We invite you to join with the monastic community as they keep their Friday fast for the intention of new vocations. On Fridays, the monks will fast from their main meal – perhaps you, in communion with them, could leave aside something that you usually have on these days and offer this fast freely for monastic vocations to Bethlehem Abbey.
Fasting is never to be taken on for its own sake – it is never an end in itself, but a means to an end, or part of a broader tapestry of tools which we employ in the spiritual life. St Benedict in his Rule recommends it in as a tool for good works in Chapter 4 (do not pamper yourself, but love fasting). Aelred of Rievaulx sees fasting as part of framework of tools which we use in the monastic life to follow the example of St Benedict more closely – the corporal/bodily tools (work, vigils, fasts, poverty) and the spiritual tools (meditation, prayer, compunction of heart, devotion and others).
Essentially, fasting is a discerned way of eating. It is something which we decide to undertake from time to time. It is balanced out by our usual, moderated way of eating and by the occasions when we feast, in order to celebrate particular moments or events. Generally we fast by reducing our usual intake, for example, by skipping a meal, or perhaps by giving up some usual part of a meal. On Lough Derg, for example, the fast means a quite radical reduction in our usual daily intake to one very simple daily meal. Of course, it must be seen to be undertaken along with the other aspects of the pilgrimage.
Christ himself fasts, and gives teaching on fasting. In the wilderness, when he withdraws to prepare himself for the beginning of his public ministry and the proclamation of the kingdom of God, fasting goes hand in hand with his continuous prayer and his being in the presence of the Father. It is a tool which allows him to renounce the other things which Satan puts in front of him (fasting is, after all, in itself, a form of renunciation). He is not only fasting from food but from the usual things of his daily life and the usual human relationships which fill his day. Indeed, when he returns to society after the long period in the desert one of his first acts is to re-establish his human relationships in a new way by calling his apostles. Fasting then allows us to open a space in which we can reconsider the things which are usually taken for granted – we realise their importance, or our future use of them is heightened by greater care and thanksgiving.
It is interesting to note that we usually view fasting as a penitential exercise. But Christ speaks of it in the course of the so-called Sermon on the Mount as one of three key spiritual practices which the Father sees, in company with prayer and alms-giving. Neither of these latter would ever be considered penitential exercises and, to a great extent, neither should our fasting. Indeed, at this point (Matt.6:16-18), Christ says that our outward appearance when fasting should be a joyful one, and he would not intend that our interior disposition and exterior appearance be at odds with one another. Rather, the exterior reveals the interior. And we should note also that, in the verses directly preceding this teaching on fasting, Christ gives us the model for prayer, which includes the phrase ‘give us this day our daily bread.’
Certainly the physical food which we need. But food in Sacred Scripture, and particularly in the Gospels in association with Christ, is much more than this. The petition for daily bread is also about the real hungers which afflict us, the deep, interior hungers which make us aware that we are empty for something and need that something, to be fed by that something, to be nourished by that something, if that hunger is to be satisfied. So, the fasts which we undertake are not merely an expression of a physical discipline but stand as an expression of the other needs which we have, and which, in terms of the spiritual life, are life-giving when satisfied.
This allows us to reflect on the fast which we might undertake as part of our prayer – and that is important: it is part of the whole prayer which we make in various ways – for vocations. When we do this we express a deep need and hunger for that which God alone can give us so that our lives may be made richer, our Church may continue to grow, and the kingdom can be proclaimed in the world – in our terms, vocations to the monastic life, and specifically to our monastic community at Our Lady of Bethlehem Abbey. Thus the fast expresses our emptiness in this regard, and it is emptiness which only God himself can take away.
-Part of our ‘Monastic Practices’ series-