Elizabeth Anderson is a stay-at-home mother and independent writer. A graduate of Christendom College, she also worked for several years at Population Research Institute. She resides in Michigan with her husband, Matthew, and their four small children.
Ash Wednesday is gone, but Good Friday looms dark ahead, when all able-bodied Catholic adults must fast. My own experience with fasting has (as I'll tell you shortly) been rather a train wreck. However, recently I learned that while fasting will always be sacrificial, it can be done without wretchedness, and I am now convinced that it can actually boost one's morale in a crucial way.
On my first fasting Ash Wednesday I called my brother from my Christendom College dorm phone booth, crying. Friends were borrowing my clothes and not returning them! I was so frustrated, and just couldn't handle it anymore. God bless my dear brother, who patiently listened to my absurd tears, and gently told me “Well, Elizabeth, this is Ash Wednesday, and you aren't used to fasting... maybe just go to bed and reconsider things in the morning.” I thought, “No way am I this upset just because I am fasting! That is ridiculous! I am dealing with a serious issue of justice, darn it!” Still, I followed his advice and went to bed. The next morning, I couldn't care less about how many friends borrowed my clothes and didn't return them. Ah, how good the world is when one can eat.
I scraped by and survived a few more rounds of fasting after that first Ash Wednesday. Then I married, and much of my married life thus far I have been excused from fasting, being either pregnant or nursing. When I realized several months ago that “I’m not pregnant or nursing! I will have to fast this year!” — I'm not exaggerating when I say that my spirit quailed. You see, I have had very little practice, and none that went well.
Frankly, penitential fasting carries a huge intimidation factor. It is rather like the Crucible used by the Marines. In the Crucible, Marine recruits endure a 54 hour ordeal during which they face grueling challenges and perform difficult tasks as members of a team. And they must do all these things with barely any sleep, and without much food either. Only after completing this ultimate test of their training will those recruits earn the title Marine. We Catholics must train, as soldiers do, under tough conditions. The comparison makes even more sense when one reflects that confirmed Catholics are indeed soldiers for Christ. As creatures composed of body and soul, we need both spiritual and physical training in order to become soldiers for Christ. Hence, the age-old practice in the Catholic Church of regular fasting, which Eric Sammons explains nicely in his article, “To Love Fasting.” We need to curb selfishness through self-denial in order to get to heaven. And one of the most effective methods of self-denial is, of course, fasting.
In order to illustrate my point, and to build on the military comparison, let me tell you another true story, this time from the book, Unbroken. When the plane Green Hornet crashed into the Pacific Ocean in May 1943, three of its 11 men survived: Louie Zamperini, his friend Phil, and a man known as Mac. They fought sharks, collected rain water, caught birds and fish, braved enemy gunfire, and then fought off more sharks while also patching bullet holes in the inflatable raft. While all three faced similar odds, only two of the men survived.
Louie and Phil were picked up by Japanese on their 47th day adrift, but by then Mac had already died. The poor man panicked during their first night on the ocean, ate all of their survival chocolate, and began mentally deteriorating almost immediately. Not that he went mad; he simply seemed to give up hope right from the start. While Phil and Louie hardened their wills to survive, Mac withdrew into himself and began slowly dying. Once, he rallied and redeemed his honor by fighting off sharks that surely would have killed the other two men had he not clobbered them with an oar. After that, though, he continued sinking into his final slumber.
Laura Hillenbrand, author of Unbroken, reflects on the difference between Mac’s outlook and that shared by the other two men. The most striking point she makes is twofold: first, Louie and Phil had already faced battle and performed rather well. Second, because of what they had already been through together, they trusted one another:
Perhaps the men's histories had given them opposing convictions about their capacity to overcome adversity. Phil and Louie had survived Funafuti and performed uncommonly well over Nauru, and each trusted the other. ‘If there was one thing left, he’d a given it to me,’ Phil once said of Louie. Mac had never seen combat, didn't know these officers, and was largely an unknown quantity to himself. All he knew about his ability to cope with this crisis was that on the first night, he had panicked and eaten the only food they had. As time passed and starvation loomed, this act took on greater and greater importance, and it may have fed Mac’s sense of futility.
Louie remembered Mac before the plane crash as being rather cocky, or overconfident. But Mac had never been tried in battle. I, crying on the phone to my brother on my first fasting Ash Wednesday — I was like Mac. A soldier untried in this kind of stress, unpracticed in trusting God while feeling very weak, and foolishly unsure that I could survive.
Thankfully, God sent me a gift in this article, “To Fast Well, Understand Hunger” by Suzan Sammons, in which she claims that it is possible to fast without being a miserable, weepy, mess. I read the article and flatly did not believe it. However, I realized that the only way for me to prove her wrong was to follow her advice, use her tips and try it. So the next day, I went without breakfast or lunch, and to my absolute astonishment, she was right! I had fasted without being a miserable, weepy, mess. I was utterly floored, and then exhilarated to nerd-level-high. I reread her article, and obtained from the library the book she references, by Dr. Jason Fung, who successfully treated Type 2 diabetes and obesity with fasting methods. I also learned why eating in between meals is the devil (my words, not Dr. Fung’s). After I read the book, I continued to practice intermittent fasting so that, when Ash Wednesday rolled around, I didn't cry, folks, nor go to bed absurdly early. Practice makes perfect, or at least it makes progress.
On a natural level, penitential fasting is like facing enemy fire at Funafuti, or Nauru, so that we can survive the 47 days adrift. Or, it is like the Crucible, in which Marines must endure and perform without food or sufficient sleep, so that they will have the physical and mental toughness to face the demands of war. While fasting is voluntary and non-life threatening, it can in the same way increase the strength of body and will to survive future crises. Additionally, it teaches us to rely on God, similar to the way that Phil and Louie learned to rely on one another.