Lent is a good time to discuss a neglected weapon in our spiritual arsenal: fasting. I want to explain how fasting as a spiritual discipline helps us manage our passions and direct our wills, making it a valuable practice for maintaining recovery and growing in holiness.
For many Catholics, fasting is an afterthought. Every Lent, we are encouraged to fast and perhaps do so, grudgingly, on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. As Christians and members of recovery, though, we can benefit greatly from fasting more than just two days a year.
Saints speak of fasting as a powerful form of submission to God. Jesus fasted as a spiritual practice, most notably when he abstained from food and water for 40 days and nights in the desert. Therefore, the Saints, Jesus, and the Church all reveal the importance of fasting. In truth, it is this type of asceticism that can help us grow in holiness and prevent us from relapsing in our recovery.
Fasting is not just for monks, nuns, and priests but for lay people, too. It is a form of self-denial that can help us withstand temptation. In addition to the grace of God through the sacraments, this type of self-denial played a part in helping me overcome my addiction to pornography. Fasting was a part of the Exodus 90 program that I did early on in my reboot. I learned through fasting that the passions of our flesh are not necessarily wrong but, if left unchecked, can lead to soul-destroying addictions of all kinds.
Pope Paul VI explains the value of fasting and other forms of self-denial, or mortification, in his apostolic constitution titled Paenitemini:
“This exercise of bodily mortification—far removed from any form of stoicism—does not imply a condemnation of the flesh which sons of God deign to assume. On the contrary, mortification aims at the ‘liberation’ of man, who often finds himself, because of concupiscence, almost chained by his senses. Through ‘corporal fasting,’ man regains strength and the ‘wound inflicted on the dignity of our nature by intemperance is cured by the medicine of a salutary abstinence.’”
Throughout my recovery journey, I have realized that we should never be satisfied with the bare minimum. We should seek to pursue a more profound conversion to the Lord all the time. Fasting is a great way to do this, as Saint Francis de Sales explains:
“If you are able to fast, you will do well to observe some days beyond what are ordered by the Church, for, besides the ordinary effect of fasting in raising the mind, subduing the flesh, confirming goodness, and obtaining a heavenly reward, it is also a great matter to be able to control greediness, and to keep the sensual appetites and the whole body subject to the law of the Spirit; and although we may be able to do but little, the enemy nevertheless stands more in awe of those whom he knows can fast.”
Two years ago, a friend of mine from a Catholic men’s group recommended Jay Richard’s book Eat, Fast, Feast: Heal Your Body While Feeding Your Soul―A Christian Guide to Fasting. The book blends science and religion in a thoughtful overview of intermittent fasting, which can offer a means of spiritual awakening. If you’re interested in looking into the religious and health-related benefits of fasting, then I would suggest checking out this book as well.
If you do not know where to begin when it comes to fasting, I suggest simply not snacking in between meals as a good place to start. It sounds easy but you’ll find it can be quite hard since most of us snack more frequently than we realize. Another idea is to deny yourself dessert on specific days of the week.
I fast by eating one main meal and two small snacks (usually bread and water) one day a week. While food might be the most popular good to fast from, we can also fast from other things we enjoy, such as our phones, computers, streaming services, sports, hot showers, and so on.
As Catholics in recovery, we are all familiar with sin. That’s why I want to offer another, critical type of fasting: a fast from sin. St. Basil gives the following exhortation on this type of “true” fasting:
“Let us fast an acceptable and very pleasing fast to the Lord. True fast is the estrangement from evil, temperance of tongue, abstinence from anger, separation from desires, slander, falsehood, and perjury. Privation of these is true fasting.”
Prayer is essential in all of this since it offers us the grace to conquer our passions, maintain our recovery, and grow in holiness. Fasting energizes our prayer life, and prayers energize our fasting. Finally, fasting can aid our ascent toward sainthood and better loving God and others. Ultimately, the goal of fasting is not to merely give up something we want to do but to let our self-denial increase our capacity to love others in the midst of our suffering.
So, as fellow Christians and members of recovery, let us incorporate fasting into our spiritual lives to help resist temptation and sin and grow in virtue, holiness, and love.
Aaron Walter is a lifelong Catholic and former porn addict whose ministry, NewMenRising, is dedicated to pornography addiction recovery. He is a coach, mentor, and accountability partner and is passionate about helping husbands kick their addiction and transform their lives and relationships. You can connect with him at calendly.com/aaronwaltercoachingsessions.