Lent has come around again, the period of penitence and reflection that leads up to the fifty days of Easter. No meat on Fridays. Fasting. Almsgiving. The Stations of the Cross. What is it all for?
Then the disciples of John came to Him, saying, "Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?" And Jesus said to them. "Can the wedding guests fast as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast." -- Matt. 9.14-15
Fasting is one of the oldest religious practices of all humanity. It is interesting that, as with sacrifice, the practice is taken into the Abrahamic tradition without question; there is no direct discussion of its purpose -- it is simply part of the assumed nature of religious practice. There are directions on what to do when fasting, or accounts of people being called to a fast, but no reasoned explanation of the practice.
This, American Christians typically find hard to stomach. We do not like the idea that an unexplained, opaque tradition can claim to dictate our behavior. We wish to reserve our consent to those things we understand; we want to know the whys and the wherefores, and to claim the right to dissent from those things that we do not believe in.
Unfortunately, though there is a noble impulse contained in this desire, there is another impulse which is ignoble in the extreme. To try to understand so as to avoid sin is one thing: I am by no means sure that the desire to avoid sin really animates our behavior here, however. Judging from my own examination of conscience, what calls itself independence or principle is very frequently only an ancient voice saying that I have the right to do whatever I please, or nothing if I like that better, that I will not be ordered around, that I will have an explanation so that I may be like God, knowing good and evil.
This illustrates the wisdom of the Church in mandating certain practices as a minimum for the Christian life -- what are called technically the precepts of the Church. This draws criticism occasionally from Protestants, and more frequently from heretical or lazy Catholics; but if we believe seriously that the Church is in any sense from God -- and, whether we accept the theory of Petrine primacy or not, Christ did certainly say that He would found the Church -- then it is not manifestly irrational to suppose that she has the right to discipline her members. This insistence on certain corporate practices, traditions we all observe in common, benefits us in a multitude of ways:
1) It gives us an opportunity to practice obedience. Jesus is recorded in John as saying, "If you love Me, keep My commandments." This theme of obedience as the sacramental manifestation of love is continually harped upon in all of the apostle's writings. And it makes sense. Even on a natural level, is anyone much impressed by a man who claims to love a woman, but consistently puts his own pleasures or his own ego before her desires? Obedience is the natural expression of love. What does this have to do with the Church? Well, the same Gospels that emphasize love record our Lord telling His apostles that anyone who received His word would also receive theirs. It is hypocrisy to claim to love Christ and at the same time pour contempt upon His Mystical Body, which Body, St Paul tells us, is the Church.
Indeed, the unexplained-ness of the traditions of the Catholic Church reminds us, not so much of her authority, as of the factual truth of the Christian religion. When something is a fact, you cannot argue with it; there is no good pleading that you want a simpler solar system or a more accessible geography; you have to take them, as they stand, or shut your eyes to them. G. K. Chesterton wisely drew out one of the most fascinating elements of the image of St Peter being given the keys of the kingdom. A key, he points out, is not a matter of abstraction or of argument. Susceptible to analysis and yet not to dispute, it is indeed complex; the only simple thing about it is that it opens the door.
2) It puts us in touch with the wisdom of the whole Church. Related to this first point is the fact that submitting oneself to these traditions is, literally, following the practice of most Christians (Catholic or otherwise) who have ever lived. These practices were not chosen arbitrarily. In adopting them -- better, in allowing ourselves to be adopted by them -- we are recognizing the wisdom of someone other than ourselves; which, after the first shock, is a refreshing exercise.
3) It sets forth to the World the unity and universality of the Faith. We say, whenever we recite the Creed, that we believe in one holy, Catholic, and apostolic Church. The oneness and the catholicity of the Church are witnessed to the world every time we abstain from meat on Friday or observe the law of fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. We are saying wordlessly, through these actions, that we are part of a people with an identity that is not drawn from this world, but from another world altogether. Though mortifications may be difficult, they are anything but dull, however dully they may be kept by some; they have, could we but see it, all the thrill of rebellion. They particularize our refusal to be ruled by the Flesh at the behest of the World. They do this far more, not less, when we keep them as members of the faith, in union with countless brethren spread throughout space and time, rather than on our own initiative; for anybody can follow his own desires. The elevation of private devotions over public ones as being worthier, because they spring from personal fervor rather than blind submission to authority, is based on a caricature of reality. It has no grounding in the Scriptures (take a look at the ancient Israelite calendar some time), and it smacks of Gnosticism more than Christianity.
