In my life as a single Catholic guy in the south, I often find myself reading books about theology and faith as I spend a great deal of time recharging through reading alone. To make this easier, I prefer to read articles and books and thoughts which are more easier to digest mentally then harder. So while I know the bitter and tough church fathers would be quite nourishing, it’s more often I turn to favorites from the 20th century whose thoughts are scintillating and crisp. Like C.S. Lewis. The writings of this Anglican theologian came from a century where it seemed almost possible to still believe in a united ‘Christendom’ as having any importance or meaning. The early Church fathers were all in favor of fasting, however by and large this practice has been lost in Christendom by the 21st century. What was once an all day fast on bread and water had become watered down to merely not going to a social media website for a certain length of time. I am disappointed. But what does Lewis say?
C.S. Lewis and his wife Joy. Joy had divorced from her first husband before marrying C.S. Lewis.
C.S. Lewis writes to us from his perspective of when it still seemed Christendom was united in core theological and moral beliefs. The submerged continents of changes were still somewhat possible to ignore. The consequences of the two legs of modern feminism- frivolous divorce, abortion, and handfuls of contraceptives had yet to massively begin to sweep away the Christian culture and families to which he had become accustomed. So he was able to stand upon the slowly shifting ground of his day that had yet to lead to upheaval and in clear conscience accept the principle of secular divorce and other philosophies which had yet to rend asunder the moral fabric of society. He was also a moderate on the ancient Christian principle of fasting as shown by his plump silhouette. Fasting as a form of penance, it helps strengthen the heart against temptation, clarify the imagination, and make ready the soul (along with prayer) to understand better the love of God in an abstract and metaphysical way.
Also, I am currently overweight by about ten pounds, although if I could lose twenty so much the better. While I wish I could say that I am fasting for merely metaphysical theological purposes- based on the readings of the early church fathers or some other halcyonian reasons, that would not be true. It is primarily for health reasons although I am going to look at four thoughts of C.S. Lewis on the subject of fasting.
“We are told that even those tribulations which fall upon us by necessity, if embraced for Christ’s sake, become as meritorious as voluntary sufferings and every missed meal can be converted into a fast if taken in the right way.” – C.S. Lewis
I am not missing meals, I am eating thin slices of bread and attempting to still attempt to function normally. During my fast, I am technically not missing a meal. I skip breakfast and take a powdered health drink which along with quite a number of interesting health benefits, have massive amounts of caffeine. For lunch, I have two slices of dry, unappetizing, but healthy Ezekiel bread as toast and a cup of earl grey tea. The amount of food I am eating is much less then a meal. The human body of the average male consumes about 2000 calories every day. Each slice of bread I eat have about 90 calories. It is a little more stringent then what Lewis might have thought of for a fast.
“This Man (Jesus) suddenly remarks one day, ‘No one need fast while I am here.’ Who is this Man who remarks that His mere presence suspends all normal rules?”- C.S. Lewis
The presence of God is upon us every Sunday, when we receive him in the Eucharist and therefore most certainly we do not need to fast on Sunday. However, the supposition of that is if we are not fasting on Sunday, perhaps we should be fasting on another day. Now to speak on my experiences on sunday- it is quite strange the changes that are wrought within me after receiving God in the Eucharist. I would expect peace, happiness, and joy, but the opposite seems to happen. It seems that receiving the Eucharist strengthens and confirms what is already in me. What is changed is my attitude towards it. Atlhough my virtues of patience and other social graces are somewhat topped off, they certainly are not overflowing. I am more deeply cognizant of the deeper feelings within me which are completely the opposite. Now on Sunday, I do not fast for God is with us. I think I had so much rich food at two dinner parties this weekend as well as the unexpected delight of vanilla bean icecream on Sunday that I might have gained a pound. While I do like to relax alone, it is also quite true that I like to socialize with friends. And how I socialized that weekend! I must have had an extra 1500 calories at each dinner party. At least the scale tells me so. This is disquieting for me to have gained nearly a pound, however I am quite happy with how I gained that pound. Now I wish to lose that pound and I am happy to do so.
