The Difference Between Dieting and Fasting: Christ
L'Osservatore Romano

Lenten interview with a theologian of the Pontifical Household

On 13 February [2008], the Italian edition of L'Osservatore Romano interviewed Fr Wojciech Giertych, O.P., Theologian of the Pontifical Household, on the Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and ascesis. The following is a translation of the interview.

Q: Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the three characteristic practices of Lent. Can you explain their theological basis?

Fr Wojciech Giertych: These are three things that the Church asks us to perform in this Lenten season in preparation for Easter. These three ways of deepening our relationship with God were already known in the Old Testament. Jesus himself refers to this living tradition.

Prayer is addressed to God; fasting is addressed to us, it helps us to control ourselves, hence, is an act of love for ourselves; and almsgiving is an act of love for others. Just as there are sins against God, against ourselves and against others, so these three ways of deepening our spirituality which the Church proposes to us in the Season of Lent concern our relationship with God, with others and with ourselves. Fasting is linked to these three dimensions.

And what is fasting? A precept of the Church? An act of virtue? A legacy of the past or a fashion of today?

Fasting, of course, also has a value at a profane, natural level that has nothing to do with piety. In this sense fasting is an effort to deepen virtue, thus to control oneself. The pagan or Stoic ethic included the idea of fasting in order to avoid being dominated by passion.

Fasting is an ascetic practice that encourages self-control. In the Christian context, however, fasting does not have the same value as in the profane ethic in which fasting was solely a practice for health or personal reasons.

Fasting is for us above all a Christological, hence, theological, dimension of our relationship with God. Pagans said plenus venter non studet libenter: this means that when someone eats too much his capacity for contemplation diminishes. It is true.

Indeed, if a person is excessively attached to external things, he loses his capacity for perceiving God. For this reason the quality of our prayer, of our intimate relationship with God and the ability to hear the Word of God, demand a certain amount of fasting, silence and a few moments to set aside everything that attracts our attention.

Is this topic particularly relevant today?

Indeed, the modern times in which we live create a situation of saturation. We are somewhat dazzled by television news, by commercial advertisements. The shops are full of goods. When we enter them we are bombarded by loud music designed to make us lose our ability to think and thus purchase things we do not need. Then there is the whole collection of entertainments, sports, emotions and reactions that have no relation to moral values.

If we make a comparison with the romantic literature of the great authors, they wrote of emotions, love, sadness and boredom; but these passions were linked to moral values, to service, to love for the fatherland and the family. Today, the whole world is saturated with these sensations that are devoid of values.

"Purchase a certain brand of soap and your skin will be more delicate", we hear. But why? We do not know. One advertisement says: "Buy a new car and you will have a thrill"; but where will you go with this car, what does it mean?

We are bombarded by innumerable messages that attract our attention but their purpose has disappeared. In all this it is difficult to hear the Word of God. When we got to Mass this entire world remains within us and even telephones continue to ring.

Thus, it takes a battle on our part to guarantee ourselves the possibility of encountering God. We need to set aside all these things to be better ready to hear God and to enter into a relationship with him.

In this sense, fasting has a special importance whose motive must be the love of God. This is why Lent is not a time for slimming, to be more beautiful for the summer, but rather a period for setting aside those things that attract our attention and make it difficult for us to encounter God.

In this period an effort is required to detach ourselves from the desires that offer a certain immediate but empty pleasure and to enter into the profound happiness of a relationship with God. The value of this season is motivated by love of God in order to rediscover the Christological dimension, the gift Christ offered us, even to the Cross and to vanquishing evil. The Church gives us Lent to prepare us for opening our hearts to the freely given and merciful gift of God, who gave himself for our salvation.

Is penance a legacy of past centuries, an anachronism, or is it still of vital importance?

Penance is part of our life because only Jesus is free of sin. Each one of us commits sins and is thus in need of penitence. Penance is not only to review one's sins but also to look at the fact that we are limited, that we need God's mercy.

Thus, penance is a process through which to perceive the truth in our limitations, our sins, our weaknesses, and at the same time to convince ourselves that God offers us his forgiveness to enable us to move on.

