, and all Christians are called to be athletes and warriors: we are called to “run so that you may grasp {the prize}” and to “put on the armor of God” (1 Cor 9:23; Eph 6:11). Fasting is not a practice merely for the hermit who lives on a pillar in the desert: it is for all, whether in the world, or in the desert. It is true that monks will typically fast much more rigorously than Christians in the midst of the world, but that does not mean we are exempt; as the Eastern Churches commonly teach, the spirituality of monks, and of Christians in the world, differs in degree, not in kind. So all are called to fast, though, of course, the extent depends on an individual’s ability and condition.

But it is quite clear that many Catholics do not have a culture of fasting; such a culture must be reignited, rekindled from the embers. Pastors can try to inspire such a culture from the top-down, through homilies, bulletins, and, perhaps more important, personal example. Personal example has its pitfalls, of course—like most good things, fasting can be misused to serve our pride, and our attempt to show a personal example of fasting may be merely a pathway for us to claim superiority over others. Jesus, the knower of hearts, thus wisely instructed us, “When you fast, do not be as the sullen hypocrites, for they do not wash their faces, thusly they show to men {that they are} fasting; amen, I say to you, they have their reward. But, when fasting, anoint your head and wash your face, thusly, do not show to men {that you are} fasting, but to your God in secret” (Mt 6:16-18). We must always be wary lest our example of fasting become a means of pride, for “your opponent, the devil, as a roaring lion, walks about, seeking someone to devour,” and he is a lion who can lay traps built from perversions of good things (1 Pt 5:8). But, despite the dangers, such example is needed, in all areas of good deeds, for “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses,” and this statement also holds true in regards to the benefits of fasting.6 And because teachers are so infrequently heeded by modern man, the task of witness is laid on each Christian, in his or her own way, not merely on pastors and clergy; in fasting, too, all of us must learn the benefits of fasting, strive to make the best use of it in accord with our abilities and condition, and to be an example of these benefits to others. The methods of fasting can vary: the Roman tradition has abstinence from meat alone, along with a reduction of the size of meals; the Eastern traditions typically have primarily abstinence from food types (strict fasting days being vegan, and, in the full tradition, without oil and wine, as well); some Eastern traditions also include abstinence from all food until evening (similar to the Muslim practice during Ramadan), while also following the strict abstinence from food types, though this is more often performed by monks than those in the world. It is a good first step to begin with the requirements of canon law, and then to slowly expand on those; in particular, the fasting on each Wednesday and Friday of the year (with a few exceptions) is a very ancient tradition in the Church.

Fasting is a wonderful method of training our bodies, of detaching from preoccupation with earthly goods in order to focus on the divine, to make sacrifices for God; it is even a duty prescribed by God, as Wesley reminds us, and as its enshrinement in canon law shows. It is a tool to be used with caution, of course, but one that should be used, and used more frequently; all of us should strive to fast, and to encourage others to fast, following the teaching of Evagrios the Solitary: “Fast before the Lord according to your strength, for to do this will purge you of your iniquities and sins; it exalts the soul, sanctifies the mind, drives away the demons, and prepares you for God’s presence.”7 Perhaps a resurgence of fasting will spark a resurgence of vitality among Christians: at the least, that was Wesley’s view of the power of this “plain duty.” But, like everything in the Christian life, fasting cannot be divorced from prayer, and so, as we each ponder how we should fast to further our relationship with Christ, and how we can inspire others to make use of this wondrous tool, and to fulfill this duty of asceticism, we can end this article, and begin our reflections, with the words of Ilias the Presbyter:

Fasting corresponds to daylight, because it is clearly manifest; prayer corresponds to night, because it is invisible. He who practices each of these rightly, the one in conjunction with the other, will attain his goal, the city from which “pain, sorrow, and sighing have fled away” (Is 35:10 LXX).8

  1. John Wesley, The Journal of John Wesley, ed. Percy Livingstone Parker (Chicago: Moody Press, 1968), 265.
  2. John Wesley, Explanatory Notes Upon the New Testament (London: The Epworth Press, 1966), 39.
  3. Though Lev 16:29 uses the phrase “humble your souls” rather than “fast,” this is referred to as a fast in Acts 27:9. I am grateful for the work of Mark A. Copeland, “Fasting in the Old Testament,” executableoutlines.com/fa/fa_01.htm (accessed August 2, 2016) for gathering these references.
  4. CIC can. 1251 instructs that “Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.” However, can. 1253 allows conferences of bishops to “determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence as well as substitute other forms of penance…in whole or in part, for abstinence of fast.” See Code of Canon Law, Book IV, Part III, Title II, Chapter II (can. 1249-1253), at vatican.va/archive/ENG1104/__P4O.HTM (accessed February 2, 2017). This option of mitigating the obligatory fast and abstinence is often taken; for instance, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (forerunner of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) stated, in a document still in force, that “abstinence from meat no longer implies penance,” so it removed the obligation of abstinence from meat on every Friday and instead encouraged other forms of penance to be substituted. Whether the strong recommendation of penance on Fridays—of whatever form—is still commonly understood and practiced by the faithful, as the bishops desired—for their motivation was “the desire to give the spirit of penance greater vitality”—is worth evaluation. See National Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence,”11/18/1966, at usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/liturgical-year/lent/us-bishops-pastoral-statement-on-penance-and-abstinence.cfm (accessed February 2, 2017), especially §§18-28.
  5. St. Basil the Great, Homilies on Fasting 1.2, 1.4, 1.6, 1.7, 2.1, in St. Basil the Great, On Fasting and Feasts, trans. Susan R. Holman and Mark DelColgiano, Popular Patristics Series 50 (Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2013), 56, 57, 61, 63, 73-74.
  6. Pope Paul VI, Address to the Members of the Consilium de Laicis (October 2, 1974), qtd. in Pope Paul VI, Evangelium Nuntiandi §41, in Eugene Kevane, ed., Teaching the Catholic Faith Today: Twentieth Century Catechetical Documents of the Holy See (Boston, MA: Daughters of St. Paul, 1982), 169.
  7. Evagrios the Solitary, On Asceticism and Stillness, in St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth, ed., The Philokalia, trans. and ed. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware, Volume I (London: Faber and Faber, 1983), 36.
  8. Ilias the Presbyter, A Gnomic Anthology §II.85, in St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth, ed., The Philokalia, trans. and ed. G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, and Kallistos Ware, Volume III (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), 44.
Brandon P. Otto About Brandon P. Otto

Brandon P. Otto is a member of the St. Louis Byzantine Catholic Mission in St. Louis, MO. He is currently pursuing a Master's Degree in Theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville, with particular interest in the Fathers and liturgies of the Eastern Churches.