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Book Review: Fasting Still Relevant After All These Years

By Sister Jean Peerenboom

The Spirituality of Fasting: Rediscovering a Christian Practice, by Charles M. Murphy (Ave Maria Press, $12.95).

In these days when dieting and diets, obesity and fitness have become a national obsession, why has fasting as a spiritual practice fallen by the wayside? At one time, it was a central part of the Christian tradition, but it has dramatically declined.

Author Charles M. Murphy would like to see fasting come back as a more central act of piety, but on a more solid basis than in the recent past, he writes in The Spirituality of Fasting. His goal is to show the roots of fasting in Scripture and tradition, and “liberate it from legalisms that obscured its true meaning.”

Please don’t judge the book by that sentence. It is easy to read and to follow. It does not get bogged down in legalism or church doctrine. It is a simple, straightforward, informative look at how fasting came about, what it meant in the early church and what it could mean today. In addition to the history and theology, Murphy includes a plan for those who want to include fasting as part of their prayer life. He also addresses fasting and good physical health, and other forms of fasting, such as fasting from noise or the busyness of our lives.

Each chapter concludes with good, meaty reflection questions. For example, “We all experience actual physical hunger at times. How can I connect this physical feeling with my hunger for God, who alone can satisfy our deepest desires?”

Personally, fasting has not been much a part of my faith practice so it has little meaning for me. I try to think of food as something that is needed to sustain life and leave it at that. Therefore, I approached the book as if I had a lot to learn. I wanted to understand the “why” behind this practice.

I learned that fasting can “help us become more loving persons, loving God above all and our neighbors as ourselves.” Its purpose is to transform our total being – mind, body and spirit. Murphy stressed that fasting can only achieve this if it’s focused on God, not on ourselves.

He points out that fasting, along with prayer and works of mercy, are the foundation stones of the entire Christian life. In the early church, people fasted every Wednesday and Friday. Wednesday because it was the day they believed Judas betrayed the Lord, and Friday because it is the day Jesus died.

Fasting became more communal as faith communities joined candidates for baptism in their penitential practices during their six weeks of preparation before being received into the church. By the 7th Century, Lenten observances were extended to Ash Wednesday. As time went on, the practice became more regulated by church legislation.

Murphy takes us into the desert with Jesus to show how to discover beyond ordinary food what will satisfy our deepest longings and desires. Jesus’ response, he says, shows that fasting provides clarity of thinking. “It can have a penitential significance, undoing the effects of sin in our lives. But, it also brings to our consciousness our helplessness and humbles us before an omnipotent God.” After his fast, Jesus began his public ministry.

Yet, Murphy reminds us that “Jesus, in his lifetime, forbade his disciples to fast (Matt.9:14-17).” Fasting, he explained, is meant to show our sorrow at God’s absence. As long as Jesus was with them, they should rejoice in His presence. “Fasting is not an end in itself, but must always be in reference to God,” Murphy writes.

The key difference between dieting and fasting, he says, is dieting focuses only on the body; fasting focuses on the heart and its transformation.

The book offers a comprehensive look at the topic: From the history of the practice, to the development of a theology of the body, to its purpose today, its relevance to Catholic Social Teachings and how fasting brings us to charitable works and a solidarity with the poor.

Sister Jean Peerenboom is the former religion/books editor from the Green Bay Press Gazette. Sister Jean is a member of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross. She writes a monthly book review for the Holy Cross Family Blogspot.

To read all of Sister Jean Peerenboom's book reviews, click here.

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