Talk to me about fasting

June 2, 2009 | 65 comments

For quite a while now I’ve felt called to make fasting a more regular part of my prayer life, but I don’t feel like I understand it. I’m planning on doing some reading on the subject, but I thought I’d bring it up here in case it’s helpful to anyone else.

I’ve had a surprising amount of difficulty articulating what it is that I don’t understand about this subject, so here are some thoughts and questions off the top of my head:

  1. The Bible frequently mentions fasting, and holy people throughout the ages have touted its importance and effectiveness. Why is it important, why does it go hand-in-hand with prayer, and what is it about it that brings us closer to God?
  2. What is the most important aspect of fasting: exercise of willpower to abstain from food or actually experiencing hunger? I ask because I’ve sometimes thought of the practice of just giving up a certain type of food as an inferior type of fasting (e.g. giving up chocolate as a fast instead of skipping a meal). But if it’s more about practicing detachment from food, I could see that giving up anything could be beneficial.
  3. As I’ve chronicled here, I have a tendency toward gluttony. I worry that if I were to drastically reduce the amount of food I eat at one meal, I’d “undo” any spiritual benefits I gained from that fast by shoveling food into my mouth with reckless abandon at the next meal. Or is that not too bad (e.g. Easter feasting after Lenten fasting)? What am I missing?
  4. I know that I am missing some base-level understanding of the role of food in a person’s physical and spiritual life, probably because I’ve always lived in middle-class America where we see food like drops of water in the ocean: something of which there is infinite quantity that is always available. (I wrote about this more when I talked about praying before meals, cluing in that less food for me means more food for others, and an ah-hah moment when I was making a store list.) As the product of a culture where it’s easy to feel ungrateful for even the most lavish spreads of food, I feel like I’m missing even more than I realize when it comes to the importance of fasting. Any thoughts?
  5. What books would you recommend for someone wanting to learn more about this subject?

This is one of those subjects where I know I don’t get it but I’m not sure what I’m missing. I’d love to hear any thoughts on some or all of the above topics!

UPDATE: Just wanted to assure everyone that I will proceed with great caution as long as I’m in this phase of life. At this point I’m mainly just trying to understand fasting as a concept to give me a foundation for thinking about what (if any) toned-down practices I might be able to incorporate at some point.

photo by jspatchwork

65 Comments

  1. Elena

    One note: be careful about the fasting as a nursing mom. You might actually become unreasonably upset and angry because you really need food for the wee one. During pregnancy and nursing I have started fasting from the internet. I find that this fast breaks my need for constant human interaction and causes me to pray more and contemplate my need for communication with my Creator. One aside: my father, who has practiced NFP for many years, says that fasting has been the main discipline that has allowed him, as a man, to achieve some degree of self-mastery. He likes to try and tell this to as many people as he can – most greet him with a blank stare and a cold shoulder!!

  2. Gretchen

    I highly recommend Wisdom From The Monastery: A Program of Spiritual Healing, edited by Peter Seewald. Chapters include a history of fasting, how to prepare for a fast, the right balance, cravings, cleansing oneself of sin, different kinds of fasting, the goal of fasting, a history of the medical skills of monasteries, holistic medicine, bringing body and soul into harmony, the use of herbs and medicinal plants, eating and drinking, purifying the body and regaining strength, living in harmony with the rhythm of day and night, solitude and fellowship, and so forth. There are three parts to the book and fasting is the first part. I have learned so much from this book. It is full of wonderful quotes about fasting, too, such as this one from St. John Chrysostom: "Fasting is the food of the soul."

    The book is not in print any longer, but copies are available: http://www.amazon.com/Wisdom-Monastery-Program-Spiritual-Healing/dp/1568524803

    I think your questions would be answered in this book. I have several books on fasting and this one is superior to the others.

  3. Peony Moss

    Some half-formed thoughts; your post has reminded me that I could be paying more attention to fasting as well…

    1. Why its importance? Maybe…
    — because it focuses our attention on our physical dependence on God, drawing our attention to Him and fostering gratitude
    — it removes a big distraction from our life (the planning and preparation of food, the thinking about food, the sensory pleasure of food, etc)
    — it shakes us out of the comfortable illusion that we should have our own way all the time
    — is a way of being "in solidarity" with the very poor
    — fosters detachment
    — gives us something to "offer up"

    2. I would guess that the abstention is the important part, as that's under our control; the physical sensation of hunger is not.

    I think Elena is correct about being careful about fasting. Nursing mothers are exempt from even the mandatory fasts — your duty to your baby comes first. And if you're prone to blood sugar swings, it would probably be better to eat just enough so that you're not tempted to snap at your family. Some people fast by just eating bread and water for a day; if you don't want to do bread you could do some other suitably plain and boring food.

    If you look up "mortification" you'll also find good info on this topic. In the In Conversation with God books, Francis Fernandez has some good points on fasting and mortification, including advice on choosing mortifications that don't annoy or embarrass other people.

  4. Susan Thompson

    I just wanted to share a small insight on prayer…it's like a three-legged stool. The three legs are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. This is the ancient Jewish way and also a traditional Catholic way. Do you have a poor box at church? I have several times prayed with prayer (for example, a novena), some form of fasting, and put money in the poor box at the beginning of the prayer and as thanksgiving. It feels like a very effective and complete prayer when you add almsgiving.

  5. agapeflower

    I'm like Elena in that I try to fast from other things instead of food – as someone who is in recovery for an eating disorder, it's pretty triggering for me to fast from meals. But I think the idea of fasting is absolutely wonderful and connects us very much to the selfless giving of the heart of God…best of luck to you in this part of your journey! 🙂

  6. Veronica Mitchell

    I don’t have an answer to your questions, but I wanted to comment anyway. I have a history with eating disorders, and it was a powerful step in my own healing to realize that I needed to NOT fast again, ever. Fasting itself was part of my addiction, and I had to learn to recognize that dependence on Christ means that there are some things that are beyond me. Fasting is one of them. Instead, I try to show my submission to Christ by eating normally, which is a challenge in itself. We are not all called to the same thing. Just wanted to point that out for any of your readers who might have histories similar to mine.

