Why Do We Fast and Abstain?

By pintswaquinas February 15, 2024

Lent is here again. For most Catholics, that means fasting and abstaining on the appointed days during this season.

Many Catholics follow the Church’s fasting and abstinence rules without thinking about the spiritual significance. Our culture emphasizes fasting for its physical benefits, but there are also spiritual fruits.

Let’s get clear on what fasting and abstinence are and how they help us grow closer to God.

Locals with Matt Fradd Pints with Aquinas

What’s the difference between fasting and abstaining?
Many people confuse these two terms. Fasting is eating less or avoiding food for longer periods of time than normal. The Church defines it as limiting yourself to one full meal a day, with the option of having two smaller “meals” that together don’t equal a full meal.

For example, you could have a muffin in the morning, a full serving of pasta at lunch, and an apple at night. Typically, there’s no eating between meals.

Abstinence means avoiding meat and some seafood. (Most seafood is allowed on days of abstinence.)

Fasting and abstinence help you grow in virtue.
These two Lenten practices relate to the cardinal virtue of temperance, by which we moderate our enjoyment of sense pleasures. God created a sense of pleasure for our enjoyment, but since Adam and Eve’s fall our drive for food, drink, and sex has gotten out of whack. We have to intentionally rein in these desires so they don’t enslave us and take God’s place as Lord of our hearts.

Interestingly enough, controlling these instincts often leads to a more wholesome and greater enjoyment of them. Nothing tastes as good as a meal after a full fasting day! Let these instincts rule us, however, and they become cruel overlords.

What if you struggle to fast and abstain?
Don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s better to follow the Church’s minimal requirements rather than feel as if you’ve failed. If you want to pursue a more rigorous schedule of fasting and abstinence, you need to work up to it. Consider talking with a spiritual director to ensure you’re not taking on more than you can handle.

Accept the suffering that comes from fasting and abstinence.
Whether you follow or go beyond the Church’s minimal requirements, you’re going to suffer for your sacrifices. Embrace the feeling and offer it to God, who asks so little of you compared to the agony of His Son on the cross.

Suffering is fertile soil that leads to the growth of divine life in us. This Lent, let’s make a special effort to embrace our sacrifices with openness and love.


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