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Fasting for Body and Soul

Every world religion includes fasting as a spiritual practice. Buddhists fast. Hindus fast. Jews fast. Muslims fast. Mormons fast.

And for most of the last two thousand years, Christians fasted—a lot. Traditionally, every Wednesday and Friday were Christian fast days. The “Ember Days” were three days of fasting at the joints of the four seasons. And Advent and Lent involved serious, multi-week fasts. Yet today, only Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Rite Christians have retained much of this ancient practice.

I’ve been a Christian all my life. I grew up Protestant and have been Catholic for about ten years. Yet I never made fasting 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. My body would go into “starvation mode.” It would slow down, shed muscle, and store fat.

Besides, if fasting was so important, why did the Church in her (current) wisdom require so little of it? Catholics’ little Lenten abstinences and that hour of “fasting” before communion hardly qualify. These are mere vestiges of a practice that’s mostly died out.

As a result, I assumed serious fasting was best left to monks and hermits.

Indeed, I first caught a glimpse of the effects of fasting by accident. I had to go without food for a day and a half before a medical procedure. I assumed it would be torture. But I had been eating a low-carb diet and did not suffer the symptoms I had feared. On the contrary. My body felt stronger, and my mind, far more lucid than normal.

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 benefits, but rather for its physical ones. This wasn’t just self-help flimflam or another diet fad. 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 Christians should still be fasting. Indeed, 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 some 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 make this point half-heartedly, for fear that someone will think they’re calling for the bad old days before Vatican II, when Catholics were supposedly legalistic and 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 fasting books linking body and soul should exist. After encouragement from others, I decided I would try to help fill this void.

In Eat, Fast, Feast, I seek to make the case for a fasting lifestyle. I don’t want readers to try it once, feel miserable, and never try it again. The standard American diet—heavy of sugar, refined carbs, and grazing—makes fasting much harder than it needs to be. So, non-fasters need a transition period to make fasting and proper feasting part of the warp and woof of their lives.

In contrast to typical treatment of fasting as either a spiritual or physical discipline, 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?

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