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The Lenten Fast: Spiritual Warfare Print E-mail
By David G. Bonagura, Jr.   
Saturday, 17 March 2012

Persevering through mid-Lent is one of the great spiritual challenges of Catholic living. The initial enthusiasm for penance and self-reform has waned, and Easter is still on the far horizon. Bellies growl and bodies itch in the absence of food, drink, and other pleasures we have given up. In turmoil we ask ourselves, “What is the point of fasting anyway?” 

The answer comes directly from the liturgy itself. In the Fourth Preface for Lent (which is the same as the only Lenten Preface for the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite), we pray to God the Father, “By this bodily fast You suppress our vices, elevate our minds, bestow strength and rewards.” Depriving the body of physical pleasantries provides the soul with spiritual benefits. Freed from worldly desires, we focus more intensely on overcoming sin and moving toward the Lord and the graces that the Paschal mystery promises.

This, of course, is the ideal. But in our hunger and deprivation, we can easily find ourselves wallowing in our own misery rather than lifting our hearts towards the Lord. Worse, the self-pity induced by our acts of piety can even fan our vices rather than suppress them. How, practically, can the Lenten fast generate spiritual growth rather than longing for the goods we have temporarily forsaken? 

In his magnificent exegesis of Lent in The Church’s Year of Grace, the German theologian Pius Parsch likens Lent to spiritual warfare. Lent is a war between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan, to be sure. But it is simultaneously fought on another related front: within the soul of each of us. On this battlefield, the combatants are our higher and lower natures, that is, the spirit – the supernatural life of the soul – and the flesh – human nature weakened by original sin (cf. Galatians 6:8).

Parsch reads the Lenten Preface in light of this battlefield and our Lord’s injunction: we cannot serve both God and Mammon. The latter includes the vices of certain sensual pleasures referred to in the Lenten Preface. It is the very purpose of Lent to root these out. Jesus’ own struggle with Satan in the desert – read annually on the First Sunday of Lent – provides a model for our own battle. As Jesus would explain later in his ministry, Satan – and with him, sin – can  only be cast out by the combination of prayer and fasting. 

Not all sensual pleasures are vices, but even noble pleasures can consume our minds and lead us from God. When we willfully deny ourselves these good pleasures, the spirit, now less encumbered, can reorient itself to the divine. Our fallen nature, hungry for its longings, will kick back in protest and we will feel our determination waver, but we must remember that we are at war and must soldier on.

         Christ in the Desert by Ivan Kramskoi (1872)

Success against sensual pleasure must then move on to fight the more insidious enemy of pride. Again Parsch explains how the battle is fought:  

Abstinence from sensual pleasures gives the soul a boost. Bodily pleasures are like leaden weights holding the soul to earth; if these disappear, if these are removed, the soul rises, like a balloon, to celestial heights. Now we see what great significance moderation, chastity, and virginity have for the kingdom of God. Fasting, then, elevates the mind and bestows upon the soul the power to practice virtue and become holy. And finally it helps us attain the crown of eternal glory.

The will, then, is the all important weapon in our Lenten fast, but in itself it is incapable of total victory. The will must be fortified by prayer and purified by sacramental confession. The graces received will not vaporize the enemy – temptation toward sin or toward breaking our resolutions made for God. Instead, they aid our struggle, and make victory possible.

A student once told me that her parish priest advised her not to give up anything during Lent, lest when Easter arrives she be too preoccupied with consuming the missed food to focus on the Resurrection. This well-intentioned suggestion overlooks our bodily nature, and consequently removes Lent from the battlefield of sanctity in favor of an overly spiritualized approach.

When we fast our bodies pray along with our souls and learn that only heavenly bread can satisfy our deepest desires. In the words of Pope Benedict, the “true fast is thus directed to eating the ‘true food,’ which is to do the Father’s will (cf. Jn 4:34).” Easter is the ultimate triumph of the Father’s will. Our joy from sharing in that triumph is only enhanced when we offer the risen Lord our victory on the battlefield of Lent.

With each hunger pang we resist, and with each penitential act we perform, our chastened bodies cry out for physical comfort. The cries direct us to Easter, which provides the grace to conquer sin and live the life of the spirit. By directing our broken selves with a will steeped in grace, may we be found worthy of the fast our Lord undertook for our salvation. 

David G. Bonagura, Jr. is an adjunct professor of theology at the Seminary of the Immaculate Conception, Huntington, NY.

