Practice fasting

According to the order given by the angel Raphael, we will now briefly speak on fasting. Omitting many of the theological questions, we will confine ourselves only to our subject. Our intention is to explain the art of living well, because this will prepare us for dying well. For this art, three things seem sufficient, of which we have spoken before on prayer: its necessity, its fruit, and the proper method.

The necessity of fasting is twofold, derived from divine law and human law. Of the divine, the prophet Joel speaks: “Be converted to me with your whole heart, in fasting, and in weeping, and in mourning.” The same language is used by the prophet Jonah, who testifies that the Ninevites, in order to appease the anger of God, proclaimed a fast in sackcloth. And yet, there was not any positive law on fasting then. The same may be learned from the words of our Lord in St. Matthew’s Gospel: “But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thy head and wash thy face, that thou appear not to men to fast, but to thy Father, who is in secret; and thy Father, who seeth in secret, will repay thee.”

We will add the words of one or two of the Fathers. St. Augustine thus speaks in his letter to Casulanus: “In the Gospels and epistles, and in the whole of the New Testament, I see fasting is a precept. But on certain days we are not commanded to fast; and the particular days on which we must [fast] are not defined by our Lord or the apostles.” St. Leo also says in his sermon on fasting: “Those which were figures of future things have passed away, what they signified being accomplished. But the utility of fasting is not done away with in the New Testament; but it is piously observed that fasting is always profitable both to the soul and body. And because the words ‘Thou shalt adore the Lord thy God, and serve Him alone’ .. .were given for the knowledge of Christians, so in the same Scripture, the precept concerning fasting cannot be interpreted away.” St. Leo does not mean to say here that Christians must fast at the same times the Jews were accustomed to fast. But the precept of fasting given to the Jews is to be observed by Christians according to the determination of the pastors of the Church, as to time and manner.

The fruits and advantages of fasting can easily be proved. First, fasting is most useful in preparing the soul for prayer, and the contemplation of divine things, as the angel Raphael says: “Prayer is good with fasting.” Thus for forty days, Moses prepared his soul by fasting before he presumed to speak with God. Elijah fasted forty days, so that thus he might be able, as far as human nature would permit, to hold converse with God. And Daniel, by a fast of three weeks, was prepared for receiving the revelations of God.

And so the Church has appointed fasts on the vigils of great feasts, so that Christians might be more fit for celebrating the divine solemnities. The holy Fathers also speak often of the utility of fasting. I cannot forbear quoting the words of St. John Chrysostom: “Fasting is the support of our soul: it gives us wings to ascend on high, and to enjoy the highest contemplation.”

Another advantage of fasting is that it tames the flesh; and such a fast must be particularly pleasing to God, because He is pleased when we crucify the flesh with its vices and concupiscences, as St. Paul teaches us in his letter to the Galatians; and for this reason, he himself says, “But I chastise my body, and bring it into subjection, lest perhaps, when I have preached to others, I myself should become a castaway.” St. John Chrysostom expounds these words of fasting, as do Theophylact and St. Ambrose. And of the advantages of fasting in this respect, St. Cyprian, St. Basil, St. Jerome, and St. Augustine, along with the whole Church in the office for Prime, sing, “Moderation in food and drink tames the pride of the flesh.”


This article is adapted from a chapter in The Art of Dying Well by St. Robert Bellarmine which is available from Sophia Institute Press.

Art for this post: Cover and featured image used with permission.

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