Fasting, the Soul of Prayer - in the Saints and in the 21st Century

James Tolhurst FAITH Magazine March – April 2011

Fr Tolhurst weaves together strands of perennial wisdom for today's Christians. His book
Climbing the Mountain -The Journey of Prayerwas published by Gracewing in 2009.

There is a fairly general admission by people that they do not pray enough, or that they find it hard to pray in the first place. This may always have been true, but it is worth considering whether nowadays we have tended to link prayer in our minds with external activity, and have largely forgotten its connection with fasting.

In previous generations there was no question that, especially during Lent, you prayed and you fasted (on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays; and later on Fridays alone).This also applied to Ember Days and eves of feasts. Nowadays we are encouraged to prolong the Paschal fast "throughout Holy Saturday, so that (we) may attain the joys of Easter"[1]. We are also told during Lent "to unite ourselves to the mysteries of Jesus in the desert" and that "penance should be not only internal and individual but also external and social"[2].


Fasting (and abstinence from meat) became 'awkward' in the sixties. When Cardinal Heenan, as President of the Episcopal Conference of England and Wales, announced the ending of Friday abstinence in 1967 he said, "It is questioned whether it is advisable in our mixed society for a Catholic to appear singular in this matter." Dame Mary Douglas, the renowned anthropologist, took him to task and said that its abolition "did away with a vital symbol of Catholic identity and solidarity. Dispensing with such shared symbols would not make self-denying acts more likely or more intelligible."[3] Fasting in Cardinal Heenan's eyes had plainly become a matter of cultural etiquette. The sixties ushered in that option for social ethics at the expense ofdeeper theological symbolism. The early Christian Gnostics had gone further and said, "If you fast, you bring sin upon yourselves."[4]

In Orthodoxy, fasting is part of the notion of Spiritual Combat. St. Gregory Nazianzen, Patriarch of Constantinople in the fourth century, in one of his Orations says, "May Jesus himself convince you, with his fasts, his submission to temptation and his victory over the tempter."[5] In this spirit the disciple of Christ was urged to 'go into the desert' after the example of Abbot Anthony of Egypt (251 -356) and engage in the struggle in union with Christ. Do we consider that we are above such things living in the twenty-first century, where the devil and the evil spirits who wander the world have been relegated to film and TV scripts and video games, along with vampires and were-wolves?

But the spiritual authors persist in their message. Fasting is necessary if we are to be victorious. But victorious over what? Not to lose weight and increase energy. Orthodox writers in particular are quite specific: it is our human weaknesses on one hand, and our spiritual weakness on another, deeper level. John Climacus says, "Fasting ends lust, roots out bad thoughts, frees one from evil desires."[6] But this is no Manichean contempt of the body. Metropolitan Theoleptos writes, "The vanquishing of the flesh secures the victory of the soul and the reasonable distress of the body can bring forth an outpouring of joy for the spirit."[7]

In Western Christianity, there is the same message. St. Leo the Great says, "Through fasting the concupiscence of the flesh is extinguished."[8] We tend to smile at such forthrightness but is it because we have dismissed the whole idea of concupiscence, and shrink from the concept of the flesh having to be brought into subjection; and this, despite the clear teaching of St. Paul (I Corinthians 9:27; Ephesians 6:1 Off)?

The victory sought by the spiritual combat is not some sort of boost for the ego, even though the literature for St. Patrick's Purgatory in County Donegal can talk of "the cleansing value" of the fast "giving opportunities for prioritising values and being physically and spiritually renewed"[9]. The Pharisees, however, in their ostentatious fasting "had their reward" (Matthew 6:16). Instead St. Augustine preached, "No one fasts for human praise but for the pardon of his sins."[10] The early Christian writers considered that fasting was an essential element in discipleship. If we were to be faithful to Christ, then we must not lose sight of the fact that we are both body and spirit and the bodyis peculiarly weak. The Metropolitan of Philadelphia goes on to say, "Train yourself by reducing comfort little by little, that you may both weaken the strength of the flesh and fortify the soul."[11]

Many of the writers on spirituality were directing their thoughts to monks and nuns, but we notice a surprising moderation in their remarks ("reasonable distress", "little by little"). St. Leo makes the point, "It is not much good if the body's strength is weakened but the soul's vigour is not increased. Let us mortify our exterior humanity a little to restore the inner humanity. Let us deprive the flesh of its nourishment and acquire the strength of soul with spiritual food....Not only reducing our food intake but principally abstaining from sin."[12] The idea that the Church in general encouraged extreme penance for all is largely a myth: "Let your fasts be moderate," says St. Jerome;[13]"use discretion in undertaking bodily penances," says The lmitation. [14]Also, in a light-hearted letter to her brother, enclosing a hair shirt, St. Teresa of Avila writes, "I send you this hair shirt to use when you find it difficult to recollect yourself at times of prayer or when you are anxious to do something for the Lord...Even a mere nothing like this makes one so happy when it is done for God out of love for him."[15] In recent years, Padre Pio took up the same point, "Our body is like a donkey which we must beat, but not too much, because otherwise it will collapse and won't carry us any more."[16]

