The only times I have intentionally fasted have been for medical reasons.
And yet I know that people of many different religions have used the spiritual discipline of fasting for centuries and have reported many benefits from doing so.
So with the beginning of the Christian season of Lent tomorrow, as Ash Wednesday arrives, I was pleased to read a new book by Msgr. Charles M. Murphy, The Spirituality of Fasting: Rediscovering a Christian Practice. Mruphy is director of the Permanent Diaconate for the Catholic Diocese of Portland, Maine.
The book, published by Ave Maria Press in Notre Dame, Ind., clearly assumes a Catholic audience, but I found many insights applicable to serious people of many faiths who want to understand fasting as a spiritual discipline that can help give them new eyes with which to see our interconnected world.
Early in the book, Murphy says his goal is to show fasting's "roots in scripture and tradition, and liberate it from legalisms that obscured its true meaning."
And I think he managed to do that in just 105 pages.
Fasting for religious reasons has almost nothing to do with fasting for diet purposes, though of course it may have dietary benefits.
Rather, Murphy quotes St. Thomas Aquinas on the purposes of fasting:
* "Fasting is the guardian of chastity."
* "Fasting helps our minds rise more freely to the heights of contemplation."
* "Fasting is a penitential practice by which we can make satisfaction for sin."
All that may be true, but I found Murphy later offering another reason for fasting that attracted me more than those: It can put us in solidarity with the hungry, the poor, the oppressed. In that way, it is what he calls "an act of humility before God." So, he says, "the ultimate motive and grounding of fasting is to move the heart toward compassion and social charity."
Murphy is careful not to suggest that all of us immediately go on a week-long fast without preparation. Indeed, he notes that there are total fasts and partial fasts, and one good way to start with fasting is what he calls the "Skip-a-Meal" program, in which you start by simply doing without one meal a week and then you take the money you'd have spent on that meal and use it for charitable purposes.
Well, there is much more, including some good history, in this short book. And if my discussion of it here makes you interested in trying the practice of fasting for Lent, good. I'm thinking about that, too.
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CATHOLIC CLERICS WHO FAIL THE FAITHFUL
Once again, Catholic bishops have abused church members by protecting priests who abuse children. First it was in the U.S. Now it is in Ireland, and Irish bishops are meeting with Pope Benedict XVI this week to talk about the failure. Two Irish bishops already have resigned, but it's hard to see how the pope could not insist that other resignations follow. The most vulnerable members of any church -- and thus the people the church is most obligated to protect -- are children. The failure to do that simply must have profound consequences -- including changes that assure as far as possible that this never happens again. (For the National Catholic Reporter account of Monday's meeting with the pope, click here.)