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Comments (5)Add Comment
written by Dave, March 17, 2012
Thank you, Prof. Bonagura, for a beautiful meditation on the importance of fasting. Fasting shows us how deeply we are attached to the fleeting pleasures of this world, pleasures which must be given up (and which may, if God wills, be returned) if we are to be wholly attached to God, the source of life, happiness, and peace, and our eternal destiny. Pope Benedict's first volume of Jesus of Nazareth sets forth beautifully the nature of our Lord's temptations and the meaning of his victories over them.
written by Dan Deeny, March 17, 2012
Dr. Parsch makes a mistake when he writes "Abstinence from sensual pleasures... rises to celestial heights." That was, I believe, one of the mistakes the Cathars made. Catholicism is a sensual religion: we have candles, incense, paintings, etc. What could be more sensual than the Body and Blood of Jesus?
I would say Satan is against sensual pleasure. Sensual pleasure is the catalyst that helps create souls to fill up heaven.
Mr. Bonagura might want to rethink his support for Dr. Parsch's mistake.
written by David Bonagura, March 17, 2012
I would respectfully ask Mr. Deeny to delve deeper into Father Parsch's insight, which I would argue reflects the tradition of the Church. As I mentioned, there are noble sensual pleasures, and Catholicism is indeed a sensual religion that sees the fruits of the earth as good things to be enjoyed. (Cathars, Albigensians, Manichees, and Gnostics see sensuality as evil, not Catholics.) But the tradition of fasting--freely abstaining from the goods of the world--has been the practice of our Jewish forefathers, commended by Jesus himself, and promoted throughout Church history precisely because letting go of these things allows us to focus more sharply on God. This is not an indictment of sensuality, but a recognition that our ultimate end is spiritual, and it is grace, not sensual pleasure, that is humanity's greatest good and the surest path to salvation. It is noteworthy that even though the Church sees creation and created things as good, the greatest saints--St. Francis, St. John of the Cross, Blessed Theresa of Calcutta--freely renounced the goods of the world so they could live completely according to the life of the soul, and they do so in precisely the manner that Parsch describes.
written by Dan Deeny, March 20, 2012
Mr. Bonagura
Thank you for your response. I looked up Fr. Parsch in Amazon. Too expensive! Over $50 for his series.
I'm still not convinced. Mind you, I don't dispute your or Fr. Parsch's expertise. I think it is dangerous for some of us to separate body and spirit. It works better for us if we see them working together. I met an ex-Catholic at work who is now a Calvinist. She thought Catholics too sensual.
I'm glad you mentioned Mother Theresa and St. John of the Cross. In one of St. John's poems, he describes Eve's meeting with Satan as a rape. This works better logically since Original Sin is passed on by Adam, who accepted the rape and did not fight Satan, as he should have done. And Mother Theresa has "I Thirst" as one of Jesus's sayings she wants us to note.
Finally, Jesus's last day with his disciples was not spent in the desert fasting, but at a supper with food and drink.
And what about the woman who covers his feet with tears and fragrant oil?
Perhaps you can modify the Church's traditional emphasis?
written by David Bonagura, March 21, 2012
Mr. Deeny: Good points. But there is no need to modify the Church's traditional emphasis: we are an Easter people, and normally, when the bridegroom is with us (the risen Lord) we celebrate. But as Jesus said, when the bridegroom is taken away (Lent, Fridays throughout the year), we fast from the goods of the earth as a sacrifice. Here we don't separate body and spirit in a dualistic way, but remember that union with God, the ultimate goal of the spiritual life, lies beyond the sensual realm.

Under normal circumstances, you are right: body and spirit mutually complement one another. Sensuality can be a means to contemplate the divine, but sometimes it can consume us and lead us away.

One final example is the Church's liturgy: for most of the Church year, physical things along with music appeal to our senses to elevate our minds to God. In Lent we see an elevation of spirit over body (in the proper sense described above): we strip the altar of decoration and the Alleluia ceases. At Passion Week (5th Week of Lent) we become more strict: all of the images and crucifixes in the Church are veiled so we can focus more on the suffering of our Lord. Come Good Friday, the entire sanctuary is laid bare in mourning. In sum, our liturgical practice images our practice of fasting, all for the right reasons. Come Easter, we decorate the church, sing a triumphant Alleluia, and then partake of the goods that we freely sacrificed for 40 days--we celebrate with spirit and body in unison. Come, Lord Jesus.

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