It is not the physical mortification perse that matters. Fasting should be part of a total attitude of mind not an isolated ingredient. St. Francis de Sales is quite definite: "Fasting is only virtue when it is accompanied by conditions which render it pleasing to God...without humility it is worth nothing."[17] St. Maximus the Confessor, commenting on the repentance of the people of Nineveh in the book of Jonah, says that "sackcloth is the grief of repentance and ashes represent humility".[18]

St. John Cassian goes further, in what is almost a commentary on Matthew 6, when he says, "it is very clear proof of the fact that a soul has not yet cut loose from the corruption of sin when it feels no sympathetic pity for the wrongdoing of others but holds instead to the strict censoriousness of a judge." At another time he adds, "What we gain from fasting does not compensate for what we lose through anger."[19] There has to be that interior fast from our faults and our sins. This, in the opinion of many authors, should be part of that stripping away of all that belongs to human weakness, that circumcision of the heart, which is accomplished "by the Spirit's immediate presence... Bodily fasting alone is not enough to bring aboutself-restraint and true purity; it must be accompanied by contrition, intense prayer to God, frequent meditation on the Scriptures, toil, and manual labour."[20] Unless the two kinds of fasting go together there is the danger either of increased pride (coming before a fall) or of relapsing into the very faults which we condemn in others. [21]

But the danger of hypocrisy does not undermine the value of fasting itself. The Imitation of Christ, commenting on the early Fathers of the Church, notes "how scrupulously they kept the fasts" having called attention to "the long and arduous temptations they had to suffer."[22] St. Benedict says simply: "Discipline your body: do not pamper yourself but love fasting."[23]

In the two great religions "of the Book" there is a prominent place given to fasting. The Jewish fast days (tannic, tzorn) which are always penitential are either public, like Yom Kippur; or are a remembrance of past sad events such as a parent's anniversary of death (yahrzeif) or the assassination of the last Governor of Judah (fast of Gedaliah). The book of Samuel records that at Mizpah the whole people "fasted, confessing we have sinned against the Lord" (I Samuel 7:6). Many rabbis interpret fasting as a sacrificial offering to God, of the flesh of one's own body. ;[24]

The fourth pillar of Islam is the fast {sawn) of Ramadan as a reflection upon the human dependence on God and on spiritual goals. It is a considerable test of endurance since the ninth Moslem month lasts a full thirty days and demands abstinence from food, drink and sexual relations from dawn to dusk. While we may consider such abstinence excessive, it ought to make us reflect. Are we so minimising our idea of fasting that it becomes a vague idea to cut down? The Cure of Ars (no stranger to mortification) says, "Fasting does not consist solely of privations in the way of eating and drinking but of denying ourselves what pleases us most."[25] The holy pastor did not in any way ask people to imitate him, but to anexceedingly overweight penitent who asked him what she should do, he replied, half in jest, "Three Lents". We all know our peculiar addictions, and Lent is an excellent time to deny ourselves their indulgence.


Those who complain that they find it hard to pray may be making the mistake of divorcing prayer from any idea of fasting.

Metropolitan Peter Chrysologus preached, "Let prayer, mercy, and fasting be one petition for us before God ... fasting is the soul of prayer."[26] We need to join prayer to fasting especially if we want to emphasise the seriousness of our intention. This is very much a part of some Pentecostal and Fellowship Churches, who talk in terms of the gifts of fasting brought about "through the enabling of the Spirit" (including the Daniel fast- Daniel 1:12). It was also part of St. John Vianney's views. He said to a priest who complained about his parishioners, "Have you fasted for them?" If we accept that fasting is not only an attempt to discipline the body, but above all an attempt to eradicate the weaknesses (which St. John Damascenecalls passions[27]) of the soul, then what we practise in fasting will naturally have an effect on our prayer.

