By Professor Jay Richards, Ph.D.
Christians used to fast—a lot. But I never made it a regular discipline until a few years ago. Part of the problem was that I (erroneously) thought that going more than a few hours without food was bad for my health.
Besides, if fasting were so important, why did the Church in her (current) wisdom require so little of it? Our little Lenten abstinences and that hour before communion hardly qualify. These are mere vestiges of a practice that’s mostly died out.
Indeed, I first caught a glimpse of the effects of fasting by accident. I had to go without food for a day and half before a medical procedure and did not suffer the symptoms I had feared. So, out of curiosity, I researched the subject, and found that thousands (and soon to be millions) of people were fasting, not so much for its spiritual but for its physical benefits. This wasn’t just self-help flim flam. There was a growing body of scientific evidence to back this up.
The more I read, and the more I experimented with it, the more convinced I became that we abandoned fasting to our own physical and spiritual detriment. (One of the ironic symptoms of this is that we’ve lost much of the meaning of our feasts.)
But there was a gap in the growing literature on fasting. There are dozens of books that extol the physical benefits of either fasting, high-fat/low-carb diets, or some blend of both. In a parallel universe, there are plenty of evangelical books that extol the spiritual benefits of fasting—a deeper prayer life, victory over sin, renewal of church community, and the like.
Then, over yonder, there are some Catholic books that argue we should fast as a sacrifice. Some authors do so half-heartedly, for fear that someone will think they’re calling for the bad-old-days before Vatican II, when Catholics were legalistic and supposedly lacked a personal relationship with Jesus.
For instance, in his book The Spirituality of Fasting, Msgr. Charles Murphy “sharply delineates” what he calls “dieting and supervised fasts” from “the religious practice of fasting.” He’s right that we should fast for wholesome spiritual reasons. It doesn’t follow, though, that we must ignore the other reasons, and set them at odds with the spirit.
There was, in short, a void where books linking body and soul should exist. After encouragement from others, I decided I try to help fill the void.
In Eat, Fast, Feast, I seek to make the case for a fasting lifestyle. I tout the physical, cognitive, and spiritual benefits of fasting (and feasting). I challenge the notion that anyone who fasts for proper spiritual reasons should not seek mental and physical benefits. After all, if we are unities of body and soul, of the dust of the earth and the breath of God, should we not assume that if fasting is good for us, then it’s good for us overall—body, mind, and soul?