  7. bearing

    I would suggest starting small by fasting from certain things (that you will notice their absence) for a specific length of time, for a specific intention, ideally for some other person. Divorce it from any idea that you're doing something that's good for YOU, and embrace it as pure sacrifice.

    Let me give you an example. I once learned of a young woman, friend of an internet acquaintance, who had become paralyzed from the neck down while 2 months pregnant. I learned that she longed to be able to breastfeed her baby, and I fasted 40 days from milk, offering it for the intention that she would be able to breastfeed. (I didn't give up all dairy products, just drinking milk and putting milk in my tea.)

    That was a really rewarding experience.

    She was, by the way, able to give her milk to her baby, at least that was what I heard.

  8. MJS

    I would run, not walk, to your spiritual director and ask if she really thinks this is God’s will for you at this time. You are nursing, so someone else depends on your nutrition. You need energy to care for small children and are probably already sleep-deprived. And you are already limiting your food quite a bit if you are still doing your saint diet. I know what my spiritual director would say about a plan like this for me, and I know what a friend’s spiritual director told her when she decided to do some increased fasting (he said no, what if you get pregnant? She later found out she already was.) Anyway, sorry to not be more help. I know that some saints I have read about have done things like fast from certain things. Hope you find the answers you want.

  9. Fencing Bear

    This is a suggestion not specifically about fasting, but rather about the way in which we think about food. I published an article a few years ago on the medieval use of the verse “Taste and see that the Lord is sweet” as a way of thinking about what our relationship to food tells us about our relationship to God. Medieval Christians, of course, fasted regularly, but they did so with rather different ideas about food than have become normative in the past 150 years. I don’t know whether this will answer your practical questions, but it might give you another perspective on what fasting means.

    Here’s the reference: Rachel Fulton, “‘Taste and See That the Lord is Sweet’ (Ps. 33:9): The Flavor of God in the Monastic West.” The Journal of Religion 86.2 (April 2006): 169-204.

  10. Andrea

    What I love about fasting is the way it makes me hyper-aware all day which turns me constantly to prayer. Also, it unites us with the prayers of the poor and hungry. Hope this helps!

  11. Anne

    Hi Jennifer,
    I’ve been reading your blog for a number of weeks now, and I really love your insights and look forward to your posts. Most recently I have enjoyed your posts on discernment and God’s will.
    As you know, many religions have a time of fasting. Each year the Baha’is fast by abstaining from food and drink from sunrise to sunset from March 2 to 21. I always take some time to contemplate what the Fast means to me during that time. It enables me to appreciate the simple pleasures in life which I take for granted, it awakens my compassion for those who have less, it helps me realize the conditions of life such as my mood and emotions and my struggles and difficulties are transitory, it gives me an awareness of the cycles of nature (we eat after sunset), it helps me feel closer to my community, and it causes me to spend more time in prayer and reflection (I didn’t just think of these all just now, I re-read a post I wrote on my own blog about Fasting!) .Just as an aside, Baha’i nursing mothers do not Fast, I’m certain there are some guidelines for Catholic mothers also, please be careful!

    I’m looking forward to seeing your insights on this. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

  12. CM

    I would have to say that I have fasted from things other than food and I have fasted from food, and the other things are great, but they’re certainly not the same as fasting from food. I usually have something (at least bread) rather than nothing at all. I have almost felt a little panicked about fasting from food, because I thought I wouldn’t be able to handle it (crabbiness, lack of concentration, etc.), but it made me depend on God more. “Not by bread alone” and all that. The hunger is also important to me. It’s a reminder to pray for whatever I might be fasting about as well as a reminder that satisfying my hunger for God through fasting was more important than satisfying my physical hunger through food.

    That being said, I agree with those that point out that not all people should fast from food, especially during times of pregnancy and nursing.

  13. Libby

    I highly recommend reading some of Matthew Kelly’s books; not only do they have the information you are looking for, but also the are really clear! Specifically, I know that he talks about fasting in his book “Rediscovering Catholicism” (which is a really worthwhile read any day), and I believe he also discusses it in the book “Perfectly Yourself – 9 Lessons for Enduring Happiness” (I actually haven’t read this book myself, but the other day, one of my relatives expressed how much she’d learned about fasting by reading it). I hope this helps! God bless!

  14. Marian

    In my mind, fasting is definitely more about the hunger than the willpower of abstaining. The former involves my heart first, and then out of that, the submission of my will to continue abstaining. The latter starts with ME, my sacrificial work or act of devotion,with which God is never terribly impressed! It’s always our hearts that he wants, and it’s always about what flows first from Him. I’m thinking of God’s words to his people in Isaiah right now, but don’t have them handy…

    The hunger reminds us of our ultimate hunger for and dependence on Him, that all we need flows from Him, and yes, that our will is subject to His. It puts us in a position to humbly listen, yield and receive. Every pang of hunger–or craving–is a reminder of our emptiness and makes us mindful of where we look(where we need to and where we tend to!) to be filled. At the very least it makes us mindful. On that count, giving up anything that we strongly crave can be effective. There’s nothing inherently inferior in a fast from just one thing if it produces a strong “hunger” that has those effects and is what God is calling you to at the time.
    The awareness of our utter dependence has a way of making things very clear.