Our common definition says that prayer is the ascent of the mind to God. This means, says Isaac of Nineveh, "the mind detached from earthly things and the whole heart pointed to that on which it hopes".[28] Just as fasting involves that struggle to undermine our attachments to our weaknesses, so prayer is part of a spiritual combat. One of the desert fathers tells us, "To my mind there is no labour so great as prayer to God: for when one wishes to pray to God, the hostile demons make haste to interrupt the prayer, knowing that their sole hindrance is in this, a prayer poured out to God ... Prayer is the burden of a mighty conflict to one's last breath."[29] We cannot avoid the need tostruggle against our faults. Indeed St. Benedict says, "Every day with tears and sighs confess your past sins to God in prayer and change from these evil ways in the future."[30]

We must set against this rather daunting prospect Teresa of Avila's seemingly casual description of prayer as "simply a friendly and frequently solitary conversation with him who, as we know, loves us."[31] The two are not mutually exclusive. St. John of the Cross - her spiritual director - states, "the soul finds its joy in spending lengthy periods in prayer, perhaps even entire nights..."[32] But we delude ourselves if we think that prayer is simply achieved without any effort on our part.

If fasting is an offering to God, so also is prayer. Tertullian maintains that it belongs to God and so is acceptable to him [33]. It is pleasing to him because of the effort we make.

Padre Pio used to talk of the mortification of the clock- to be punctilious in the matter of time dedicated to prayer. St. Jerome maintains "we ought to have fixed hours for prayer."[34]


Fasting breeds humility, which is also the bedrock of prayer. The tax collector went home justified because he prayed, "Be merciful to me, a sinner" (Luke 18:13). St. Mark, the fifth century monk says, "He who wants to cross the spiritual sea is long-suffering, humble, vigilant and self-controlled."[35]

Rather than shrugging off an awareness of our sinfulness, and regarding our temptations as tiresome distractions, we should face up to both. The Imitation maintains that "it is better for us not to be wholly free of temptation (and) most earnestly pray to God, asking him to support us in our every trial"[36]. St. Paul relates: "Because of the abundance of the revelations and that I might not become too elated, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, an angel of Satan to beat me." (2 Corinthians 12:7). The time of prayer is the time when we are brought face to face with our own demons.

It is pointless to go to extremes in prayer, as in fasting. We pray as we can, and not as we can't. St. Teresa advises, "we must shorten our time of prayer, however much joy it gives us, if we see our bodily strength waning or find our head aches: discretion is most necessary in everything."[37] This in no way panders to hypochondria, because Teresa insisted on the value of fixed times for prayer.

But just as we must resolve to set aside time, so we must also prepare. St. John Cassian advises, "Before the time of prayer we must put ourselves in the state of mind we would wish to have in us when we actually pray...The Soul will rise to the heights of heaven or plunge into the things of earth depending upon where it lingered before the time of prayer."[38] We need to quiet our mind and centre our heart on God. Jesus has told us. "When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door" (Matthew 6:6). We close the door by trying to shut out all the rubbish we have accumulated so that we can direct our prayer to God. St. Hugh of Lincoln (d. 1255) used to take off his cloak and hang it up before entering choir, saying, "I leave withyou all my episcopal cares". Yes, we can bring our worries into our prayer but we should start by entering into that stillness which is not possible unless we close the door. Orthodox writers mention in the same breath, "Prayer, deep stillness and complete detachment".[39]

St. Gregory of Sinai stresses that this stillness is the fruit of prayer and its reward: "Stillness gives birth to contemplation, contemplation to spiritual knowledge and knowledge to apprehension of the mysteries."[40] St. John of the Cross talks in terms of "a secret and peaceful inflow of God, which, if not unhampered, fires the soul in the spirit of love."[41] This searching for God and his transforming love ends with God taking all the initiative and we, in our humility, being overwhelmed by his presence. But from the start we should be prepared to present ourselves so as to hear God and listen to him, instead of bombarding heaven with our thoughts and needs to the exclusion ofeverything else. We should have as our aim "to pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17) because our mind and heart are constantly attuned to God in that state of complete trust and awareness, "as a friend speaks to his friend". (Exodus 33:11). It was because of his loving confidence and his humility (cf. Numbers 12:3.7-8) that Moses was called to the summit of the mountain to be with his God and hear his word.

Sincere prayer and honest penance are as necessary in the twenty-first century as they were in the first centuries. It was only after fasting and prayer that the Church in Antioch laid hands on Saul and Barnabas and sent them off for the work to which God had called them (Acts 13:2-3). All this in no way disparages acts of charity, or almsgiving, but in our own time, everyone believes in their merits, even governments. It is not the same with prayer and fasting. Yet these should be as much part of our lives as our charitable giving. Prayer should be the soul of fasting, but fasting, understood in its deepest sense, should be at the heart of our prayer.


