Other major world religions fast with greater rigour than is the current Catholic practice.
For Catholics, the practice of fasting has by and large fallen off the screen, due in large measure to the minimalistic interpretation of what Church members are told "fasting" means: "Take only one full meal. Two smaller meals are permitted as necessary, but eating solid foods between meals is not permitted."
Should you tell that to a Muslim or Jew or Buddhist who asks what fasting means for Catholics, be prepared to be looked at with an uncomprehending frown.
Then, get ready to face the question: "How is that different from a normal day? Don't you normally eat one main meal and two smaller ones? Or even if you do cut down a little, why don't you call that 'reduced eating' rather than 'fasting'?"
The point is well taken. For most people in the world, the word "fasting" means what your doctor has in mind in saying to you, "When you come in for your physical, I want you to fast from midnight the night before." We know what that means: Nothing but water.
We're talking here about a spiritual practice that surfaces in just about every world religion, so if it's no longer on our screen, we might justifiably ask: Are we missing something valuable here?
When the Canadian and American bishops adapted the laws concerning fasting after the Second Vatican Council, they weren't saying that fasting isn't important anymore. The message was that fasting is so important that it had to be rescued from the legalism, minimalism and externalism into which it had fallen. Did we get that?
Recognizing that the laws of fast and abstinence from meat on Fridays throughout the year had become more or less rote observances, the bishops called upon their people to rediscover the spirit of fasting and to find the forms that would give meaningful expression to the sentiments of the heart.
While Friday abstinence from meat was itself no longer going to be required by Church law (except during Lent), Fridays were singled out in the U.S. Bishops' 1966 Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence as days on which we should try to give special expression to our everyday call to love by entering into some service-related activities.
"It would bring great glory to God and good to souls," they wrote, "if Fridays found our people doing volunteer work in hospitals, visiting the sick, serving the needs of the aged and lonely, instructing the young in the faith, participating as Christians in community affairs, and meeting obligations to families, friends, neighbours, and parish with special zeal."
Most Catholics got the part about something being taken away, but most also seemed to miss the part about something positive being put in its place, namely, that abstinence and fast, still valuable and encouraged, could be either complemented by or substituted by other forms of penitence, works of charity and exercises of piety.
The leadership was summoning us to be adults in the faith, to act responsibly and with awareness.
As someone remarked in summarizing the previous approach, "Previously, we just obeyed Church laws. It was an obligation imposed on us, and we just did it."
Now, the Church was asking its members to give it some thought and to use the tools of the spiritual life that fit their needs and situation.
Our interest here is in a particular kind of fasting, fasting as a religious act. What is there to guide us in Scripture and tradition? Three major themes in the history and practice of Christian fasting deserve further attention.
The first is mystical longing for fulfillment. "The wedding guests cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? The days will come when the bridegroom will be taken from them, and then they will fast" (Matthew 9.15). The faithful, after Jesus' departure, are to fast as a sign of their expectant longing for his return at the end of time.
The second is liberation through discipline. Paul's great theme is freedom: "For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters. Only do not use your freedom for self-indulgence, but through love become servants to one another" (Galatians 5.13). Penitence is always oriented toward freedom, to a liberating transcendence of the attachments that bind us (like our routines around food and drink) that we might become freer for service in love.
The third motif is the intimate connection between fasting and works of charity and justice. For St. John Chrysostom, fasting without almsgiving was not fasting at all: "Who benefitted from what you did not take?" St. Gregory the Great, bishop of Rome, preached, "The one who does not give to the poor what he has saved but keeps it for later to satisfy his own appetite, does not fast for God."
The challenge is to hold the personal and the social dimensions together. What makes fasting a religious act is that it is something done for God and others as well as for oneself. In Augustine's words: "Give your fasting two wings: prayer and almsgiving."
(Paulist Fr. Thomas Ryan is the author of The Sacred Art of Fasting.)