    (Please don’t take any of this as indication that I’m some kind of super-spiritual super-faster, btw! I do hate that effect of comments on spiritual matters…)

    I wish I could summarize everything I heard from one woman who detailed her God-led forty day fast–some of the details were just beautiful and amazing. But the most important phrase that has stuck with me is how she literally “feasted on the Word” as her meals to fill the void. It was so powerful…
    Thanks for bringing up the topic. I need to think about fasting more

  15. tinkerbell the bipolar faery

    Fasting seems, to me, a prime example of finding bliss and a certain sort of freedom in poverty. I have felt a certain deep sensation of satisfaction at the physical feeling of emptiness. Not sure if that makes sense

  16. Gina

    I have some thoughts on your Questions, particularly the second question:

    I think the most important aspect of fasting is neither of these, but the end result which should be the dying to the self.

    Fasting brings us to the realization that we depend on God to sustain us through all things, and that even when our own will fails, God's grace is sufficient in satisfying our hunger. Fasting is a means of dying to the self: "I no longer live, but it is Christ who lives in me."

    This last lent, I fasted from all meat. This was very tough for me, as I'm a burger junkie. There were some horrible times during that fast, where nothing I ate was doing it for me.

    Believe me, I ate an enormous cheeseburger at 12:05 Easter morning after the Vigil Mass. But during those 40 days (46 if you count the Sundays, which I did), I relied heavily on prayer and as many daily Masses I could get my butt to. It was in these times of prayer that I could detach from the hunger. Because at about day 20, my willpower was long gone.

    Today, though, I'm stronger. I can abstain from meat every Friday and barely feel it. Yes, not partaking in the best wings in town at dinner the other night was a little painful…..

    Plus everyone fasts differently. My husband chose to give up Chocolate and beer this past Lent. Beer because it's his "tradition" (with a little t), and chocolate because he a total chocoholic.

    The beer was not a good fast for him, as it wasn't a real sacrifice. He doesn't "love his beer", as they say. But the chocolate….omg, he found himself digging around in his coworker's desks at week 3 looking for m&m that might have fallen out of their packets. HA! In his case, the chocolate was a great fast, because he clearly has an "addiction" to chocolate.

    It just depends on what will be a true sacrifice for you, and that you consciously turn toward the Lord when you really start to feel the pain of that sacrifice (and you will—and you should).

  17. Lan

    I don’t know much ‘theory’ on this topic, but practically speaking, I know that it has changed my life. When I was a seeking Christian, my best friend fasted one day a week for over a year. Eventually I accepted Christ, and she confessed to her fast. I have no doubt that her devotion and prayers helped me on my journey. I, in turn, have occassionally (and probably not often enough) included fasting in my spritiual life as I have grown and I have found that, especially in times of doubt or just feeling disconnected, it is more powerful than anything to bring me back to the word, and back to prayer.

    I hope you find some answers, and your way, with this.

  18. Anonymous

    I’ll second “Wisdom from the Monastery” by Peter Sewald. I picked up a used copy on Amazon for 99 cents, and it’s an amazing book.

  19. gracia452

    I just remember what a youth leader said about fasting; it’s about sacrifice, about saying ‘Lord I need you more than I need food’, to use those hunger pangs to remind you that you should try to be in constant communion with Him and remember how he has indeed blessed us. And as our bodies are linked to our spiritual beings, our spiritual hunger is also brought to the fore, and we seek Him who is the only one who can assuage that hunger.

  20. Anonymous

    Great points!

    I had the same question and I reached the following conclusions after readings and thinking about hunger strikes and meditating on Our Lord’s Temptations in the Wilderness: Fasting brings to the surface our inner self, along with all the temptations that are usually dormant. Our impurities and weaknesses “rise to the top”. Then we’re forced to deal with them. If we reject them they will be gone or much diminished and we will be at a better spiritual state, because anything overcome in our weakest state is how much more defeated in our normal state? It is cleansing. So it makes sense to me why there is the tradition of fasting and praying before undertaking great missions.

    However a troubling corollary is that fasting can be dangerous if we in fact do end up losing to our temptations we’d end up worse than before–a negative transformation–but this is my conjecture, I never came across an example of someone who had failed and become worse off for fasting. For example, if Jesus had succumbed the whole mission would have been lost. So fasting MUST be done in conjunction with prayer and shouldn’t be undertaken lightly.

    Also fasting gets God’s attention and tells Him we’re really serious, like the way hunger strikes gets people’s attention.

    And I think it was Father Benedict who said about fasting that it is irrevocable: when you pass up a cannole (sp?) pastry it is forever since you can never get back that particular cannole.

    If I can remember anything else I learned I’ll post again.

    God Bless,
    Hannah

  21. Square Peg

    My husband & I recently read Fasting: The Ancient Practices by Scot McKnight and found it very helpful. His basic point is that too often we fast for some result: to get close to God, to gain wisdom or discernment, to have a better relationship to food, but that in the Biblical accounts, fasting was a first & foremost a response to a dire event: awareness of sin, grief, repentance and was part of whole spiritual response, bringing the body in line with what was happening spiritually. Those results may then happen (growing closer to God, etc), but our focus should be on what we are trying to respond to rather than what we think we should get out of it.

    I'd highly recommend it, After you're done nursing … as everyone else has said, he strongly urges caution, as fasting is not appropriate for all people at all times, and as many have already said, he would agree that nursing women should not fast.

  22. Christina

    I'll answer questions 1-3 (since I really don't have anything for 4 & 5)…

    1. It helps us to recognize our total dependence on God and the hunger pains are a built in "alarm clock" reminding us to pray. It teaches us that we aren't mindless animals and how to control our passions.

    2. As a Catholic I choose both as important.

    3. I have this problem, so I do little fasts either from a certain food or item, or just consciously choosing to eat a reasonable amount. It's in a way "easy" to skip a meal and/or gorge on the next; it's extremely hard to eat only what you're body needs. This can be especially painful for me if it's something I like. One thing I've tried is not taking seconds when I like the food eating one serving and put the rest away.

