“Why do your disciples not fast?” Jesus answered: “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast” (Mt 9:15)
It is necessary to give this question a wider and deeper answer, in order to clarify the relationship between fasting and “metanoia”, that is, that spiritual change which brings man closer to God.
Food and drink are indispensable for man to live, he uses them and must use them, but he may not abuse them in any way. The traditional abstention from food and drink has as its purpose to introduce into man’s existence not only the necessary balance, but also detachment from what might be defined a “consumer attitude”.
Man geared to material goods, multiple material goods, very often abuses them. It is not a question here lust of food and drink. When man is geared exclusively to possession and use of material goods—that is, of things—then also the whole civilization is measured according to the quantity and the quality of the things with which it is in a position to supply man. This civilization, in fact, supplies material goods not just in order that they may serve man to carry out creative and useful activities, but more and more… to satisfy the senses, the excitement he derives from them, momentary pleasure, an ever greater multiplicity of sensations.
…he becomes, without realizing it, a slave of this modern passion. Satiating himself with sensations, he often remains passive intellectually; the intellect does not open to search of truth; the will remains bound by habit which it is unable to oppose.
It is seen from this that modern man must fast, that is, abstain not only from food or drink, but from many other means of consumption, stimulation, satisfaction of the senses. To fast means to abstain, to renounce something.
Why renounce something? Why deprive oneself of it?
Man develops regularly when the deeper layers of his personality find sufficient expression, when the sphere of his interests and aspirations is not limited just to the exterior and superficial layers, connected with human sensuality. To facilitate such a development, we must sometimes deliberately detach ourselves from what serves to satisfy sensuality, that is, from those exterior, superficial layers. Therefore we must renounce every thing that “nourishes” them.
This, in short, is the interpretation of fasting nowadays.
Renunciation of sensations, stimuli, pleasures and even food or drink, is not an end in itself. It must only, so to speak, prepare the way for deeper contents by which the interior man “is nourished”. This renunciation, this mortification must serve to create in man the conditions to be able to live the superior values, for which he, in his own way, hungers.
This is the “full” meaning of fasting in the language of today.
Conversion or Metanoia
To be converted to God, it is necessary to discover in ourselves that which makes us sensitive to what belongs to God; therefore, the spiritual contents, the superior values which speak to our intellect, to our conscience, to our “heart” (according to biblical language). To open up to these spiritual contents, to these values, it is necessary to detach oneself from what serves only the consumer spirit, satisfaction of the senses. In the opening of our human personality to God, fasting—understood both in the “traditional” way and in the “modern” way—must go hand in hand with prayer because it is addressed directly to him.
Furthermore, fasting, that is, the mortification of the senses, mastery of the body, confer on prayer a greater efficacy, which man discovers in himself. He discovers, in fact, that he is “different”, that he is more “master of himself”, that he has become interiorly free. And he realizes this in as much as conversion and the meeting with God, through prayer, bear fruit in him.
It is clear from these our reflections today that fasting is not only a “vestige” of a religious practice of past centuries, but that it is also indispensable for the man of today, for Christians of our time. It is necessary to reflect deeply on this subject, particularly during the period of Lent.