This Lent, I have been meditating on holy fear, and especially this week, since I fell into breaking a fast that I was practicing. Holy fear is an interesting balance between gratitude for our lives and all we have been given, and awe of the Power who gives it to us—gives us everything. But it goes even further—it is an acknowledgment of the fact that even gratitude itself is given, and we do not make it or will it. It is also recognition that we could stop being given these things at any moment, and recognition of the stinging effects of sin. Fasting concretely calls us back to this reality.
In meditating upon this, I discovered that this holy fear is a meaningful way to reflect on the right order of fasting—because, as I know from experience, our intentions can become muddled, and our practice insincere. In order to “stay on track,” as it were, I found I needed to reflect on a few points.
5 ways to “check yourself” in your fasting practice
1. Am I acting out of love or obligation?
Fasting is an act of love. We abstain from something that is keeping us from closeness to our beloved: Christ. Sometimes, we Catholics think of fasting as an obligation or duty. We reduce the deeper meaning of our actions to “something that we do during Lent.” God wants our love and freedom, and when we fast out of right intention, we are participating in this fully.
2. Am I acting out of sorrow or guilt?
I read once that if we truly love Christ and have a relationship with Him, when we sin we feel sorrow—sorrow for having hurt Him. When we fast, we abstain from sin and those things that cause us to sin, and this is out of love and sorrow. Sometimes we get trapped in the temptation to feel guilt and shame. We have difficulty believing we are forgiven, and we have difficulty forgiving ourselves. This can lead to kind of moralistic “self punishment” that is not healthy and becomes self-centered. If we are fasting in penance for our sins, we are doing so out of love and freedom, to grow in relationship with Someone we love.
3. Am I acting out of contrition or utility?
God works in us when we have a contrite heart and spirit. In this state, He builds us up to be the persons He created us to be—to grow into our destiny with Him. This means, that when we choose what we will fast from, we choose it because we truly believe that we need help, and we cannot do it alone—we need God’s mercy to free us from our sins. There can be a temptation to frame this in the opposite way—to choose things that will somehow “benefit” us. A good example of this is choosing to go on a diet for Lent because we need to lose weight. I hear this all of the time! While, that is not a bad intention—it is not an intention for a Lenten fasting practice. This is a time for begging and allowing Christ to enter and change us—and not having expectations of what those changes should be or look like. He is working—trust in that!
4. Am I acting out of gratitude or routine?
Fasting can also be an act of gratitude for what we have been given. In remembering those who go without, we choose to give up something that that we have grown dependent on—something that has become “comfortable.” We can easily forget this gratitude and get bogged down in the routine of Lent, losing sight of the meaning of what we are doing. There is a temptation to choose “the old reliable”—the thing we give up every year. A lot of people give up chocolate or candy every year—which are good things to sacrifice in and of themselves—but it is the lack of intentionality and the lack of thought and serious reflection that is problematic. Christ wants us to take our sacrifices seriously!
5. Am I acting out of sacrifice or pride?
When we fast, we are making a sacrifice. Our intention is to do our best to right what has gone wrong in us—and aware of our total inadequacy, surrender it all to Christ to do the rest. It is His love and mercy that changes us—not our actions. We can start to believe that we are doing something. Or to put it another way, that what we are doing is “influencing” God. This is prideful thinking and admittedly easy to fall into. The simple fact is, it is God who does everything. He does it out of love, and all He asks of us is to love Him. Love is sacrifice, as witnessed on the cross and mirrored in our own relationships—and when we make sacrifices for love’s sake and not our own, we let Him work. We grow in love, in joy and in closeness with Christ.
– Morgan Smith is the Director of Communication for Catholic Rural Life and the creator of several faith formation programs