But what does fasting do, exactly? Why was it taken into the Jewish tradition in the first place, and thence inherited by Christians? Again, there are several answers.
1) It asserts the spirit's dominance of the body. This, while in some ways one of the less important aspects of a fast, is one of the most obvious. The body -- not to be confused with the Flesh in the Pauline-Johannine sense, that is, our inner selfish nature -- wants things that make it feel good, like a child. Body and soul alike benefit from the reminder that it is the soul that has the right to authority in the person, and both suffer when this authority is never asserted; just as spoiling a child damages the parents, too.
2) It sacramentalizes our repentance and mourning. Passing to Scripture, this is the meaning we see fasting most consistently associated with. As we see in the passage from Matthew above, and frequently in the Old Testament when kings or prophets call for a fast or go into mourning because the whole nation needs to turn back to God, it is assumed that this will be an expression of the heart's movement to the Lord. (Not, note well, an expression of emotion. If anything, it is likelier to order and strengthen the emotions than they are likely to sort fasting out properly.) But when the heart moves, the body should move also, for we are not ghosts in machines but a single whole, a body-and-soul complex. C. S. Lewis says in his novel Perelandra that the sacraments were instituted partly as a reminder that the division we draw between the body and the spirit is neither wholesome nor final. Fasting allows the body to participate in our penitence; and, as Jesus suggests in Matthew, in our remembrance of that great day when the Bridegroom was taken away from us for a time.
3) It brings about a confrontation with the False Self. Why precisely fasting does this, I do not know; though it should be said that it does not do it automatically, but only according to the spirit with which we enter our fast. If we enter it inattentively, and merely on the grounds that the Catholic Church has bound us to fast, we will glean but a little benefit; if we enter it with a desire to show off, whether to others or ourselves, we are already whited sepulchers, empty perhaps of food but full of dead men's bones. But if we enter it humbly, accepting the practice of the Church and trying to allow God to work in us through that medium, we will learn a surprising amount about ourselves, and particularly about the False Self.
Why do I say "the False Self"? To distinguish it from the ordinary confrontation with fleshly desires. Crankiness, for instance, seems to be a catholic experience among Catholics when we fast. This is natural; when the body is refused its habitual pleasures, it goes into hysterics; the Flesh neither knows nor cares what our larger goals are, but simply wants to get what it likes. But all of this lies in the realm of the natural conflict between the Spirit and the Flesh. When we speak of the False Self, we are dealing not with bodily but with spiritual realities. It must always be remembered that our identity in Christ is our real identity, even though it may be less familiar than the identity we lived in before our conversion (whether that conversion was to a newfound faith or to an intentional practice of what we once took for granted). That second identity is the False Self.
This is not necessarily a malicious or vulgar identity; it may, indeed, be very self-disciplined, even very moral -- even, in a sense, very religious. It is, in a way, the Devil: the temptation, not of wicked self-indulgence, the Flesh, nor of a wicked acceptance of the corrupt systems of the World; rather, it is a wicked spirituality. Chesterton's phrase, "things of that extreme evil that they seem innocent to the innocent," is very fitting. Fasting, for whatever reason, seems to awaken the False Self. As for its identifying marks, they are probably unique to each person; provided that we stick like limpets to prayer, I dare say we will know it when we see it.
I wish I could say that there were some dramatic and decisive way of defeating the False Self. Possibly there is, but if there is I do not know anything about it. The only ways I know of dealing with the False Self are the same ways that every sin and tendency to sin is dealt with: Confession, Communion, prayer, spiritual direction, studying Scripture, brotherly fellowship, tithing, Eucharistic Adoration, examination of conscience, the Rosary. Do this and you will live.