Fasting for Body and Soul

I long to take just one little bite as I watch the melted cheese slowly ooze out of the golden, toasted bread.  My children wait with eager anticipation for my famous grilled cheese sandwiches.  The clock reads 12:30, and today is Friday.  On my periodic fast days, I make it a priority to not eat between the hours of 12:00 and 3:00 pm in honor of the time that Our Lord hung on the cross.   My hunger pangs focus my attention on His ultimate sacrifice for my salvation.  I silently pray a decade of the Rosary and offer up my temporary suffering.  Turning my attention back to the stove, I realize that preparing food for my family when I cannot eat focuses my attention on the humility and service of motherhood. 

As a busy mom, I often joke that my day revolves around food.  A preoccupation with food can easily take over our lives.  We are inundated with advertisements for food, lists of “good” and “bad” foods and wildly differing advice regarding the best methods to prepare it.  There are even several cable channels devoted to food!  

Fasting frees us from the persistent distraction of food and shifts our attention to sacrifice and self-denial.  The roots of fasting can be found  in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve were asked to forego the fruit of a certain tree.  The practice continues today during the season of Lent, which recalls the 40 days that Jesus fasted in the desert before beginning His public ministry.

Fasting is truly beneficial for both body and soul.  Regular fasts can increase longevity and reduce the risk of various diseases, including heart disease.  Yet penitential fasting does not focus on the self.  Instead, the self-denial of fasting leads to a desire to make amends for our sinful nature.  During a fast, we physically demonstrate contrition by denying ourselves the basic need for food.  This practice of humility and obedience shifts our attention from self to God and prompts a desire to pray.  Conversely, fervent prayer gives us the strength to continue our fast.  Our physical hunger should create a spiritual hunger and serve as a constant reminder to pray.  Without prayer, fasting is spiritually empty and has no “soul.”  Our prayers during a time of fasting are especially pleasing to God.

The hunger experienced during a fast unites us with those who are truly hungry.  We should give thanks to God for the blessings of the abundant food He has provided.  We should also be motivated to feed the hungry by donating food or money to the poor when we fast.  Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the triad of true penance and should be the focus of our Lenten observance.

The season of Lent begins and ends with a day of fasting.  Canon Law requires fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and applies to all Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59.  Food intake is limited to one full meal a day.  Two additional meals are permitted if their combined amount does not exceed the main meal.  The fast is broken by eating between meals and by drinks which could be considered food (milk shakes, but not milk).  Alcoholic beverages do not break the fast but hardly reflect the spirit of doing penance!

The Church excuses from fasting those outside the age limits, the mentally ill, the sick, frail, pregnant or nursing women and manual laborers (according to need).  Catholics who cannot fast are encouraged to perform some form of penance in lieu of fasting such as giving up TV, internet or another favorite pastime.

These requirements are not stringent and outline a minimum obligation for Lenten fasting.  Catholics are encouraged to fast more frequently during Lent as well as throughout the year.  If you’re not accustomed to fasting regularly or if you wish to fast more than two days, seek the advice of your doctor.  It is also advisable to request spiritual direction from your confessor or another priest.

While the sacrifice of fasting compels a feeling of hunger, it is counterproductive to go so long without food that you become grouchy and irritable.  St Thomas Aquinas advises, “[Eat] as much as is necessary for sufficient strength to perform those things that one’s state requires, or that are required for living with others.”  In this spirit, it’s important to plan the main meal to fuel your period of greatest activity.  If you must be mentally sharp and alert for an important morning meeting, then your main meal should be breakfast.  The same principle applies to lunch if your primary work occurs in the afternoon.  Those who can’t sleep well on an empty stomach might plan the main meal a few hours before bedtime.  Do remember that the two required days of fasting are also days of abstinence, so no meat may be eaten.

The two smaller, optional meals can be consumed, if needed, throughout the day.  These mini-meals should be nutritionally dense and include protein, carbohydrates and some fat.  A few examples are a banana or apple with peanut butter, a small serving of beans and rice (or cornbread), tuna salad on half a bagel, cheese and crackers, or a fruit and yogurt smoothie.

Another alternative is to eat an energy bar or meal-replacement shake.  Remember that a glass of milk will not break your fast and may be a good option before bed if you’re really hungry.  Ensure that you stay hydrated on fasting days by drinking plenty of water.

Some Catholics prefer a simple bread and water fast.  Ezekiel Fasting Bread, based on the ingredients in Ezekiel 4:9, is popular and can be found in some health food stores.  There are a variety of recipes online, but most require a grain mill or specialty flours.  My favorite  recipe for a nutritious and hearty fasting bread can be found below.

Interestingly, the traditional Lenten fasting bread is the pretzel.  The design of a pretzel represents arms crossed over the chest in prayer.  Making pretzels during Lent could become a fun family tradition!

This Lent, resolve to make fasting a priority.  As Pope Benedict XVI recommended, “Through fasting and praying, we allow [Jesus] to come and satisfy the deepest hunger that we experience in the depths of our being:  the hunger and thirst for God.” 

Fasting Brown Bread

3 tablespoons butter or margarine, melted
¾ cup firmly packed brown sugar
2 cups low-fat buttermilk
3 tablespoons molasses
2 ¼ cups whole wheat flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
¼ cup whole flax seeds
1 cup chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  In a large bowl, whisk melted butter, brown sugar, buttermilk and molasses.  Add flours, baking soda and salt, mixing until just combined.  Stir in flax seeds and walnuts. 

Spoon batter into a 9” x 5” bread pan, coated with cooking spray.  Bake 50-60 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.  Cool in pan 10 minutes, then invert on a wire rack.  Cut into 10 slices.

For fasting, a slice can serve as one of your smaller meals.  You can also serve it with soup as a main meal on a fasting day.

Makes 10 servings

Nutional information, per serving: Calories 370, fat 14g, Sodium 546mg, Carbohydrates 55g, Fiber 6g, Sugars 6g, Protein 9g

(© 2011 Peggy Bowes)

Peggy Bowes, a devout Catholic, is the author of The Rosary Workout – available through amazon.com. She graduated from the US Air Force Academy in 1988 and served nine years as an Air Force pilot and Health and Wellness consultant. After leaving the military to raise a family, Peggy continued her education in the fitness industry by becoming certified as a personal trainer, Lifestyle and Weight Management Consultant and Spinning® instructor. She established a successful and rewarding business in metabolic and athletic performance (VO2) testing, with an emphasis on weight loss counseling.  Peggy is also very active in parish life.  She has been a lector, CCD teacher, and Little Flowers Girls' Club leader.  She also enjoys triathlons, hiking, adventure races, and other sports as she incorporates all the benefits and blessings of The Rosary Workout.  Peggy and her husband and two children currently reside in North Carolina.

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