    I will also add another caution against skipping meals at this time, perhaps talk to a good priest/spiritual director about what you could do instead. A suggestion would be to offer up this frustration in wanting to do more but needing to be "obedient" to the need to eat for your child.

  23. Rebecca

    I agree with MJS who said that you should run, not walk, to your spiritual director about this. I really don’t know what your daily life is like, but I know that for me, taking care of little children demands a certain kind of energy that you just would not have if you were purposely denying yourself food. I remember C.S. Lewis saying he had an “aha” moment one time when he realised that taking *too* much time for prayer was causing him to take time away from service to others. Now, fasting would not be a time drain, but it just might be more of an energy drain than you can handle at this point.

    And I echo what my lovely sister Elena said about fasting and nursing. You have mentioned in the past (I believe) that your milk supply is not enormous; denying yourself food would not help.

    (and it goes without saying that if you have any issues around food and eating, as so many women do, that you should be really, really careful about fasting. I only say this because it is SO common.)

    Wow, I reread this and realised I sound like a huge downer. Sorry. I have a history of eating issues so I probably reacted in a biased way. Still and all, a talk with your spiritual director is a great idea.

  24. Sandy

    For me, the hunger from fasting brings a constant reminder of my dependence on God. Each time my stomach growls during a fast and I forget the fast for a moment and think, “oh, I better eat something” and then remember the fast, I acknowledge God’s providence of food and everything else in my life. The hunger physically focuses my thoughts on God in a way nothing else does. That awareness brings new focus to my prayers. Breaking the fast is not as difficult as you might think because your stomach does shrink after just a day and a few bites of food usually satisfies.

    Your Saint Diet is certainly a type of fast in that you’ve given up foods that God showed you were causing you to lose focus and that triggered your overeating.

  25. Monnie

    I wouldn’t presume to have the answers to all of your questions, but I thought I would at least throw in my two cents about your first question.

    I would say that fasting is important as a way to break the devil’s hold on us. (Of course, this isn’t to say that we are obsessed or possessed – but the devil does influence us constantly.)
    Where our treasure is, there also is our heart. If we rely on food (or other perfectly legitimate comforts) inordinately, there is a disorder in our souls and our treasure lies somewhere other than in God.
    I think that the practice of fasting enables us to strengthen ourselves against other temptations (not just that of over-eating) and makes us aware by a tiny bit of discomfort of the immense gravity of our sins.

    I’m explaining myself as clearly as I would like, so I am going to resort to the words of St. Frances de Sales. 😉

    “Although we may be able to do but little, the enemy nevertheless stands more in awe of those whom he knows can fast.”

    But he advises moderation and prudence in all things: “Both fasting and labor mortify and subdue the flesh. If your work is necessary for you to contribute to God’s glory, I much prefer that you endure the pains of work rather than of fasting.”

    “The usual effects of fasting are, namely, elevating our spirits, keeping the body in subjection, practicing virtue, and gaining a greater reward in heaven.”

    To second what someone already said about the “three-legged stool”: “Always add new good works to those already done, for the coins out of which your treasures must be made are fasting, prayer, and almsgiving.”

    And lastly, since you are nursing and fasting may not be advisable: “In proportion as you are hindered from doing the good you desire, do the good that you do not desire… they are worth more.”

    I could go on – St. Francis is so great, isn’t he?! But I’ll leave it at that… Hope that provides some ‘food for thought’ (no pun intended :)).

    Thank you for yet another thought-provoking post. My sister is an in-patient at a hospital for eating disorders right now… I have fasted in the past for her recovery, but your post has put it in my head to do so again. Thank you so much. God bless!

  26. Profa

    I think that Pope Benedict has made a few lucid comments about the importance of fasting.
    I don’t remember the exact source, but you might google the pope and fasting to see what comes up.
    I do know that Pope JP II mentioned the link between the physical hunger and one’s longing for God, and that the physical (as it frequently does) mirrors the spiritual. It is also about temperance–correctly ordering the appetites of the flesh, which is always a good exercise. Self denial is something we as Americans don’t really see the value in. We want immediate gratification and fasting goes against this notion.

    My priests/advisers have always cautioned me against fasting when I was pregnant and nursing. It is not recommended for women in these two states because the good of the child may be compromised. But, use your best judgment.

  27. Claire

    Jen,
    Thank you for writing about this! It is something I too have been contemplating for a while to try myself. Because I would like to lose some weight however, I am not sure if I am really wanting to try this out of a sincere effort to grow in holiness, or if I'm simply trying to justify a way to lose weight & look "holy and pius" at the same time! I need to contine to discern this (and hopefully I can find someone to talk through this with me) before I move forward. I will look forward to reading about your experience! Thank you for your blog, it is a true blessing in my life, and has been for quite some time now!

  28. elizabeth

    Personally, I feel fasting from food is not something one needs to do as a mother of young children, especilly if you are nursing. There are different types of fasting – and I look forward to others input on this subject. I hope someday, after my own children are older – to fast from food, which has an addictive/over doing it hold in my life all too often.

    God Bless!

  29. J.

    Real hunger for food connects very naturally with hunger for God. It’s automatic, or at least it was for me when I’ve fasted. It look a lot of effort in mind, body, and spirit, and I needed to lean on God for my strength.

    I think you need to talk to your SD about this. When I was fasting, I was very tired in the afternoons and got bad headaches for the first week or so. Other people get very grouchy and lose their tempers. You of course don’t need to deal with any of this on top of taking care of your kids!

    I was eating one small meal a day in the evening and drinking water besides that. It’s of course possible to fast less drastically by eating less at meals. In my mind, that’s more similar to giving up chocolate or TV or what have you. You’ll miss it, and it will help you to practice self-control, but you won’t experience the deep hunger (for food and thus for God) that comes from a more extensive fast.