What role does prayer have in the journey of Lent?

Prayer is truly the exercise of faith, hope and charity. It is the encounter in intimacy with God, and we therefore especially find prayer, fasting and almsgiving in the Lenten season. But this applies to the whole year, not only to Lent. Prayer is time we must set aside during the day to be with God. The exercise of faith, charity and hope is a direct encounter with God.

Just as it is unfriendly if we are invited to a dinner and do not take part in the general conversation, so it is not normal if I go to the liturgy and do not make an effort to establish a dialogue with Christ. Physically I am present in the church, but what use is my presence? It is useful to a certain extent but it is important to enter into an intimate relationship with God. It is important to find moments for prayer during the day, because in moments of weariness, doubt and difficulty the Lord helps us.

Is the ascetic effort of fasting based only on a spiritual commitment or must it also involve the person emotionally?

We have two currents in the Catholic tradition that concern the moral virtues: the Aristotelian, expressed by St Thomas, and that of St Bonaventure. What is the relationship between the sensitive part of a person and his spiritual part? What is the relationship between the emotions and between reason and the will?

St Bonaventure said that the will is the seat of the virtue of temperance and the virtue of fortitude. The will controls and dominates affectivity to ensure that we do what we ought.

St Thomas, on the other hand, says that the virtues of temperance and fortitude are not located in reason and the will but are to be found precisely in affectivity, which exerts a force of attraction.

The desire for pleasure, the passions of force, aggression, fear, all these emotions, these passions have within them the capacity for collaborating with reason and the will, both at the natural level and the deeper level of grace.

Fasting, in the Christian sense, is wholly linked to the relationship with God, to trust in him. It is necessary to enter into the truth of the relationship with God and others in the name of charity and this demands that desires be controlled.

Love of God must be the reason that motivates our actions: a father of a family who falls ill does not only take care of his health for his own sake but he is thinking of his family. Going for a medical check-up is a sign of love for his family that needs him.

In the text of St Paul's Letter to the Colossians we find words that are difficult to understand, whose meaning has been discussed by many. "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the Church" (1:24).

These words are profoundly mysterious but in them Paul expresses that Christ's gift of himself is absolute and has an immense value. This gift of Christ is open in such a way that man with his own personal gift can enter into this Paschal dynamic.

At the time of my renunciation, of my gift, my hope, my love for others, my own kindness, my fasting, all these contribute in some way to the fruitfulness of Christ's gift and thus to the Church's development. The Church develops and is born not so much through her important activities or great projects as rather through the quality of our relationship with God, our gift of self.

The paralyzed sick cannot do much but they can live out love, they can offer a gentle or sweet gesture to their nurses, their doctors and their family. With their suffering the sick can contribute to the universal Church. They contribute to the work of the distant missionary in order that he may not falter in charity and may continue to love the people to whom he is sent in even the hardest situations.

All this happens in a mysterious way because some sick person adds his own suffering, the gift of himself, to this absolute gift which Christ gave us. This does not mean that Christ's death is imperfect or lacks something, but suggests the possibility of our contribution to the mysterious and absolute fruitfulness of Christ's gift.

Is there a risk in fasting of a certain spiritual pride?

The Church reduced the practice of fasting after the Second Vatican Council. Even the Eucharistic fast was reduced to only an hour. In the past, when things were not going well, people would spontaneously think that what was required was a little more prayer, a little greater severity, a little more fasting.

Later, the Church discovered that on some occasions people practised this severity with excessive pride; in other words, they were saying that they were better than others, doing everything with their own efforts.

The Church thus reduced fasting in order to assure that everything done was motivated by love and not by a struggle with oneself, not in a Pelagian manner in which everything depends on our own efforts. This is why the Church reduced the number of ascetic practices and warned that a danger of spiritual pride exists which destroys the community and unity.

Fasting is important; the Church has not removed it but has limited it slightly to leave more room for what is done silently, to make more room for giving freely, for doing good works, not because they are obligatory but because we want to express our love for God.


Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
5 March 2008, page 8

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