As a child I loved Lent despite its agonizing subject. Thinking about the death of Jesus brought tears to my eyes. Shivers ran up my spine whenever I spoke the words, “Crucify Him!” with the rest of the congregation. The long services filled with a multitude of people crammed into a small space made my head throb.
However one thing made the Lenten season one of my favorite times of year: fasting. Giving up dessert became a game. How long could I go without caving to the temptation of a sugary treat? The more I desired one, the more I resisted. After all, disobeying my body’s longings made me a stronger person, right?
My youthful mind began to equate refusing what my body wanted with honoring God. Unfortunately, I began to warp this idea. If giving up my desires was holy, then eliminating my physical needs must be even better. God would be so proud of my selfless actions and hard work. This theory fueled the urge to abstain from numerous things, leading to ultimate failure and guilt.
Fasting turned from a prayerful experience into a harmful behavior. In college, it finally hit its worst point when I stopped eating and developed anorexia. Writer Joyce Gan published the Catholic News article “Spiritual Fasting – An Eating Disorder?” In it, the topic of restricting food and pray is analyzed.
According to this article, “there are sufferers who employ spiritual fasting as a guise for their condition of anorexia nervosa.” Although giving up certain foods or even a meal can be spiritual, Gan cautions about the dangerous direction some people take this.
There are many elements to my mental illness, making fasting only one part. However, this type of prayer is still a struggle for me. I long to focus on Christ and His passion. During this season, we are reminded of His great love and true strength. Hearing this should bring me great peace and gratefulness.
Instead, Lent fills me with dread. I am plagued by guilt about eating food required my medically prescribed meal plan. While others fast by skipping meals or by turning down desserts, I must work to eat more simply to regain health.
I am not alone in this struggle. According to a 2011 study The Epidemiology of Eating Disorders, 20 million women and 10 million men in the United States of America suffer from eating disorders. National Eating Disorder Awareness (NEDA) states that this illness is increasing all around the world. Eating disorders affect people from every race, religion, gender, age, and socio-economic status. Thus, hundreds of thousands of Catholics around the world suffer from this illness.
There are other types of physical, emotional, and mental illnesses that also make fasting difficult. For medical reasons, many Catholics cannot abstain from food. In his article “Fasting and Church Teaching,” author Jimmy Akin stated,
“The Church does not mean us to hurt ourselves by observing penitential practices, and there are a number of exceptions to the law of fast in particular. Anyone who has a medical condition that would conflict with fasting is not obliged to observe it. For example, someone with diabetes, someone who has been put on a special diet by a doctor, someone with acid reflux disease who needs to keep food in the stomach to avoid acid buildup.”
Colin B Donovan, STL, the vice president for theology at Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN), listed those who are exempt from fasting during Lent including those with health problems.
“Besides those outside the age limits, those of unsound mind, the sick, the frail, pregnant or nursing women according to need for meat or nourishment, manual laborers according to need, guests at a meal who cannot excuse themselves without giving great offense or causing enmity and other situations of moral or physical impossibility to observe the penitential discipline.”
So what should a Catholic who struggles with an eating disorder or another health concern that prevents fasting from food do during Lent? The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops stated that fasting, almsgiving, and prayer are the “three traditional pillars of Lenten observance.” The reasoning for this is that “we can begin to embrace this call by fasting from or ‘giving up’ material things, including foods, that are superfluous to our basic needs; ‘taking up’ charitable habits that are directed to helping and caring for others; and ‘lifting up’ our brothers and sisters who are in need through giving alms, praying and participating in devotional practices.”
Cutting out fasting completely is ignoring a central part of this liturgical season. People who are unable to cut down on the amount of food that they consume should find another desirable thing to eliminate from their life. Here are a few fasting substitutes suggested by members of the Church that might be helpful to consider.
- Radio/Secular Music – My mother and sister both have done this multiple years. What we put into our ears influences our thoughts, feelings, and actions. If you find yourself humming tunes with risqué lyrics or worrying over the news, perhaps this fast would be helpful.
- Social Media – Amy Bonaccorso, a blogger for CatholicMom.com, wrote about giving up Facebook for Lent. Some of her reasons were distancing herself from shallow relationships and focusing on projects that were neglected. Sites like Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest are not intrinsically bad. However, we can end up wasting time or hurting others on them instead of focusing on doing God’s will and touches the lives of others.
- Negative Self-Talk and Actions – This year, I am giving up body checking for Lent. Body checking is a common behavior for women and many men too. We look in the mirror, pinch our stomachs, glare at our imperfections, and complain to friends about the way our clothes fit. These words and actions demean the body that God graciously gave us.
- Shopping – Eliminating shopping from Lent reminds us not to rely on earthly goods. The blog post “Outside the Box: 66 Things to Give Up or Take Up for Lent (in beginner, intermediate, and advanced)”on Catholic All Year suggests three different degrees of giving up this activity. The simplest way was “Don\’t use credit cards, spend only cash.” A bit more extreme, the other two suggestions were “Keep a list of things to buy and only shop one day per week” and “Don\’t buy anything (except maybe food).”
- Complaining/gossip – Refraining from unkind speech or whining is a huge commitment. Everyone struggles with saying sinful things. What better time of the liturgical year to work on this than Lent, when we focus on Jesus being led humbly to the cross?
Fasting from food is a helpful practice for many Catholics. However, numerous others struggle with this practice for medical reasons. Please do not judge those who are in this group. If you are unable to give up food for Lent, try not to feel ashamed. Instead, find another way to fast that brings you close to Jesus in His suffering.