    Perhaps if you have time to make a retreat at some point you could try it?

  30. Eric P.

    God’s Chosen Fast by Arthur Wallis is the best book in print on the subject (Amazon link)– it covers all the spiritual, scriptural, and physical issues involved.

    From my own experience, I know that the food issue tries to make itself seem a lot bigger than it actually is (it’s the temptation talking!). However, once you’ve made it past the craving stage (usually the first couple of days), you actually won’t even want to eat a huge meal afterward. Physically speaking, it’s extremely beneficial, for more than just teaching you to control your appetite.

    (N.B. I’m not aware of specific issues for nursing mothers, so you may want to do some research into that.)

    Spiritually speaking….. Wow.

  31. Dani

    Hi Jennifer,

    I have been reading your blog for while I went through my own journey of conversion, culminating with my baptism and confirmation at this years Easter Vigil. Your blog helped me with my own journey.

    I too have struggled with the idea of fasting. But there are two sides of fasting…giving up and giving to.

    The only way I can truly understand is that fasting helps me understand the concept of communion of persons without domination and without
    subordination.
    When I fast and I share in that fast with others for others, it is in that moment of giving up that I feel equal with all, especially the least among us.

    And when I am not fasting, it is important to give to various agencies my resources (time, talent, funds).

    So ultimately, what I have deduced is that when we partake in communion, it is without domination and without subordination. So fasting in either form (giving to or giving up) is a realized, tangible, recognized form of communion that we can practice in our daily life.

    ~Dani
    catholicdani.blogspot.com

  32. Larissa Smith

    I fast as an act of worship – that I choose for a day (or a meal) to be sustained and filled by God instead of by food. I just use that day to get myself back in the mindset that I am more thankful for God and the way He provides for my life than for the “easy” stuff like food. Other types of fasts are the same way – fasting from TV or coffee or whatever else – whatever need I usually let that event or item fill in my life, I turn over to God instead. It’s a challenge to take would-be TV time and keep yourself entertained with God and His Word. I believe that God will bless any such sacrifice given to the purpose of drawing nearer to Him, even if you must eat regular meals to nurse.

  33. Anne Marie

    So clueless on this topic. So wish I wasn’t. So, so very hard for me to do. Looking forward to insights of others.

  34. Rosita

    I found the chapter on fasting in Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline to be very helpful.

    I would also add my concern about fasting from food as a nursing mother.

  35. weavermom

    Another book possibility: A Hunger for God by John Piper. Here is a clip from the blurb on christianbook.com: “In this helpful guide Piper will explain the biblical foundations of fasting and provide you with step-by-step instructions on how to incorporate fasting into your life. Don’t miss this opportunity to develop a deeper Hunger for God.”

  36. Monnie

    (Oops – I meant to say that I WASN’T explaining myself as well as I would like…. thus, the quotes from St. Francis de Sales. :))

  37. Elizabeth

    I like what St. Francis de Sales has to say about this:

    “Certain virtues are greatly esteemed and always preferred by the general run of men because they are close at hand, easily noticed, and, in effect, material. Thus many people prefer bodily to spiritual alms, hair shirts, fasting, going barefoot, using the discipline, and physical mortifications to meekness, patience, modesty, and other mortifications of the heart although the latter are really higher virtues.”

  38. KAM

    My wife and I are consecrated to Jesus through Mary. We fast on Wednesdays and Fridays because Our Mother has asked us to by way of the visionaries in Medjugorje. Bread and water and try to keep a constant prayer flowing through your mind. If The Virgin Mother asks it of me, her will be done.

  39. Laura

    I think fasting is important because it brings you closer to God when you have to constantly pray for the will power not to eat or not to eat that certain food. I have found fasting to be difficult at times and then very easy at other times. It seems that when it has been easier I have found it to be a more prayerful experience than the times when I struggle with it. Not sure why that is.

    I have a hard time with bread and water fasts as I am allergic to wheat (ever try to live on non-wheat bread for a whole day??? Cardboard would probably be just the same). I have fasted from other things and even look upon things such as: getting rid of the TV – for good, wearing only skirts and dresses all the time and completely changing the way my family eats, as examples of fasting. They are all sacrifices, all have been difficult at times, and all have caused me to turn to God for help. Not to mention the fact that all of them have borne much fruit in our lives!
    Good luck with your searching.
    God Bless

  40. Matt

    Fr. Schmemann’s Great Lent: Journey to Pascha is the most eye-opening book on fasting I’ve ever read (particularly Lenten, but all around as well).

    Again, couch this in the warnings about your nursing and everything, but he certainly puts an emphasis on fasting to the point of almost living a little bit hungry all the time. There’s that point of hunger where you realize you can’t sustain your own life and that turn us to prayer.

  41. Elizabeth

    This is probably just more of the same…
    Years ago when I started doing the "Light Weigh" program, I also received a tape from a nun in medjugoria (SP?)…She talked about fasting on Wed & Fri as a way of highlighting the FEAST of Holy Thursday…The fast was bread and water…but had to be REAL bread for the fast…I usually make my own (Colonial Oatmeal or Spelt bread with nuts and dried fruit). I found that I was never able to "fast" in a worldly sense, but when I turned it all over to the Lord…it simply became a part of my life. Before I got pregnant this time, I had been returned to my weekly fasts…I always find myself so much more attuned to the work of God in my life when I am fasting…I also found that those weekly fasts helped me to aquire a "peace with food" that had never existed in my life before…even the ability to eat one or two bites of a favorite dessert and then stop! That said, of course I know you are just researching at this time…I am trying to fast from sweets especially for the health of my baby, but it is not working well for me right now 🙁
    Good luck wih your research, and thanks to all the respondents for such good advice about books, etc.
    Pax Christi!

