PRAYER AND FASTING
By Father Paul Burchat from Priests for Life
This is a simple review of some of the basics concerning these two topics. I will start with prayer. One of if not the simplest and best place to read about prayer is in the fourth section of the Catechism. There are as many ways to define prayer, as there are ways of praying. Quoting the Little Flower the Catechism says, "prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy" (2558). That is not necessarily the most perfect definition of prayer but it certainly is a very good one. Prayer of course is a means to an end it is not an end in itself. The end is a deeper, ongoing union with God and prayer as much as anything is what accomplishes this. I make this point because some people can become attached to their form of prayer or style of prayer and miss the real point of it. They have a set routine of prayer and can feel distressed if for some reason that pattern is disrupted. At this point it is not so much God they are seeking but the self-satisfaction of having stuck to their routine. They do all the "right" things and miss the goal. In light of this we begin to see that prayer is a dynamic and not a static reality. Ultimately it is God who invites and stimulates us to pray. Our desire for God is the result of God's desire for us. And as with any relationship the one we have with God will change and mature as time goes by. As such how we pray will change with time as well. So we should not be surprised if our prayer routine, which at one time seemed to work so well becomes dry and unappealing. It usually means that God wants to show us more sides of himself and to enter into a new phase of the relationship he has with us. That entails allowing the old form of prayer to "dry up" so we can replace it with another. You could compare this to communicating with your child. If you are still talking to your son or daughter when they are twenty as you did when they were one year old something is very wrong. Of course sometimes no matter what we do prayer can stay dry and this is God's way of testing us to see if we will stay faithful and whether or not we are really seeking him or just the consolations that can come with prayer.
Prayer is to the soul as food is to the body. If my soul is to stay healthy I need to pray, otherwise my spirit can become sick and listless. "Humility is the foundation of prayer" (CCC 2559). Real prayer demands I understand how utterly dependent I am on God. Without this I may be talking to God but I am not praying. And of course more than anything else or should I say anyone else, prayer is meant to change me not other people. As a result of praying for others they may change for the better, but even if they don't (at least from my perspective) I should be changing for the better. If I am praying for others but expecting that I will stay the same I am undermining my efforts. Therefore there is no such thing as wasted prayer. My prayer may or may not help others but it can always help me. There is also no such thing as an unanswered prayer. Every one of my prayers has been answered. I just didn't always like the answer I got. God tells me what I need to hear not what I want to hear.
There are many styles and forms of prayer: vocal, meditative, contemplative, praise, adoration, thanksgiving, sacramental, intercessory, prayers of petition, etc. etc. Where does one begin? We begin with whatever works. There really is no right or wrong way to pray. In fact there is only one wrong thing we can do in prayer, i.e. stop praying. Apart from this the field is wide open and no matter how we pray good things are going to happen, at least to us. I did not say easy things but good things. However none of this can happen without self-discipline. If we are to develop a mature life of prayer and a stable relationship with God self-discipline is absolutely indispensable. We are fooling ourselves to think otherwise. You don't develop a solid friendship with anyone unless you put the time in with him or her and it is no different with God.
There are difficulties in prayer of course; the most common is getting distracted. When this happens we should not spend much if any time in trying to track down the cause or source of the distraction much less exert any effort in trying to expel it, as this would only increase the power it has over us. We should merely return to prayer as soon as possible (CCC 2729).
Fasting is limiting the amount of food eaten. Abstinence on the other hand is completely eliminating a particular foodstuff from the diet such as meat, dairy products or what have you. Practically speaking the Church understands fasting to entail the eating of only one full meal a day and cutting back on the portions at the other meals. Fasting is not done only by religious people or for religious reasons. People will abstain from certain foods or cut back on their quantities for a variety of reasons. Dieting is a form of fasting, which is done for the purpose of losing weight and with the intention of improving one's health and/or appearance. Some people may be allergic to certain foods and need to eliminate them entirely from their diet. When the primary intention is for the sake of appearance then the underlying reason is either to enhance ones' self-esteem, to engage our narcissistic or hedonistic tendencies or some combination of these. If people are ill or preparing for surgery there may a need to fast or stop eating altogether for a period of time. Others may fast as a means of protest or to further some ideological vision or goal. The Church on the other hand asks us to fast not because she considers certain foods evil but for sound spiritual reasons. The sacrifices we undergo by fasting, as we unite them to our Lord's passion and cross, are a means of doing penance for our sins and the sins of others and thus help to further the salvation of the world. From her perspective fasting helps to curtail our self-indulgence and to tame or mortify our appetites with the ultimate goal of enhancing our spiritual growth. Fasting is one of the three primary forms of penance which the Church has always put forth for our consideration; the other two being prayer and almsgiving. Ash Wednesday and Good Friday of course are obligatory days of fast and abstinence from meat. All the Fridays of the year (which are not Solemnities) are obligatory days of penance and we certainly are free to abstain from meat on that day, but here in Canada we may substitute some other form of penance such as acts of piety or charity for abstaining from meat. This then is the sense in which the Church understands fasting and why.
For more articles and homilies on prayer and fasting please check this link
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