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Fasting – a healthy battle with self

Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are associated with Lent. Senior writer Lara Pickford-Gordon visited Our Lady of Lourdes RC, Maraval on March 1 to interview Fr Matthew d’Hereaux as he prepared for the annual fast for a cause.

Is it a sin not to fast during Lent? Fr Matthew d’Hereaux doesn’t think so, but “a person who does not fast is missing an opportunity to grow in his or her spirituality. Fasting should be considered a blessing, something you do for God and for others to deepen your spirituality, to deepen your willpower. As you deepen, you are better able to fight a battle with sin, fight a battle with your own inclinations, your own excesses, [and] with your own waywardness.”

Satisfying one’s appetite is encouraged in the world so doing without can be a challenge. Fr d’Hereaux said “going without” can be seen as “deprivation” and because people have grown accustomed to excess, there is indiscipline and insensitivity toward those who, due to life circumstances, are deprived.

“Fasting is the experience you cannot read [about] in a book, that you wouldn’t get in a lecture or [through] reading a study on poverty. Fasting is a real experience of what millions of people go through every single day of their lives. Fasters fast by choice; the poor in many ways are not in those situations by choice,” he commented.

Explaining why fasting is not just a physical exercise, Fr d’Hereaux said it strengthened willpower, determination and resolve. “All human behaviour is either to build virtuous character or to construct a character of vice. So we have to look at how our human behaviour is built up by fasting, prayer and almsgiving. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are beautiful spiritual practices but they are not ends in themselves—they ought to lead to something else.”

At 6 p.m. on March 1 more than 900 young people pledged support for the 2018 Generation S 24-hour fast. There was an increase of 200 participants this year. “People who have done the fast two years ago are requesting to do it again, so that is growth… enquiries for fast cards, people who are fasting multiple times…the beautiful thing about the Generation S fast is people see it as fasting for a cause. They are linking fasting with something bigger and not seeing it in isolation,” said Fr d’Hereaux.

The Generation S fast began three years ago and has as its theme Sacrifice for Something Bigger Than Yourself.  It combines fasting and almsgiving, with young people getting sponsors for their fast: the first 12 hours $10/hr, and the next 12 hours, $20/hr. Funds raised have been disbursed to ministries that assist socially displaced children, battered women and low-income homes. Fr d’Hereaux said the National Vocations Ministry would like to see the fast institutionalised so Catholics look forward to it as part of the Lenten calendar of the archdiocese, similar to Mercy Sunday and Stations of the Cross.

In the Christian tradition, Jesus always brings people to do better and be better and spiritual practices helped. Fr d’Hereaux noted in the Old Testament, the prophets always brought together cultic worship with ethical practices and chastised the people if they overemphasised cultic worship.

He illustrated this can happen with the individual fasting, praying and giving alms but oppressing their workers. He added, “Whatever we do in terms of practices is to help build virtuous character. The self gets in the way of virtuous character; sometimes we have to get our self out of something. You want to reconcile with somebody? Get yourself out of the way. You want to do team work? Get yourself out of the way.”

Fr d’Hereaux described fasting as a “healthy battle with self” because humans grow accustomed to being comfortable and anything which challenges this natural inclination causes self-preservation to kick in. This manifests in unforgiveness, selfishness, and impatience. He said self can get in the way of marriage, ministry, proper work relationships and obedience to the laws of the land.

Fasting during Lent can consist of one full meal and two smaller meals not equal to a full meal. “The Church’s fast is a guideline. The Church also says seniors and very young children ought not to fast,” Fr d’Hereaux said. He provided examples of fasts—fruit fast, no food/water only, or one meal, but the fast must not be detrimental.

“If you are fasting and it is making you into somebody who is crotchety or somebody who is short-tempered, you have to modify your fast because you are fasting and becoming a worse person.” Fasting which causes ill health is also not serving the purpose intended. He advised, “You must have common-sense attitudes to fasting.”

-Fr d’Hereaux stressed fasting must be underpinned by the correct motivation: uniting self with the sufferings of Christ, solidarity with the poor, and strengthening the will. “If we take out all the spiritual and social elements of fasting, we will find some way to justify it and it could end up being dieting—a sort of cosmetic thing. There is a time and place for dieting and it is not Lent.”