  42. Melanie B

    Jen,

    It occurs to me that your Saint Diet already is a sort of fast. Strike that, it’s not a sort of fast, it is a fast. you are fasting from all foods with flour and sugar, as well as other processed foods. And yet while your posts about the Saint Diet have explored much about your discernment process and how it has affected not only your family life but also your spiritual life; still, you haven’t consciously connected it with the spiritual practice of fasting. So perhaps the call you are feeling is not to take up a new form of fasting or more fasting but to understand how to make the fast you have already undertaken a more conscious part of your spiritual life. As you learn more about the traditional teaching of fasting and root yourself more deeply in prayer (and as several commenters have suggested almsgiving as well) your fast will yield greater fruits and become more spiritually beneficial.

    As for the questions you pose, I’m certainly no expert and I haven’t read up on the subject nearly enough (I’m going to be mining the book suggestion list here), I’ve got a few thoughts based on my own limited experiences.

    I think willpower is not really the point as much as realizing how little our will can do. It’s more about relinquishing control and turning our will over to God. Because the flesh is weak and we are going to give in, fasting is more about acknowledging our dependence on God. And so the physical hunger and cravings remind us of the emptiness in our selves that should properly be filled by God but which we often seek to fill with other substitutes. It’s the experience of hunger rather than our successful exertion of willpower because in fasting even our failures lead us closer to God, to the realization of our need for him and our hunger which only he can fill.

    I know when I’ve fasted it sometimes creates a sense of panic, of not being in control, not being certain of whether I can manage without food. Fear of hunger. (Which reminds me of what you wrote about letting go of fear and anxiety in the discernment process re Kidsave.) Conversely, in the past few years being deprived of the ability to fast during Lent because of pregnancy and nursing has also deprived me of the illusion of control. I wanted to fast because in a way that success in fasting had previously made me feel like I was doing the right thing and getting holy: hey, look at me, I’ve got the fasting thing down and I’m getting closer to God.

    And I’m thinking out loud here but now it occurs to me that the sort of involuntary fasting I undergo with the first trimester and awful nausea can also be offered up as a spiritual sacrifice in the same way a fast that I have chosen. Likewise the dependence on others that I’ll have post c-section when I can’t do all the housework and child care on my own. it’s not so much about detachment– though that is a part of it– as about acknowledging that I am not in control, that I need God and other people, that I can’t do it on my own and that my own plan is not necessarily the best one.

    Sorry the kids are awake now. Other thoughts will have to wait.

  43. Lesley-Anne Evans

    I have a very basic understanding of fasting… but willing to share what I know. My take on it is that the ‘doing without’ has to do with what you fill the time with that you would have spent… eating… watching TV… reading… talking… anything really. So, the idea is that we fill the time with prayer and communion with God… and every time, for example, that we have a hunger pang, it’s a physical prompt to be about the spiritual activity instead.

    Also, my understanding from scripture is that it be done in private… unless the fast is being done corporately, it’s a personal thing between you and God. See Matthew re: how the pharasees fast vs. how Christ calls us to fast.

    And yes, please be careful as a nursing mom… I agree with Elena that a different type of fast might be best and just as effective.

    This is such a great topic, and a wonderful and thought provoking blog. Thank you for being real with us.

    Lesley-Anne
    http://pink-ink.ning.com/

  44. Anonymous

    I think fasting is something like spiritual bodybuilding.

    Fasting and mortification are ways by which we subjugate our self will.

    This, I think, is important because of our call to love; love being the saying of no to the ‘I’ and yes to another, the willingness to deny oneself for the good of another.

    It is easy to talk of love when no sacrifice is required, but love is tested when we would rather be offended/ angry/ sarcastic/ irritated/ impatient/ mean/ unconcerned etc.

    Loving then is an act of will, the more difficult if our spiritual muscles are flabby, or if our self will is used to being indulged, and not denied.

    So fasting can be prayer, it can be an offering of atonement, but it can also be an exercise in denial of our self will, so as to offer it to God and open ourselves to grace to help us do His will.

    PS: Concerning fasting while nursing, I’ve been taught that proper nourishment of your body fell under the 5th commandment (thou shalt not kill), and so we shouldn’t fast from food when nursing, pregnant or ill. But we can mortify our self will in other ways.

    PS2!: Thanks so much for your blog. It’s a gift and a blessing.

  45. prolifemom

    I do believe and feel one of the main purposes for fasting is to gain control of a bodily urge. If we can control reaching for food when hungry, we will be able to control ourselves in other bodily temptations. These might include shopping, drinking, smoking, sexual, and so on…we need to train ourselves to live for the Lord, live by soul, not always by body. When we have this discipline, we will be more in tune with the needs of our soul, and learn to feed that more than our body. And of course there is the sacrifice element, but my earlier explanation is my understanding of the true purpose of fasting, and it makes very much sense to me.
    I LOVE your blog, it has helped me so much as a catholic…keep up the great work, you are in my prayers!

  46. Headless Mom

    I had not been a believer in fasting in the past but last summer we, as a church, fasted for the whole month of July. Some took whole days or weeks, some only meals, some specific foods, etc. I fasted lunches for a week and used that time (one hour at lunch time) to read my bible and pray. I was floored with the conversations that I was able to have with God! And not only that but I was never hungry. Often the hour became 2. (My children are older than yours and I would feed them and tell them that unless there was blood that they couldn’t bother me.)

    Our church (Foursquare) has passed out a great booklet on it. I’m going to try to find it and see if I can get some more info for you. Once the nursing pattern is well established one meal shouldn’t be a problem. As you know, God will really take care of your needs-mentally and physically, especially when we are being obedient! Good luck!

