Doctors of the Church: Fasting Can Help Faithful Hold Fast to God’s Love

St. Thomas and St. Francis de Sales offer sage advice for fasting this Lent.

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In Pope Francis’ 2019 Lenten message, the Holy Father notes that Lent “invites Christians to embody the paschal mystery more deeply and concretely in their personal, family and social lives, above all by fasting, prayer and almsgiving.”

While each of these three means of conversion — the three pillars of Lent — has its benefits, Pope Francis sees fasting as taking most direct aim at today’s consumerist culture by helping to control the bodily appetites — even as it helps the faithful to more fully embrace God’s will in their lives.

“Fasting,” Pope Francis said in his Lenten message, means “learning to change our attitude towards others and all of creation, turning away from the temptation to ‘devour’ everything to satisfy our voracity and being ready to suffer for love, which can fill the emptiness of our hearts.”

Underlying the twin goals of fasting mentioned by Pope Francis, the teachings of two doctors of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) and St. Francis de Sales (1567-1622), provide some food for thought on fasting to the faithful as they respond to their Lenten invitation.


Fasting in Action

Since 1992, Catholic pro-life activist Will Goodman has been fighting the battle against abortion — one of the worst manifestations of the consumerist culture that Pope Francis speaks about in his Lenten message. In 2017 Goodman joined Red Rose Rescue, a Catholic pro-life group that seeks to rescue women and unborn children from abortion by visiting them in abortion-facility waiting rooms.

These days, Goodman has been working in New York City to help counter the dire results of the Reproductive Health Act, the most permissive abortion law in the country, passed in January by the New York Legislature. Goodman told the Register that he’s been actively promoting prayer and fasting in the pro-life movement, “particularly in response to the evil of late-term murder in the womb, especially here in New York.”

“Fasting can be a valuable part of this work,” Goodman said, “because ‘some demons cannot be cast out but by prayer and fasting’ (Matthew 17:21). The analogy is direct enough because what provoked this remark in St. Matthew’s Gospel was a demon attacking a boy, throwing him into fire and water, which is comparable to assaults on children in abortion mills, since there, too, demons attack and seek to destroy the young.”

The teachings of St. Thomas and St. Francis de Sales, Goodman said, have helped him better approach his lifesaving work through fasting.

“St. Thomas, for example, teaches, among other things, that in strengthening the soul, fasting helps better dispose us to grace,” he said. “Ever comprehensive, Thomas also provides the structure, order and practical limits of fasting, which I’ve sought to incorporate into my own feeble efforts.”

Likewise, Goodman said, “St. Francis de Sales notes that the highest motivation to fast is ‘for love of God.’ Since that’s true, or at least should be an aspiration, it would mean that fasting is a type of prayer of the body.”


St. Thomas Aquinas

As Goodman noted, St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that fasting is an important element in spiritual progress.

“For we fast for three purposes,” he states in his epic work of Catholic theology, the Summa Theologica. “1) to restrain the desires of the flesh; 2) to raise the mind to contemplate sublime things; 3) to make satisfaction for our sins. These are good and noble things, and so fasting is virtuous.”

Sister Gabriella Yi is a member of the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation in Nashville and an assistant professor of theology at the Dominican Sisters’ Aquinas College, also in Nashville. She told the Register that St. Thomas’ teaching on fasting has helped form — and inform — the Church’s teaching on fasting.

“In an age of instant gratification, St. Thomas’ words have more relevance than ever,” she said. “We can’t let our vision of happiness be reduced to advertisers’ claims that happiness can be found in a bag of chips or chocolate. … As Pope Benedict says, ‘The world offers you comfort, but you weren’t made for comfort. You were made for greatness.’ As we enter this time of Lent, we have an opportunity to reclaim this call to greatness that extends beyond the confines of space and time to union with God in love.”

According to Thomas, Sister Gabriella said, such a desire for union with God is found through the cultivation of the virtues, including temperance.

“What I find most compelling about St. Thomas’ take on temperance, of which fasting is a part, is its emphasis on beauty,” she said. “He says that while all the virtues make us beautiful, temperance does so in particular for two reasons: 1) because of the proportion that temperance enables us to maintain; and 2) because of the degradation that temperance enables us to avoid (II-II, 141, 2, ad 3). Just as the desire for happiness is universal, so, too, is the desire for beauty.”

As a Dominican, fasting is a regular part of Sister Gabriella’s life and the life of her community in Nashville.

“So in union with our Dominican family, as well as with the universal Church, we observe days of fasting and abstinence throughout the year,” she said. “Our communal practice of fasting, however, is never extreme; it is balanced, as is Dominican spirituality. As St. Francis de Sales says, ‘There is more virtue in eating whatever is offered you just as it comes, whether you like it or not, than in always choosing what is worst; for although the latter course may seem more ascetic, the former involves greater submission of will, because by it you give up not merely your taste, but your choice” (Introduction to the Devout Life, III, 23).


St. Francis de Sales

Renowned for his writings on spiritual direction, St. Francis de Sales wrote Introduction to the Devout Life as a way for those living in the world to embark more fruitfully on the path to holiness. In this work, he sought to communicate the important role of fasting, noting in particular that there must be a proper order to the motives for fasting: a desire to please God, to be obedient to the Church, to achieve sobriety, to become more diligent in one’s work, and to save money by consuming less.

While all three motives are good reasons to fast, someone who intends, for example, to use fasting primarily as a spiritual coupon of sorts — that is, a good way to save a little money at the grocery store — while demoting or dismissing any desire to please God while fasting, St. Francis de Sales concludes, is “deserving of blame.”

A member of the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales, the John Cardinal Foley Chair of Homiletics and Social Communications and professor of theology at St. Charles Seminary in Philadelphia, Father Thomas Dailey is the author of several books about St. Francis de Sales, including Live Today Well: St. Francis de Sales’s Simple Approach to Holiness. The priest notes that Introduction to the Devout Life offers the laity this Lent an accessible guide to fasting.

“In the Introduction to the Devout Life, St. Francis de Sales ‘introduces’ people to a life of holiness that can be lived according to their own state in life; that is, holiness for people in the world — rather than people in a monastery,” Father Dailey told the Register.

St. Francis emphasizes two points in the practice of fasting, Father Dailey said.

“On the one hand, fasting must be in accord with a person’s state in life,” he said. “That is why children (not yet in a state of decision-making) are not required to fast, nor are the elderly (whose state may be precarious from the point of view of their health),” he said. “On the other hand, fasting and other spiritual disciplines tend to be ‘exterior’ disciplines, but holiness comes about in a more decided fashion when it is ‘interior.’ In this respect, fasting can be of benefit in renouncing our taste, our likes and disciplining our bodily appetites, but renouncing our choice and correcting our hearts is more important.”

Father Dailey also said that no matter what state of life, those who wish to fast in the proper way must do so with humility.

“So, too, the saint says, fasting will have its maximum effect only when it is done through humility and not vanity,” he said. “That is, when it’s not a matter of my self-will, not to fast as I wish or in a manner that is pleasing to me, but, instead, in obedience to God and in the way desirous of pleasing God alone.”

Register correspondent Joseph O’Brien writes from Wisconsin.