The Life of Virtue – Fasting

The Life of Virtue – Fasting

By fasting, St Thomas means to go without food for a period of time. According to this definition, we are fasting when we are not eating between meals. However, fasting such as this does not automatically come under the category of virtuous acts. In order for fasting to be virtuous, it must be done for a reasonable purpose. Thus, St Thomas makes the distinction between the natural fast of simply going without food, and the faster’s fast of going without food with the intent of achieving some good end.

Whilst there are obvious physical benefits to limiting the amount of food we eat, such as good health, when it comes to cutting out food altogether and experiencing hunger, the benefits are more spiritual. St Thomas gives three possible reasons for fasting which he backs up with scriptural references. Firstly, fasting helps cool the lusts of the flesh. Secondly, fasting helps the mind to rise more freely to contemplate heavenly things. Thirdly, fasting can also be a way of repenting of the sins we have committed. These are honourable aims – that our passions should be subject to our wills, that our minds be focused on God, and that we be committed to turning away from a life sin. However there are also obvious dangers with fasting if it is undertaken too zealously. As with all acts of virtue, a midway point between two extremes has to be established, and this appointed by the virtue of abstinence which is part of temperance. If we were not to fast at all, we might miss out on the possible benefits, but to fast to the extent that our bodies could not function properly would be to offer a sacrifice of stolen goods.

Because most people are in need of the benefits of fasting and because there are certain times in the year when it is especially fitting that people should receive these benefits, it is a precept of the Church that Christians should fast on certain assigned days such as Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. On such fast days, people should have only one full meal. However this precept of fasting is not binding on all people, because there may be some special reason why it would be unwise to fast. Thus, the old and the sick are not under this obligation. Neither are pilgrims who need to eat in order to sustain themselves on their journey. Having said that, St Thomas suggests that if possible, pilgrimages should take place at times that do not coincide with the fast days of the Church.

The demands on us that the Church makes with regard to fasting are really very light and they are in no way opposed to our freedom, because by fasting we become less enslaved to sin. In addition to these fast days, we may voluntarily fast on non-feast days. If we are in good health, and if fasting in no way inhibits our ability to fulfil our duties, it is worth remembering that this virtue is available to us if we want to conform our lives more to Christ.

Robert Verrill OP

fr Robert Verrill  lives in the Dominican Priory in Cambridge, where he works at the University chaplaincy while completing a Doctorate at Baylor University, Texas.