Cloistered Dominican Nuns Corpus Christi Monastery

The Jesus Bite: Food and Fasting in the Church (Part 3/3)

This is Part 3 in this series.  Click here for Part 1 and Part 2.

Soup Bowl P1070732

We left off in our discussion of fasting with the statement that through fasting we must dispose ourselves to allowing our neighbors to share our property out of love.  How does the practice of fasting help us to do this?

The first effect of fasting is the feeling of hunger – a feeling that so many people live with every day.  Where most of us reading this can easily access enough food to ease our hunger pains if we wanted to (or even stuff ourselves), they dream of going to bed without the gnawing in their stomach.  Fasting unites us more closely to the experience of the poor.

Through our sharing of the experience of this poverty, we are then called to share our resources we saved with our fasting with the poor.  Pope St. Leo the Great said:

Fasts are always efficacious, provided only they go hand in hand with benevolent charity and are prudently turned into works of mercy.  Without alms, in fact, fasting is not so much a purification of the soul as an affliction of the flesh.  But to abstain from food in order to restrict mercy is greedy avarice rather than temperance.
And as early as 200 A.D., there was a custom in the Church, as described by Aristides of Athens:
If the brethren have among them a man in need, and they have not abundant resources, they fast for a day or two, so as to provide the needy man with the necessary food.

Hermas gives this advice:

On the day when you fast, take only bread and wine.  Calculate the amount of food you would have taken on other days; put aside the money you would have spent on it and give it to the widow, the orphan or the poor.

And in Alexandria, Origen said:

Let the poor man be provided with food from the self-denial of him who fasts.

It has been estimated, that in Rome under Pope Cornelius, ten thousand Christians obliged to fast could provide, from 100 days’ fasting, a million rations per year.  Imagine the provisions we could provide to the poor through a simpler life and fasting even one day a week (early Christians routinely fasted Wednesdays and Fridays).

Countless saints have given us example of this self-sacrificing mercy, made possible through their fasting and charity.  One such saint was St. Camillus, a contemporary of St. Philip Neri.  He was once a wandering soldier-for-hire with a fierce temper, thirst for adventures, and a gambling addiction.  His character and gambling eventually reduced him to destitution.  He lost almost everything through wagers gambling.  Eventually, by God’s grace, he overcame his anger, wanderlust, and gambling, and began charitable work aimed at the destitute and dying.  It is because of him that the standard of nursing care was raised to the levels we now enjoy – he felt everyone deserved to be cared for with love, especially if sick or dying.  And he would routinely give clothes and other needs to the poor.  One day, some fellows received clothing from him and promptly sold it or gambled it away, leveling them once again in their rags.  Ashamed, the started to flee, but Camillus chased them down, brought them back and clothed them once more.  Camillus’ companions felt they got what they deserved and should be left in their rags.  But Camillus simply responded that he had been in their shoes before and but for God’s grace, he would be there still.

St. Camillus

Fasting, coupled with prayer and almsgiving reminds us of this fact – without God, we have nothing.  What we have – whether talents, education, spiritual graces or material goods – are all gifts from God, not to be possessed, but entrusted to us to be managed and distributed to those in need.  Again, Jesus shows us this most clearly in how He lived His life.  He spared nothing for those in need.  He was constantly moving and seeking out lost sheep.  He shared His gifts and talents with the sick and needy, healing them, teaching them and forgiving their sins.  He sacrificed His reputation by eating with sinners and tax collectors.  He gave up His life in obedience to God the Father so that we might be saved.  He spared nothing and in the end received everything.  We are called to do no less.
Finally, let us be encouraged and challenged by Pope St. Leo the Great once more:

Let all reckon up their fortunes, and let those who have received more give more.  So let the abstinence of the faithful become the nourishment of the poor.

How can your family embrace this?  During Lent, many people participate in Rice Bowl, saving their spare change for the poor and needy.  Others take their children to shelters and food pantries to serve the poor.  Why not prepare meals for someone who is sick or housebound?  Perhaps a young mother who just gave birth to a child or a family who experienced a death in the family.  Are there other needs in your area or dear to your family’s heart?  Spending just a couple hours a week in an act of charitable kindness, donating the money you would have spent on a day’s worth of better or larger quantity of food, teaches important lessons to ourselves and our children, brings us together as a stronger family, and is a sharing of Christ’s loving mercy to those who would have otherwise gone without.

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