Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
A reader writes:
I write to you not for advice, but for insight. After much consideration and some (perhaps not enough) prayer, I’ve decided to resign my current job and take up a new one I’ve been offered. While I believe it is the right thing to do now, (quote from wife: “This family needs a happy Daddy.”) I found myself having some concern and compassion for my current co-workers who will have some (perhaps not a lot) of trouble and extra work while they look to replace me. In praying for them I had the idea that I should do a short fast for their benefit. Somehow it seemed just that if my action was causing them some upset, I should also experience some deprivation.
I believe my sentiment is in line with Christian teaching, but I don’t really understand why. Does my fasting really do my co-workers any good? How is that so? In a pre-rational way I believe it does help, but I don’t have a handle on the reasons that might be. Can you help me out?
One of the things that being a fat guy with a host of difficulties having to do with gluttony has taught me is that thinking about fasting and actually doing it are two different things. When you are trying to figure out a way to avoid fasting (as is my custom, mea culpa) one of the things you do is spend a fair amount of time thinking about it, much the way a swimmer stands at the edge of the lake thinking about diving into the cold water rather than actually doing it. That way, when a reader like you comes along and asks about fasting, its meaning and its purpose, you can give a theologically interesting reply that may well fool people into thinking that you are a great saint who actually practices what he preaches.
Hey! It beats fasting!
Seriously though, I agree with you completely that your idea is well in line with Christian teaching, but I also have only the most intuitional notion why that might be. The Catechism is maddeningly allusive (and elusive) here. It tells us things like “The fourth precept (‘You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church’) ensures the times of ascesis and penance which prepare us for the liturgical feasts and help us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart” and “The interior penance of the Christian can be expressed in many and various ways. Scripture and the Fathers insist above all on three forms, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, which express conversion in relation to oneself, to God, and to others. Alongside the radical purification brought about by Baptism or martyrdom they cite as means of obtaining forgiveness of sins: effort at reconciliation with one’s neighbor, tears of repentance, concern for the salvation of one’s neighbor, the intercession of the saints, and the practice of charity ‘which covers a multitude of sins’.”
And, of course, the Sermon on the Mount sees (along with Judaism and Islam) the principal acts of piety to be prayer, almsgiving and fasting. Fasting is understood to have a penitential dimension aimed at mastery of the self, to be sure. But (as you intuit) there is also a dimension of fasting that is ordered toward, in some mysterious way, coming alongside others in their suffering. Certainly, this is what Jesus is doing in his temptation in the wilderness as he identifies himself with us in our sufferings and bears the yoke of hunger and thirst for our sake. In the same way, we can apparently come alongside him as he come alongside others and offer our sacrificial fasting for the good of others in union with him. So yeah, your fasting does your co-workers good, just as other things you do on their behalf do them good as well. That’s what Paul is getting at when he tells the Colossians that he fills up in his flesh what is lacking with respect to Christ’s sufferings for the sake of his body, the Church (Colossians 1:24).
This is something very mysterious to me as to most moderns. I think that down deep many of us look at fasting and other mortifications as, well, a little self-abusive—sort of like Dobby the House Elf in Harry Potter ironing his hands to atone for speaking ill of his Master, Lucius Malfoy. But that’s 180 degrees opposite the spirit of Christ’s mortifications. It is directly after hearing “You are my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased” that Jesus goes into the desert to fast for forty days. His fast and mortification is undertaken, not in a spirit of self-loathing, but in the serene confidence of his identity as the Beloved Son of the Father. He knows where he comes from and where he is going. Our fasting needs to be done in the same spirit. We offer our bodies a living sacrifice, says St. Paul, in the assurance that they are holy and pleasing to God. That is why it is our “spiritual worship” (Rom 12). Our fasting is done, not because we are not loved and must earn approval, but because we are loved and must therefore master our unruly passions as He did and make offering in union with Him for the good of his Church. How all that works I do not know. How my fast can benefit, strengthen, open the doors of healing, and call down grace upon somebody a thousand miles away from me is a mystery I don’t grasp in the least. But the Church, following Jesus has always recommended it. And that’s good enough for me.