The spring semester of my junior year in college (1978) was the best semester I ever had as a college student. It was also the most challenging. I had a full load of 300-level classes in accounting and business, and competition among my fellow students was very high.
In one of my accounting classes, the teacher routinely assigned homework that consisted of 10 of the 60 problems that were provided after each chapter of the textbook. I wanted to gain a competitive edge, so at the beginning of the semester I decided I was going to work through each of the 60 problems at the end of every chapter. But I had one problem. The answer key for the problems was not available to students, so there was no way for me to know if my answers were correct.
I found out from one of my classmates, a foreign exchange student, that she could order the answer key book from Hong Kong. I gave her the money for the book and two weeks later I had the answers to all the problems in my hands. Each time I came up with the wrong answer to a problem, I figured out what I did wrong and reworked the problem. The problems that were used by the teacher for the tests were variations of the 60 problems at the end of each chapter.
During that entire semester, I was at the top of my game. Focused. Motivated. Disciplined. But there was a reason I had my act together. It was because for Lent, I fasted from everything that had sugar in it. I stopped drinking my favorite daily soft drink (Pepsi), and I stopped eating my favorite daily snacks, which included Hostess Brands’ donuts and apple pies. At that time, I was addicted to sugar. My favorite breakfast cereal was Trix, which had sugar as one of its main ingredients.
As I recall, I had massive cravings for the first three days of Lent. After that, each day got better. Within two weeks, my cravings were gone. Besides having more energy, my mind was sharper than ever. The most significant change that I noticed was the iron-willed discipline that I developed as a result of fasting from my favorite foods.
I believe that my newfound energy and mental clarity was primarily the result of my abstinence from sugar, and I believe that the discipline that I developed was a direct consequence of the constant self-denial that was required to completely fast from the products that I desired. It was because of the fasting that I was able to control my “flesh” — my mind, my emotions, and the conditioned reflexes and tendencies of my body.
Once a year at Sunday Mass, we are reminded of the well-known gospel reading that explains how Jesus was tempted by Satan three times after He had fasted for 40 days and 40 nights in the desert. (Matthew 4:1-11) One of the primary reasons the human side of our Lord was able to resist the temptations of the devil was because of what the 40 days of fasting did for Him. It helped to give Him complete control of His mind, emotions, and body.
Take a look around. Many of the people we come into contact with have trouble exercising control over their minds, emotions, and/or bodies. Why? Because they don’t know what we devout Catholics know — that the practice of regular fasting enhances a person’s ability to discipline their mind, emotions, and body.
Fasting, offered as a sacrifice to God, is one of the highest forms of prayer. Fasting is also the most effective tool that is available to help us take control of our flesh, which includes our mind, body, and emotions.
But we also know from our Lord that fasting combined with prayer creates one of the most powerful spiritual forces that we humans are capable of possessing.
As a reminder, my discussion about fasting began a couple of weeks ago when I referenced an event that was documented in the New Testament. It occurred after Jesus had selected his apostles and gave them the power to expel demons. A man brought his son to Jesus and told Jesus that his boy was possessed by an evil spirit and that none of the disciples were able to drive out the evil spirit. After asking the man some questions, Jesus commanded the evil spirit to leave the boy’s body. The spirit had no choice but to obey our Lord.
Prior to 1989, our Catholic Bible provided an accurate description of what happened after Jesus expelled the demon:
And when he was come into the house, his disciples secretly asked him: Why could not we cast him out? And he said to them: This kind can go out by nothing, but by prayer and fasting. Mark 9:27-28. (Emphasis Added)
I’ve written before, about how powerful suffering is as a form of prayer, as long as the suffering is offered to God in reparation for the sins of others or for the benefit of someone. But fasting can actually be more powerful than suffering because ordinarily when a person suffers, the suffering is outside of the person’s control.
Unlike most types of suffering, fasting is a form of suffering that is completely voluntary. When a person voluntarily fasts, the person has intentionally chosen to impose suffering upon himself or herself.
In our abundant society, we take food for granted. Why? Because it is plentiful, affordable, and easily obtained and stored. For most of history, the types of food that we are accustomed to eating today were only available to royalty and people who were in positions of power and authority. Today, because food is so abundant and plentiful, we take it for granted and don’t appreciate it like we should.
When I was growing up, it was common knowledge that prisoners who were facing the death penalty for committing an egregious crime were given the option to choose whatever meal they wanted to eat before they were put to death. Many of the prisoners chose a steak dinner, which was a meal they had not eaten since before they entered prison.
In general, of all the pleasures that we enjoy the most, eating good food is usually among the top three. The intentional fasting from food or drink is a voluntary choice to engage in suffering that can easily be avoided.
Who would be foolish enough to voluntarily engage in suffering that could easily be avoided? In purely human terms, such an exercise would be foolish. But in the spiritual realm, where a real war is raging in which Lucifer and his agents are doing everything they can to conquer our hearts, minds, and souls, there are two powerful weapons that are available to help us secure a spiritual victory — prayer and fasting.
The degree of evil in our country is unprecedented. The only way we can overcome it is through a significant increase in the prayer and fasting that we engage in on a daily basis.