  47. E Lohroff

    I see another commenter has recommended John Piper. Here’s a note from his blog:
    Desiring GodAlso John MacArthur: Grace to You

  48. Milehimama

    I don't have much advice about the "hows and whys" of fasting that hasn't already been said. I really urge you to discuss with your spiritual director first.

    However, it may be helpful to concentrate and meditate on the Scriptures that involve people being fed (not fasting). Spend some time seeing the arc of God's plan through the Scriptures, as He feeds us all figuratively and literally.

    It might also be a good time to read about the Eucharistic saints.

  49. Anonymous

    See what you can learn about an old Catholic tradition called "Ember Days." They are three days (Wednesday, Friday and Saturday) four times a year that are like mini-Lents, marking the changes of season. They are days of fast and abstinence (which,as others have said, as a nursing mother, you are not obliged to follow), but you may find them a satisfying way to experience a modified fast. Tomorrow (3 June) happens to be the first of this season's Ember Days (the week following Pentecost).

    You must be very cautious so your sweet Joy's health (or your own) is not compromised, but you could abstain from meat and "seconds" in union with ancient tradition on these three days. Observing the Ember days gives you specific guidelines (and limitations) that introduce you to the idea of fasting and prayer without becoming overwhelming. It removes the anxiety of how often, how much, and even how 'cum!

    I find that my marked calendar is a constant reminder, which in itself, increases my awareness of God and His goodness. By deliberately avoiding what I've chosen to fast from over the three days (and having two of those days the weekend!), I am acutely aware of my debt to Him. Where I might nibble on vegetables while cooking supper or reach for a mug of tea in the evening, stopping myself to honour my fast, brings Him to mind again and again. I am amazed every time I fast at how often food is on my mind over the course of a normal day. On fast days, the food habit becomes the prayer habit and I grow a little bit closer to Him.

    Blessings to you as you disern this call. As someone mentioned, be certain that this is not "just" a longing of your own disguised as a call. But if it is a true call, perhaps Ember days are the tool for you at this time in your life.

    Linda

  50. Lucy

    Jennifer,

    You'll probably receive lots of great recommendations. The one that leaps off the top of my head is The Way of the Ascetics by Tito Colliander: thewayoftheascetics.blogspot.com.

    The other website from which I have learned the most about fasting is the blog written by Fr. Stephen Freeman. Type "fasting" into his search and you'll get some very illuminating posts such as this one, called Why We Fast: fatherstephen.wordpress.com/2009/02/28/why-we-fast-2/.

    The early church fathers had much to say about fasting. I have learned a lot from my very limited reading of them.

    Fasting is a struggle for me, too. As an Orthodox Christian, I am supposed to fast from meat, dairy and wine on Wednesdays and Fridays and during the four other fasting periods (Lent, Nativity, Apostle's fast and the Dormition fast), along with a few specific days related to Theophany, etc. I will just say, I am horrible at it. Food has much too strong a hold on my life.

    Fr. Thomas Hopko has a short article on fasting in his books on the Orthodox faith found on the OCA website: http://www.oca.org/OCchapter.asp?SID=2&ID=199.

    I'm sure there are also many great Catholic resources, but since I'm not Catholic, I can't suugest them. 🙂 Orthodox fasting is hard, but I will say that most of the Orthodox I know follow the guidelines as closely as they can. And I will also say that following the proscribed rules of fasting as opposed to making up my own rules brings a certain freedom as well as comraderie with other Christians who are struggling to follow the same fasting rules.

    Blessings on you as you explore the discipline of fasting! My experience has been that it is immensely important to my spiritual growth and ability to discpline myself in other areas of life.

  51. Deborah

    You've received quite a few comments already, so I'll keep my responses to your questions brief and in the same order.

    1. Fasting is a kind of prayer played out in the physical realm, not in kneeling but in "giving up" that thing to God's glory. Whenever I have fasted, my mind has turned to God, has formed prayers more naturally and continually than in the absence of fasting. Fasting supports an attitude of prayer without ceasing.

    2. Willpower is a non-issue and, I think, of little spiritual benefit. If anything our "willpower" is most likely to become a source of pride. Rather, in the same way that someone working the 12 steps trusts God to accomplish in his or her life those things which lead to sobriety, so we trust God to fast and use that fasting to His glory and our edification. Sure, the hunger may have some value in itself, but I think that physical hunger mainly creates space for spiritual feasting of some kind. The time I fasted from TV during Lent I found myself crying and crying, praying, and healing from many hurts that I had been burying with too much TV and noisiness in my home.

    3. If I watch two movies in a row, or multiple episodes of syndicated shows on Saturday, I'm not undoing the work that fasting from TV accomplished in my life on an earlier occasion. Fasting from anything that God directs us to abstain from for a season (and I think that is a key component of fasting–only fast from those things God directs you to) will change us. I watch TV now, though probably not as much as did years ago before I tried fasting from TV completely during Lent.

    4. Nothing really to add here. Only that, of course, whatever we have to eat is a gift from God. I think here, too, of Psalm 4:7 "You have put gladness in my heart, more than when grain and wine and oil increase." God gives Himself to us too; He's both gift and giver. Our real food is Christ.

    5. Richard Foster "A Celebration of Discipline" has a chapter on fasting.

    By the way, I've been reading your blog regularly for the last six months at least. I love the way you write. This is the first time I've commented, so I'll now work backward and–soon–post an "Intro Me" comment on your "Introduce yourself" spot.

  52. Deb

    Jen,
    The Desert Fathers used to fast sometimes for weeks or months at a time. I would highly recommend The Desert Fathers by Helen Waddell (or anything by H. Waddell on the Desert Fathers.
    The difference between fasting with absence of food vs absence of something else is that we need food–it is an essential part of life. Everything else we could give up (unless you give up your home or all your belongings) and we do not have the same absolute need of it. We rely on God during a fast to sustain us and we are much more aware of that reliance.
    Good Luck, but remember that the Catholic tradition does not encourage BF moms to fast, not should you if your open to pregnancy because you may be depriving your growing child essential nutrients.