[1] Constitution on the Liturgy n. 110.
[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church n 840 and Constitution on the Liturgy n. 110.
[3] Dame Mary Douglas, Natural Symbols Collins 1966 pp 43.42. Cardinal Heenan's statement was on July 21,1967. The Lenten fast was discontinued during World War II and not re-instated.
[4] Gospel of Thomas 14. It goes on to say "If you pray you will be condemned"
[5] Gregory Nazianzen (329-389) Oratio 14 On Love of the Poor.
[6] John Climacus (570-649) Abbot of Sinai Ladder of Divine Ascent. Step 14.
[7] Metropolitan of Philadelphia (1250-1322) Letter 1 to Princess Irene The Life & Letters of Theoleptos of Philadelphia (ed. Angela Hero. Brookline Mass. Hellenic College Press 1994 p. 37.
[8] Leo I (d. 461) Homily 12 On the Fast of the Tenth Month (for Winter Ember Days).
[9] Cf Web site for Lough Derg It was visited in 445 by St. Patrick. The three-day fast
starts on midnight the day before the arrival at the island.
[10] Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (354-430) Homilj 60 On the Season.
[11] Letter Ito Princess Irene The Life & Letters of Theoleptos p. 37.
[12] Leo I Homily 44 for Lent.
[13] Jerome (34 - 420) Letter 125 to Rusticus AD 411.
[14] The Imitation of Christ of Thomas a Kempis. Book 1 Chapter 19.
[15] Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) Letter 31 to her brother Lorenzo de Cepeda, 1577.
[16] Padre Pio of Pietrelcina (1887-1968) Capuchin friar and stigmatist. In my Own Words Anthony Chiffolo. Liguori. Liguori Publications 2000. Cf. Numbers 22:22.
[17] Bishop of Geneva (1567-1622) Introduction to the Devout Life Book 3, ch23.
[18] Jonah 3:5. St. Maximus the Confessor (580-662) 4th Century of Various Texts n. 95.
[19] St. John Cassian (360-433) Conference 11 n.10 & 1 n. 7. Conferences New York. Newman Press 1997.
[20] St. John Cassian On the Eight Vices Philokalia vol 1 (ed. Palmer, Sherrard and Ware) London. Faber 1979 p.75.
[21] "When you overcome one of the grosser passions, such as gluttony, unchastity or greed, the thought of self-esteem at once assails you. If you defeat this thought, the thought of pride succeeds it." St. Maximus the Confessor. Third Century On the Vices n. 59. Anthony Trollope more recently remarked, "Till we become divine we must be content to be human, lest in our hurry we sink to something lower."
[22] Book I Chapter 18.
[23] Rule of St. Benedict Ch. 4.
[24] Alan Unterman: Dictionary of Jewish Law and Legend. London Thames & Hudson 1991 p.78. Rabbis record that it was the custom to fast on Mondays and Thursdays cf. Geza Vermes. The Authentic Gospel of Jesus. London Penguin 2004 p.43. Note Matthew 9:14; Mark 2:18 and Luke 5:33. In his decree Paenitemini (1966) Paul VI points out that penance is "a religious act which has as its aim, love, and surrender to God."
[25] Jean Baptiste Vianney (1786-1859) Homily. In a Gospel variant Jesus tells the disciples that exorcising demons requires prayer and fasting (Matthew 17:21; Mark 9:29).
[26] Bishop of Ravenna (400-450) Homily 43.
[27] John Damascene or of Damascus (657-749) monk and theologian, 2 On the Virtues and the Vices, (in The Philokalia). His passions of the soul are envy, rancour, malice, insensitivity and avarice "and all vices of a similar nature."
[28] Isaac, bishop of Nineveh (7th century) The Philokalia.vol. 3 p.212.
[29] Abbot Agatho The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks (ed. Benedicta Ward. Penguin 2003 -composed in the fifth century). St. Leo I adds, "There are no virtuous actions without temptations, no faith without trials, no assaults without an enemy, no victory without a battle." Homily I for Lent.
[30] The Rule of St. Benedict ch. 4.
[31] The Book of Her Life Chapter 8,5.
[32] John of the Cross (1542-1591) Dark Night of the Soul'1.1.
[33] Tertullian (155-) De Oratione 28. Also "This prayer we should bring to the altar of God with good works".
[34] St. Jerome (341-420) Letter, AD 384.
[35] St. Mark the Ascetic (5th century) 1, On Those Who Think They are Made Righteous by Works, n. 29.
[36] Book I chapter 20.
[37] Way of Perfection 26,9.
[38] Conference 9. Conferences New York. Newman Press 1997.
[39] St. Diadochus, Bishop of Photiki (400-485) 1 On Spiritual Knowledge, 9.
[40] St. Gregory of Sinai (d.450) monk of Thrace, 4 Further Texts, 5.
[41] John of the Cross Dark Night of the Soul 1.10.

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