Monday, February 23, 2009

The Value of Fasting

(Note: As we approach the season of Lent, let us reflect on the deeper meaning and value of fasting in our spiritual life as what Pope Benedict XVI has wonderfully explained in his 2009 Lenten message.)

Regaining an appreciation for fasting: the Pope's Lenten Message

In his Lenten Message for 2009, Pope Benedict XVI concentrates on the spiritual value of fasting.

The penitential season of Lent begins his year with Ash Wednesday on February 25. The Pope's Lenten Message was made public by the Vatican on February 3. The full text of the Pope's message is available on the Vatican website .

Noting that Lenten discipline is "an itinerary of more intense spiritual training" traditionally based upon prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, the Holy Father dedicates this year's message to fasting, remarking that the practice "seems to have lost something of its spiritual meaning" in our time.

Both the Bible (Old and New Testaments) and the unbroken tradition of Christian living testify that fasting is "a great help to avoid sin and all that leads to it," the Pope says. He calls attention to the great Christian teachers like St. Augustine who saw fasting as a means of restoring spiritual balance to a soul stained by sin. "Since all of us are weighed down by sin and its consequences," the Pope explains, "fasting is proposed to us as an instrument to restore friendship with God."

The idea of fasting-- voluntarily giving up something that is recognized as good and wholesome-- can be traced to the very beginning of the Bible, the Pope observed. In the Garden of Eden, God instructs Adam and Eve to abstain from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Thus, the Pope relates, St. Basil made the observation that "fasting was ordained in Paradise." Jesus fasted in the desert, the Pope continues, and at the conclusion of his fast, when he is tempted by Satan, he points to a deeper meaning of fasting when he says that "man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God." Pope Benedict concludes: "The true fast is thus directed to eating the 'true food,' which is to do the Father's will." Oddly, the Pope says in modern times fasting has become associated with doing one's own will, and serving one's own needs, insofar as fasting and dieting are used to achieve greater physical and mental well-being. Without denying the physical benefits of abstinence, the Pope insists that Christian fasting has an entirely different purpose.

One very important spiritual benefit of fasting, the Pope says, is that it can "open our eyes to the situation in which so many of our brothers and sisters live." Those who fast gain a greater appreciation for those who live constantly in hunger, he says. "By freely embracing an act of self-denial for the sake of another, we make a statement that our brother or sister in need is not a stranger." That statement should lead directly to action to feed the hungry, he says.

As he concludes his Lenten Message, the Pope reminds the faithful that along with fasting, their spiritual discipline during the penitential season should also include "a greater commitment to prayer, lectio divina, recourse to the Sacrament of Reconciliation and active participation in the Eucharist, especially the Holy Sunday Mass."

At a press conference held in Rome to introduce the Pope's Lenten message, chaired by Cardinal Paul Josef Cordes, the main focus was on the connection between fasting and almsgiving-- specifically, feeding the hungry. The cardinal introduced Josette Sheeran, the executive director of the UN's World Food Program (WFP), to comment on the enduring problem of hunger. Sheeran reported that one of every six living humans suffers from hunger. "But this is not a problem of food availability," she said. "It is a problem of distribution--and of greed, discrimination, wars, and other tragedies."

Existing food supplies are adequate to provide for everyone on earth, the WFP director said. "We have the tools and technology to make this happen, and we have seen it happen in many places around the world." She pointed to examples of humanitarian aid in Darfur and Senegal, where relief agencies have prevented starvation at minimal cost.

Cardinal Cordes, the president of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum-- the official papal charity-- said that humanitarian aid is a genuine charitable work when it does not "sink to the level of an ideology or a purely mental exercise" but consists in practical steps to help those in need. The cardinal acknowledged that other religions, particularly Buddhism and Islam, practice fasting. However, he said, "fasting in these religions cannot simply be identified with Christian fasts," because the teachings of Buddhism and Islam deny that worldly things are inherently good. For Christians, he said, fasting is powerful precisely because the faithful acknowledge that good is good, yet forego it for a greater good. Thus "fasting in this Lent has no negative connotations," he said. "Depriving oneself and denying oneself are positive acts: they aim at the encounter with Christ."

Source: (, 02/03/09)

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