February 17, 2016

Fasting and the Taste for God

By Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J. *
Fasting and the Taste for God

In the epic film, “Gandhi,” Mahatma’s fifty-day fast is undertaken to bring about reconciliation between Hindus and Muslims. His extreme act of self-denial draws worldwide attention. “If you want something from God, fast; if you want to relieve calamity, fast,” Gandhi believes.

From primitive times, fasting has been practiced for three reasons:  the magical, the ethical and the religious. As a religious discipline or in accordance with prescribed law, fasting is understood as the complete or partial abstention from food. Refraining from eating meat or meat products is known as abstinence.  It is said that fasting among adults sharpens the intellect and strengthens the will and concentration.  

Fasting in Judaism and Islam

Jews fast on designated holydays of the year to atone for sin. In the Hebrew Scriptures, fasting was practiced especially in times of war, famine, drought, and for deliverance from pestilence. Islamic law has adapted Jewish practices.  During the month of Ramadan, Muslims fast for twenty-nine light hour days during which time they abstain from eating, drinking liquids, smoking, and sexual contact.

Early Christianity

From the early days of the Church, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving were understood as one great act of worship.  Last week in this column, the public prayer of the Church was considered.

Why did the early Christians observe the fast and hold it in such high regard? They fasted to imitate Christ in his passion and death. Fasting was seen as a powerful weapon in the fight against evil spirits according to Our Lord’s comment: “This kind of demon can come out only through prayer and fasting” (Mk 9:29).  Christians also saved food to give as an offering to the needy, an act of mercy for the poor.  

According to Josef Jungmann, S.J., “in the beginning, fasting was not taken as a strict obligation.  It was taken for granted as something which everyone observed, rather like civilized people who realize the obligation of rules of politeness, although they are nowhere prescribed” (The Early Liturgy, 254-256).

In the fourth century, St. Athanasius of Alexandria exhorts the faithful to keep the Lenten fast: “Anyone who neglects to observe the Forty Days Fast is not worthy to celebrate the Easter Festival” (“Festal Letter,” XIX, 9).  

After the Council of Nicaea in 325, many of the Fathers discussed the forty-day fast. From the time of Augustine and John Chrysostom, Lent was characterized by (1) a period of fasting, sharing, and prayer for the whole Christian people, (2) a preparation for catechumens to be baptized, (3) a period of preparation of penitents for their reconciliation.  Later the axiom arose in the Maronite Church: “during Lent, we fast from the world.”  

Fasting was followed by feasting. The former represented a physical diminishment; the latter, a celebration of life.

The Taste for God

Taste refers to the appetite and is most commonly understood in the physical sense as the intake of food and liquid.  In its basic understanding, taste identifies what is bitter, sweet, salty, and sour.  The goal of taste is enjoyment and union with what is tasted. The loss of taste is an unnerving disorder but can be cured by stimulating the taste buds with natural remedies and, if necessary, medication.   

During Lent, Catholics and other Christians reduce their intake of alcohol and delectable foods abstaining as well from meat on prescribed days.  Feeling the pangs of hunger can suggest a hunger for God, our full and complete satisfaction.  Fasting from a created reality frees us from that object, revitalizes the spirit, and brings self-mastery and interior freedom.

To embrace Lenten asceticism is to avoid those things which over stimulate the senses—not only food but also entertainment and the excessive use of electronic devices. The practice of Lenten asceticism is meant to intensify one’s taste for God. Good or bad, taste is an analogous word extending to clothing, and one’s choice of companions, and entertainment.

Good Taste

Good taste is restrained; bad taste is excessive. Good taste varies with the faculties of an individual that develop from early childhood.  The adage, taste may not be questioned or disputed (de gustibus non disputandum est), has its limits and is not absolute. Sound taste is based on objective criteria and the particulars of truth; it is not arbitrary.  

Good taste gives the sense of what is fitting, harmonious, and beautiful, a sense of what is polite and tactful.  It displays social or aesthetic value.  Good taste applies to table manners and public courtesy, caring for the body, and to dispositions and judgments of the mind that reveal one’s choices.   

Impeccable Taste

A person who develops himself or herself according to the beautiful gradually learns to acquire the art of discrimination.  A person with impeccable taste “has an eye for quality analogous to the eye of the connoisseur; he or she can infallibly distinguish art from kitsch, and excellent quality from average or merely good quality,” writes Hans Urs von Balthasar.

The Taste for God and Acedia

The Psalmist exhorts us to “taste and see how good the Lord is” (Ps 34:8).  Here taste, used in the spiritual sense, participates in the act of faith.  The goal of spiritual taste is enjoyment in God’s presence and communion with the divine.   Those who disdain the things of God, those with no taste for God or for spiritual things suffer from acedia or spiritual sloth; acedia is “a loathing of the spiritual good as if it is something contrary to ourselves” (Rebecca Konyndyk DeYoung, “Acedia’s Resistance to the Demands of Love: Aquinas on the Vice of Sloth”). Acedia, one of the seven deadly sins, was first discussed by the fourth-century desert fathers. Through the ages, it has been a problem, but with the current figure of 23% of non-affiliated Americans, perhaps acedia is more prevalent now than in earlier years.

Acedia is an aversion and a restless resistance to God and the Good that sees both as the burden of commitment.  Acedia regrets God’s call to friendship and discipleship. It’s too much trouble to work at one’s relationship with God. It is distaste for and disgust with spiritual things because of the physical effort involved in pursuing them.  Acedia is an oppressive sorrow that so weighs down a person that he or she wants to do nothing.  It is a form of nihilism. These are all classic signs of acedia, a state that recalls the early verses of “The Hound of Heaven” a long poem by Francis Thompson, an English poet, ascetic, and drug addict. He later made his peace with God but not before expressing his odyssey in this famous poem.  The first lines are given below:

The Hound of Heaven

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;

I fled Him, down the arches of the years;

I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways

Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears

I hid from Him, and under running laughter.

Up, vistaed hopes I sped;

And shot, precipitated,

Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,

From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.

But with unhurrying chase

And unpreturbèd pace

Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,

They beat–and a Voice beat

More instant than the Feet–

“All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.”

Acedia and Joy

Spiritual sloth is opposed to joy. If there are people who live in a state of acedia, there are also those joyful ones who walk with purpose and hope.  “In him, they live, and move, and breathe, and have their being” (Acts 17:28). They can readily pray Psalm 63:2-3, 9:

“O God, you are my God, for you I long;

for you my soul is thirsting.

My body pines for you!

Like a dry, weary land without water. . . .

My soul clings to you;

Your right hand holds me fast.”

Sr. Joan L. Roccasalvo, a member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, Brentwood, NY, holds degrees in philosophy (Ph.L), musicology (Ph.D.), theology (M.A.), and liturgical studies (Ph.D). She has taught at all levels of Catholic education and writes with a particular focus on a theology of beauty and the sacred arts. Her e-mail address is [email protected].

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.