I once gave a talk on Lenten fasting and mortification at a gathering of Catholic professionals. One of the attendees came up to me afterward, slightly annoyed, and said fasting and mortification were not part of her spirituality. “I can follow Jesus perfectly well without them,” she said. “I focus instead on doing good.” (Ironically, that day was a Friday during Lent, and she had purchased fancy cupcakes for everyone.)
I responded with a question. “Then what did Jesus mean when he said, ‘Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself’?” (Matt. 16:24).
In recent years, many Catholics have taken on Lenten “self-giving” penances rather than engaging in those that are more explicitly acts of self-denial. Thus, rather than give up things such as sweets, coffee, eating animal flesh (even on Fridays), or some other good thing, there is an exhortation to do such things as pray an extra chaplet, visit a shut-in, devote more time to spiritual reading, or some other such activity—or even to “fast” from vices such as unkindness.
Prayer and works of mercy are both wonderful and necessary Lenten practices. However, if we do not practice self-denial of things that are good, then we miss the point of Lent.
Two principles are relevant here. First, Jesus remains our model and exemplar. You can bet that our Lord engaged in much prayer and intercession during his forty days in the desert. But he did so while engaging in rigorous and meaningful self-denial. Scripture states that Jesus fasted while in the desert (Luke 4:2). The Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us, “By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert” (540). The Church has been fasting for 2,000 years. The legitimacy and moral authority of fasting speak for themselves.
Second, in neglecting to fast, we could be inadvertently feeding the beast. One of the effects of the Fall is an inordinate love of self. We often think too highly of ourselves. We allow our appetites to run amok. One of the purposes of the season of Lent is to attack this inordinate love of self.
Indeed, fantasizing about being more than what they were is how Adam and Eve were tricked by the devil into rejecting God. “‘You will not certainly die,’ the serpent said to the woman. ‘For God knows that when you eat from the tree your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God’” (Gen. 3:4-5). It is worth noting that when the devil plied this temptation, Adam and Eve had not yet fallen. In other words, human nature was still as God had made it: intact and unbroken. It was by luring them to inordinate self-love that the devil got them to fall for his sordid trap. We’ve been paying the price ever since.
Our brokenness is a force to be reckoned with. It can easily bring us down into all sorts of dysfunction and sin. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul gives a strong exhortation to attack that broken self, what he calls our old self: “You should put away the old self of your former way of life, corrupted through deceitful desires, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new self, created in God’s way in righteousness and holiness of truth” (Eph. 4:22-24). Paul identifies our old self as the source of our sinfulness; our disordered passions; our refusal to follow the Lord; and, ultimately, our unhappiness. To allow it to exist is foolishness. We must declare war on it instead.
We put our old self to death by mortification. Mortification comes from two Latin words, mortem and facere; together they mean “to bring about death.” It consists of the practice of measured denial of our lower appetites and desire for sensual pleasure. To mortify ourselves brings liberation. Indeed, the Catechism calls self-denial one of “the preconditions of all true freedom” (2223).
One of the most basic and traditional forms of observing Lent is fasting: mandatory for all Catholics (except for those exempted by age or illness) on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and encouraged throughout the season. It has the not just the weight of ancient Christian practice behind it, but the weight of all major religions. Even the ancient philosophers practiced fasting. Plato, for example, fasted in order to achieve greater physical and mental efficiency.
Some people can fast quite rigorously. Others have more difficulty. For them, some creativity may be necessary.
I had a friend with very low body weight. For him to miss a meal, or not to consume his regular amount of food, meant virtual non-functionality. He couldn’t do his job; he couldn’t concentrate; he couldn’t engage in conversation. This is certainly not what the Church desires when it prescribes fasting. Thus, rather than cutting down on the amount of food he ate (which was already only the amount he needed to function), he deprived himself of the things that made food enjoyable. He refused himself all condiments. Salt, pepper, hot sauce, ketchup, butter, and the like were emptied from his house prior to Lent.
Do you find it burdensome to fast? Try eating your hamburger without ketchup, mustard, cheese, and the other condiments you enjoy putting on it. Do not salt your fries. Do you need a cup of coffee to be alert and to function? Forgo the cream and sweetener. In all these practices, you’ll feel the deprivation, and you will live an authentic Lent. In fact, depriving ourselves of condiments is a great way to fast, since although they add pleasure to our eating experience, they possess virtually no nutritional value. For forty days, why not put them to death?
To be clear, practicing penance is not an end in itself. The Church does not prescribe penance because it is sadistic; it prescribes it for two essential realities it brings about. The first is that it reminds us of our own mortality. The displeasure that comes with fasting makes us feel our lack of self-sufficiency and our dependence on God. It makes our prayer that much more real and genuine because it is prayer made with both the body and the mind. That prayer, in turn, may fuel acts of charity.
The second is that a meaningful, sincere, and authentic Lenten observance makes Easter that much more of a celebration. When Lent is over, it is time for glory, and we consume the good things we have gone without. And it is good to do so. They are a reminder of the glory that Christ has purchased for us and that awaits us in the next life.
Indeed, Scripture describes heaven as a banquet (Matt. 22:2), a wedding feast (Matt. 25:10), a place devoid of hunger (Rev. 7:16). Although it is true that the Church takes seriously the observance of fasting, it is equally true that no one appreciates a feast like the Church. For 2,000 years, she has been preparing for one. “Blessed is the one who will dine in the kingdom of God” (Luke 14:15).
May God bless us all in our Lenten observances.