“Everyone knows that fasting is a different experience from missing your dinner by accident or through poverty. Fasting asserts the will against the appetite—the reward being self-mastery and the danger pride: involuntary hunger subjects appetites and will together to the Divine will, furnishing an occasion for submission and exposing us to the danger of rebellion. But the redemptive effect of suffering lies chiefly in its tendency to reduce the rebel will. Ascetic practices, which in themselves strengthen the will, are only useful in so far as they enable the will to put its own house (the passions) in order, as a preparation for offering the whole man to God. They are necessary as a means; as an end, they would be abominable, for in substituting will for appetite and there stopping, they would merely exchange the animal self for the diabolical self.” – C.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis and his Friend Paddy before being sent to Europe to fight in WW1. Clive survived the trench warfare of WWI, Paddy didn’t.
C.S. Lewis had a good point here. The increase in the power of the will over the power of the vices of the flesh can lead quite easily to the deeper evils of vices of the soul.
So we find that fasting and other methods of penance do not make a man better by themselves. Much of what they do naturally is to strengthen the interior part of the man over the exterior part of the man which is the body. If the interior part of the man is mostly virtue, then he is strengthened against the fleshly vices. However if the interior part of a man is evil- then the evil is strengthened as it is no longer held back by these same vices. Again, fasting is like quenching a red-hot sword of a man’s soul. Whether the sword is to be used for good or evil, the sword is tempered and made harder none the less. Good is not equivalent to evil. However a man or creature is more dangerous the more self control it has and the less easily distracted it is by lesser vices.
The common rubble of a man, fond of bodily vices such as fornication and fermented hops will never be quite so much a danger to society as a man with vices of the soul The higher a man is with natural virtue and lack of natural vice, the more height he has to fall. Lucifer fell from being the great height of an Arcangel, and so is more dangerous.
Men with self control of the body and yet sinfulness of the soul are most dangerous. Men like Robespierre a leader in the French Revolution, who did not have many vices of the flesh and therefore was more dangerous as he led the terror in France, deposed the government, and lead the mass executions of the revolution in France where blood filled the gutters like rain. There is also another biography of a man whose name I forget- whose goal in life was incredible self-control and will. To do this he would take a lighter and burn the flesh of his palm until he could no longer stand it. He went on to some sort of sordid career success and later came to Christ. I have the inkling that he was involved in some sort of dark skullduggery, such as the overthrow of a central or South American government but I can’t be certain.
“It is impossible to accept Christianity for the sake of finding comfort: but the Christian tries to lay himself open to the will of God, to do what God wants him to do. You don’t know in advance whether God is going to set you to do something difficult or painful, or something that you will quite like; and some people of heroic mould are disappointed when the job doled out to them turns out to be something quite nice. But you must be prepared for the unpleasant things and the discomforts. I don’t mean fasting, and things like that. They are a different matter. When you are training soldiers in maneuvers, you practice in blank ammunition because you would like them to have practices before meeting the real enemy. So we must practice in abstaining from pleasures which are not in themselves wicked. If you don’t abstain from pleasure, you won’t be good when the time comes along. It is purely a matter of practice.” – C.S. Lewis
C.S. Lewis had a good point about abstaining from pleasures. Last week I was eating less carbohydrates as a means of dieting. I was incredibly hungry for carbohydrates. I envisioned a bagel covered with cream cheese with a fixation and strong desire that was unexpected. I resisted the temptation for 24 hours until I ate the last bagel in the house, and put on it as much cream cheese as I could.
In conclusion, to fast in this ‘modern’ day and age is to engage in what was once an ascetic practice. Will it make you happier? Will it improve your relationship with God? In my experience, it has not- at least not yet. While I might hope that prayer and fasting may lead one to a more immediate mystical encounter with God it has yet to happen to me. Self-control is not necessarily good or evil, but it is advantageous to the individual.
Photograph of Four Bagels Courtesy of starleigh.
I know C.S. Lewis had the right idea about abstaining from pleasure, but there is something about the simple pleasure of a bagel when one is engaging in a low-carb diet that is incredibly hard to resist. I encourage you to try it yourself in combination with more prayer and to see how it changes your experience of the presence of God. I know C.S. Lewis had the right idea about abstaining from pleasure, but there is something about the simple pleasure of a bagel and cream cheese when one is engaging in a low-carb diet that is incredibly hard to resist.