  53. Mary DeTurris Poust

    Jen,
    Yesterday I opened a book of meditations (Nearer to the Heart of God: Daily Readings With the Christian Mystics) and I thought of you. The reading was from Gregory of Sinai's "Instructions to Hesychasts." Here's just a snippet
    "What shall we say about the belly? It is the supreme passion! If you can kill it, or even half-kill it, do so. It can be the cause of downfall." He goes on to talk about how eating too much makes it hard to pray and that you should never eat until you are full. Interesting…I actually tried to cut out some of my mindless eating between meals today and offer it up. Thanks for the inspiration. Haven't quite reached the point of fasting though.
    Mary

  54. Carrien

    As frustrating an answer as this is, you kind of have to do it to really understand it's usefulness.

    From my personal experience I think there are two main things. You don't realize until you are not eating food how much of your time and thought is taken up by the thought of food, that making of food, the desire for food. Essentially, fasting makes you aware of how much of what you do is because you are a slave of your flesh and it's appetites.

    Second, in the passage in Romans where Paul says, "don't think according to the flesh" the literal translation there is meat. Don't think like meat. Becoming seperate from/aware of physical appetites help us to free more space to not think like meat, but rather according to the spirit.

    Terribly shallow summary, but hopefully you get the idea.

  55. Bethgem

    Celebration of Discipline by Richard J. Foster.

  56. Kelley

    I once read that "fasting is a physical reminder that only Jesus can fill our true graving" (not the exact words, but close) It shows how much I truely rely on God – not just words, but actions. It can't be done to bribe God – "I've done without food for a day, not fix this problem this way". but some how it changes my heart to be more like His. It's hard work. Some days I felt like I was at the losing end of a boxing match, but I'm glad I give it a go! Good luck!

  57. KO

    I believe fasting is not so much about the food as it is about coming to know need. Through true need we learn to rely more on God.

  58. lyrl

    You've had a lot of good comments on the spiritual part of fasting. I thought I'd offer a couple of notes on the role of fasting in a person's physical life:

    One of the big research areas in longetivity is calorie-restricted diets. Interestingly, a study in rats found that regular fasting (with no calorie restriction on non-fast days) had similar health benefits to calorie restriction.

    Encouragingly, a human study of Mormons (who are encouraged to fast the first Sunday of each month) concluded this once-a-month fast lowered their risk of heart disease by 40%.

  59. blog nerd

    Sorry I'm so late to this conversation, Jen! I have a bit of a time limit here, so I only had a chance to skim the comments, so I apologize if this was covered, but the biggest reason fasting is part of spiritual practice is that it alters consciousness.

    at the end of life physicians have been known to prescribe extreme calorie restriction because it slows the growth of cancer and creates a natural euphoria.

    eating is grounding. fasting lifts. the insight gained in a fasting state is much greater than one when we are sedated with food.

    Fasting before adoration is particularly keen.

    (and you can do short fasts while nursing safely as long as you are not underweight and you have no other health issues)

  60. asinamirror

    Just a comment on the importance of fasting… When I first read this post, I couldn't think of anything to add. Then just now I was looking up another verse and I happened upon the story in Mark 9 where a father is seeking to have his son rid of an evil spirit. While Jesus was on the mountain, his disciples attempted to cast out the demon but could not. Jesus, of course, was able to, and His disciples later asked Him, "Why could we not cast him out?" Jesus' reply was, "This kind can come forth by nothing, but by prayer and fasting" (Mark 9:29). I had never noticed that before. I take it to mean that prayer and fasting are powerful tools of the Christian, and that adding fasting to our prayer life makes some things possible that otherwise are not.

  61. Maddie

    Just within the last two weeks read a book called, "God's chosen fast", best book I have ever read on the topic. Very quick read and concise, but packed full of scriptures and insight. By Arthur Wallis

  62. Anonymous

    "The Sacred Art Of Fasting" by Thomas Ryan is an excellent book on the subject, written from a Catholic perspective. It covers the practice and theology of fasting not only in Christianity but in all major religions – including Judaism, Islam and Buddhism – without compromising the author's Christian views. Another book I can recommend is "Fasting – and Eating – for Health" by Joel Fuhrman, which offers a (secular) look at the physical health benefits of fasting, e.g. how it boosts the immune system. Such knowledge is worth having when you embark upon or want to sustain a fast. It helps to know that fasting is good for you spiritually, mentally and physically.

  63. antonina31

    I am totally late on this one. June has rushed past me, but I wanted to add my personal experience regarding fasting and caring for young children. I really enjoyed reading everyone's comments and hope not to repeat theirs too much!

    My once a week fast is liquids only from when I wake until dinner. I do eat a complete dinner to make it through the evening/bedtime routine, and I do drink protein drinks and tea all day long to stay hydrated. But, I am still hungry, sometimes growling tummy hungry.

    And, I find that those are my best days with my children. I think that the conscious effort to not eat solid foods awakens my mind and my soul to a greater awareness. It literally slows me down a bit, so I am more calm with my children. Some of my energy is depleted, so I am more likely to sit and read stories with my littles than to run around the house doing chores that can wait.

    I find that fasting has been a spiritually uplifting experience, where I recognize my complete dependence on God in a physical way. Thus far, I have not been fasting for a very specific intention but just a more general one. There are weeks I do not fast on my designated day, if we have big plans for a field trip or something. In general, though I have been amazed at the transformation of my relationship with God when I am fasting. I feel closer to Him, begging all day long for Him to use my sacrifice for His good purposes.

    Many prayers that you discern the right type of fasting for your lifestyle (if you feel this calling)! Thank you for this post!

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