Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Power Of Prayer And Fasting

Kristina Cooper looks at the call to fast as part of the balanced Christian life

Fasting has a long and honoured tradition not just in the Christian faith, but among many of the world religions, all of whom practice fasting. Once a year devout Moslems keep Ramadam, when they are not allowed to eat or drink between the hours of sunrise and sunset. Part of the reason for this, is so that even rich people will experience what it is like to be hungry and need food. Experiencing this then becomes a stimulus to helping people to be more generous to the poor and destitute during the rest of the year.

Do we justify our lack of fasting by our other "good deeds"?

With the relaxation of the old official fasting laws of the Catholic Church, this opportunity of solidarity with the poor has been lost, as left to ourselves, we can forget to do anything at all. Even on the two official CAFOD fast days, we can neglect to fast, and think as long as we put some money in the box, that is fine. I know I tend to justify my lack of fasting to God by pointing out all my other "good deeds," and feel that this somehow exempts me. This isn't really the point because fasting is not so much something we do for God as something which we do, not as an end in itself but because of what it enables God to do in us through it. By denying ourselves physically, in some mysterious way, our Faith teaches us, we make more space for God. By satisfying superficial desires for sweetness by a chocolate bar I maybe can be masking my deeper needs for the sweetness of God, and miss out on the opportunity to turn to Him for real satisfaction.

The gospel itself proposes a whole way of life that is based on renunciation. "If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it."( Luke 9:23-4). This is a strange paradox that life can have more meaning and joy if we put God and other people at the centre rather than ourselves and our needs and desires. Fasting is a way of training ourselves in this, which is why, along with almsgiving and prayer it has always been one of the cornerstones of the Christian life.

In the Old Testament prayer and fasting was also a sign of repentance for sin, and something which individuals and whole communities and nations engaged in. This was an outward sign that people wanted to turn away from their bad behaviour and begin again, and their pleading with God to give them grace to do this.

Fasting is also a source of spiritual power as it helps people to become more spiritually aware and in touch with the supernatural and God's voice. Jesus reminds us of this in Mark 9.29 when, asked why his disciples had been unable to cast out a demon from an afflicted boy, he told them, that some demons only come out with prayer and fasting. Inspired by this, some months back, I thought about the "demon" of drugs that has such a stranglehold on the teenagers on the housing estate where I live. As they didn't seem to respond to any of my lectures on the evils of cannabis, I decided to fast and pray that God would act and set them free. I suppose it was more of a mortification than a fast, according to Fr Jonas' criteria (see opposite), in that I didn't go on bread and water, but just decided to abstain from chocolate, which I considered my equivalent goodie. The experience was a very humbling one. To my embarrassment I only managed three weeks before I was back on the chocolate again, despite all my good intentions. The experience gave me a new humility in their regard. If I, who knew God and had many more advantages in life than they did, still needed my chocolate fix to get through the day, what right had I to judge them, who had neither. I haven't totally given up on this strategy and maybe this Lent, God will give me the grace to try again. That's why it is always encouraging to hear contemporary stories of people who fast and see results.

Fasting a source of spiritual power to become more spiritually aware

Some people I know really experience heightened spiritual awareness when they fast. Gabriele, who works in our office, is part of the Westminster Cathedral prayer group. Recently he went on a three day bread and water fast before an important core group meeting. He said he found that it really sharpened his spiritual antenae when he was praying for people at the general prayer meeting the night before, and he felt he heard God communicating to him in a much clearer way than normal.

Fasting gave me the power to stand up to the situation and not to despair

Likewise a friend who was going through marital difficulties told me how when his wife had asked for an amicable separation so they could get divorced, he had felt prompted to fast and pray, for wisdom to know what to do. He found he was woken up at 5 o'clock every morning to pray the rosary, and when his wife wasn't around, he ate only bread and water for almost a month. He then received a telephone call from his brother and wife, who told him they had been praying too, and felt that God wanted him not to accept the divorce but fight it. He further meditated and prayed about it, and really felt that this was what God was saying. "It was very difficult," he said, "her accusations weren't true and I felt I had to prove this and that I couldn't give up my beliefs to make her comfortable, which was the temptation. The prayer and fasting, I felt, gave roe the power to stand up to the situation and not despair. Then amazingly, things happened and following a family holiday with my folks, she changed her mind and asked if we could have another go at making our marriage work. And things are much better between us now."

Rather than see fasting as a burden, forced upon us, which we try and find ways to get out of and which we feel endlessly guilty about, the important thing is to admit our weakness and our desire to fast and simply ask God for help to do it. Then we just have choose a fast - some are outlined by Fr Jonas opposite - and begin!

Source: Good News

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Hugh Taylor said...

Pray and fasting is like making a direct telephone call to God.

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