Fasting and the acceptable sacrifice

By Barb Ernster

At Fatima, Our Lady did not specifically ask the children to fast on food and water, but she did ask them to do penance and make sacrifices. The Fatima children came up with their own ways of doing this, including giving up good food in exchange for bitter acorns, or cool water in exchange for extended periods of thirst as a means of making reparation. They didn’t necessarily wake up in the morning and say, “I’m going to fast today,” but they regularly looked for opportunities to deny themselves. And they did so with great humility and love for God, which is at the heart of fasting.

This is why Our Lady taught the beautiful little prayer they said so often throughout the day: “O Jesus, it is for love of you, for the conversion of sinners and in reparation for the offenses committed against the Immaculate Heart of Mary.”

Lent calls us to deny ourselves and enter into a period of penance for 40 days. Yes, part of this is to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and to not eat meat on Fridays during Lent. But if you want to take this further, it is good to review what fasting is really about.

As to fasting, St. Francis de Sales credits it with disposing “the heart to seek to please only God with great purity of heart.” He cautions that an interior fast of the spirit is required as well as bodily fasting and gives three conditions for a good fast:

First, “we must fast with our whole heart…willingly, wholeheartedly, universally and entirely.” Citing St. Bernard, he notes that since we have sinned by more than gluttony, our fast should encompass more than mere abstinence from food. All of our senses (sight, hearing, speech, etc.) and the faculties of the soul (understanding, memory and will) should also be included.

In this regard, St. Francis’ concept of interior fasting means “we ought to hold in check all those things which keep us from loving or tending to the Sovereign Good.” He specifically recommends maintaining custody of the eyes, avoid listening to “vain talk” and speaking idle words or of worldly things as well as checking “useless thoughts…vain memories and superfluous appetites and desires of our will.”

Second, we must never “fast through vanity but always through humility.” As St. Paul declares that fasting without charity is “vain and useless.” Saint Francis says the same for a fast without humility, adding that the two virtues are practically inseparable. He describes a vain fast as one undertaken through self-will as opposed to one ordered or counseled by a superior or director. Some wish to fast too much and others too little. “What causes that except vanity and self-will?”

Third, to fast well, we need “to look to God and to do everything to please Him, withdrawing within ourselves…” with the assurance that He sees our works and will reward us for them.

Lucia exemplifies this teaching of St. Francis so perfectly in her life. While she often denied herself food as did her cousins Francisco and Jacinta, the greater sufferings were the ones she didn’t expect—her families’ rejection of her, the scorn of neighbors and friends, the need to remain silent in many situations. Through all of this she learned to bear patiently with all the sufferings God was sending her, holding in check those things that might keep her from loving God and Our Lady above all.

According to her biography, in the years following the apparitions at Fatima, Lucia found herself facing all kinds of new sufferings, beginning almost immediately at the Institute of Van Zellar in Villar. She faced homesickness and loneliness among the strangers at the school. She had to adapt to a new life with rules that she was not accustomed to, and though she was used to a simple diet at home, found that good nutritional food was scarce in this post-World War I era. Her life was suddenly not her own, but she began to grow in the interior life and “no longer indulged the demand for sacrifices, but was moved by the fervor of her heart, the desire to save souls and console the Hearts of Jesus and Mary.” She wrote that she began to understand that “obedience is better than sacrifice” and submitted to her confessor, sacrificing her own desires and obediently offering up the true sacrifice, the sacrifice of the will.

As once again we face the 40 days of Lent and the call to penance, let us undertake a new disposition toward this and examine all the things we need to fast on so that our offering is done with the right goal in mind – to align our will with the will of God so that our sacrifice will be acceptable to Him.

This article appears in the Winter 2018 issue of Soul Magazine.

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  1. The essence of fasting is giving up some pleasure for love of God. Fasting is also a way to offer penance for the conversion of sinners, as Jesus did. Delaying, for example, my morning cup of coffee or my video game for 5 minutes constitutes a 5 minute fast! If all Catholics fasted for only 5 minutes each day it would amount to millions of minutes for the Mystical Body if Christ as a whole! An idea to be spread throughout the Church!

  2. It is often said, why does God permit suffering? Look at the cross for the answer. In order to love, there is always a giving, a sacrifice, or a suffering involved. Where there is no sacrifice, there is no love.

    In our own lives, love requires that we give, sacrifice, and suffer for the beloved. Fasting is a practice or a preparation of our souls for loving. It is a practice and preparation not only for loving the children of God, but also for loving God Himself. Fasting fits perfectly with the Message of Fatima to pray and make sacrifices for those who do not love God or Our Lady.

  3. I made a lifetime sacrifice to the Holy Trinity by giving up one of my favorite foods. Its been about 5 years now and I can’t wait to get to Heaven to eat it.

  4. This valuable article has been a true benefit to me in preparing for Lent. Thank you! It enlightened me and has given me new perspective on the true meaning of fasting, helping me to search my soul deeply to find that which I am in need of to make a true acceptable sacrifice. Bless you.

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