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Working In the Crypt: Fasting

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Tis true, we cannot reach Christ’s fortieth day,
Yet to go part of that religious way,
Is better than to rest
We cannot reach our Saviour’s purity,
Yet are we bid, ” Be holy e’en as He,”
In both let’s do our best.
Who goeth in the way which Christ hath gone,
Is much more sure to meet with Him, than one
That travelleth by-ways.
Perhaps my God, though He be far before,
May turn and take me by the hand ; and more,
May strengthen my decays.
Yet, Lord, instruct us to improve our fast
By starving sin, and taking such repast
As may our faults control
That every man may revel at his door,
Not in his parlor; banqueting the poor,
And among those his soul.


Our theme for the first Monday of Lent is fasting.

In recent years there has been a lot of confusion about the Lenten fast. This confusion comes largely because people try to narrow the focus of fasting to the one purpose that fits their personal preference.

The truth is, Catholic tradition has held at least three purposes of fasting:

  1. Penance for sins committed
  2. Taming our unruly physical desires in the process of conversion and growth in temperance
  3. Embracing sacrifice out of love for others.

The truth is, you can embrace the Lenten fast for any of these reasons that fit your current state of spirituality.

Let’s take a quick look at each purpose for fasting and explore how the purpose may affect how you approach your Lenten fast.

Penance for Sins Committed

Now are the days of humblest prayer,
When consciences to God lie bare,
And mercy most delights to spare.
Oh, hearken when we cry,
Chastise us with Thy fear;
Yet, Father! in the multitude
Of Thy compassions, hear!
Now is the season, wisely long,
Of sadder thoughts and graver song,
When ailing souls grow well and strong.
Oh, hearken when we cry,
Chastise us with Thy fear,
Yet, Father! in the multitude
Of Thy compassions, hear!
The feast of penance ! Oh, so bright
With true conversion’s heavenly light,
Like sunrise after stormy night!
Oh, hearken when we cry,
Chastise us with Thy fear ;
Yet, Father! in the multitude
Of Thy compassions, hear!
We who have loved the world must learn
Upon that world our backs to turn,
And with the love of God to burn.
Oh, hearken when we cry,
Chastise us with Thy fear;
Yet, Father! in the multitude
Of Thy compassions, hear!

Sometimes Lent awakens us to a pattern of sin in our lives that really troubles our conscience. Perhaps we struggle with lust or gluttony or sloth. So we go to reconciliation. We hear the words of absolution. We do our penance. But we still feel horrible about the sin. This feeling of “compunction” (sorrow for our sin) is often prompted by the Holy Spirit. It is meant to move us beyond the immediate repentance for our sin to cooperate with grace in order to root out the selfish tendencies in our hearts that lead us to sin.

Often this compunction leads us to additional penance. This isn’t penance for the forgiveness of our sin. That is taken care of by the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Rather, this is penance for allowing our hearts to be shaped by our sin.

This penance is meant to reveal to our hearts how empty the sin is. As Saint Thomas says in his prayer for the forgiveness of sins, “By such things I preferred to lose You rather than abandon what I desired.”

We can use the Lenten fast to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in our compunction. This kind of penance should not be prolonged. When it is overdone, it can lead to scrupulosity (an oversensitivity to sin) or to despair (feeling like you’re not actually forgiven). That’s why it’s good to do such penance during Lent and then to let it go.

Taming our unruly physical desires in the process of conversion and growth in temperance

When the pious Christian observes days of abstinence with proper dispositions, when he looks upon fasting, not as an essential part of religion, but simply as auxiliary to the due performance of religious acts, to the mortifying and subduing of criminal appetites and passions, and to the spiritualizing of the soul : when he sets apart for prayer, self-examination, and contrition, and for the receiving of religious instruction and reproof, that time which Christians have in general allotted for these ends; when he thus complies with the directions of his lawful superiors, and of ancient canons, and with the usages of the church of which he is a member ; when he does not hope by abstinence at one season to compound for excess at another; when he is fully persuaded that neither one day nor one meal is holier or cleaner than another ; yet on certain days chooses to abstain from certain meats, not because they are unlawful, but because they are less subservient to keeping the body under subjection; when in things indifferent he neither rigorously confines himself to rules, nor adopts what might tend either to trench on Christian liberty or to open a door to licentiousness; when he thus keeps the appointed fasts, his practice corresponds with the intentions of our church and the injunctions of the Gospel ; with what our Saviour regulated by his precepts, and recommended by his example, and such a fast we cannot hesitate to pronounce will be acceptable to the Lord. -Shepherd


    Even after we’ve sought forgiveness for our sin and for our sinful tendency, we need to train our hearts not to desire the sin. When we give in to our unruly physical desires, we become a slave to them. We develop bad habits (called vices) of overindulgence and fail to create good habits (virtues) of self-control and balance. So another reason to embrace fasting is to train ourselves to find balance.

    Fasting puts us in the habit of telling our unruly body “no.” It puts us in the habit of exercising our will over our appetites. Most importantly, it puts us in the habit of seeking God above all things.

    Embracing sacrifice out of love for others.

    The origins of the Lenten sacrifice actually has its roots in love. Lent is traditionally the time when catechumens – those preparing to be Baptized and to enter the Church on Easter Sunday – entered into their most intense time of preparation. The 40 days of Lent was a time of penance for them as well as study.

    So Christians would offer penance for the catechumens both to walk by their side, and also to add to the grace of the time of preparation for them.

    Offering a Lenten sacrifice for the sake of others is a great Lenten practice. You may offer your sacrifice for those preparing to enter the Church, or you may offer it for a loved one that needs extra grace.

    So don’t limit your vision of the Lenten Fast. Instead, decide the purpose for your fast and approach your Lent from there. Then embrace God’s love through your Lenten observance.

    Reflection Questions

    1. Which purpose for the Lenten fast best fits your spiritual life right now?
    2. What sacrifice fits the purpose of your fast the best? Note: it’s not too late to change your sacrifice if you need to tune in to its purpose!
    3. How can embracing the purpose of your fast change the way you perceive this time of Lent?

    Quotations taken from A Rosary for Lent by Miriam Coles Harris. This book is in the public domain.

    Also published on Medium.

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