When I was little, my mother would give up all sweets during Lent and Advent. As a dutiful Catholic child, I did as well. This practice led to many school snack times and birthday parties during which I would humbly decline the offer of cookies, cupcakes, and candy—careful not to be like the hypocrites who look gloomy or boast while they are fasting. Whenever I was tempted by the sugary treats, I would pray fervently, offering up my sacrifice to God. This seasonal experience was essential to the development of my young spirituality into adulthood. When I recently told my mother about my experience in imitating her fasting, she exclaimed jokingly, “Wow! I just like losing a few pounds before the holidays!”
Giving something up is not the end goal of fasting. Fasting is a means by which we deepen our relationship with God. Through fasting we discipline ourselves to focus on God’s will, denying the body to nourish the soul. Fasting is a way for our bodies to physically pray; the rumbling of hunger and the craving of chocolate leave an empty space within us to fill with the One who satisfies our deepest longing. When we fast for the sake of fasting, we are left with emptiness. However, when we fast for the purpose of realigning our will to God’s, the emptiness we create is filled with a feast of grace. Since God’s grace is ever present and never earned, partaking of the feast simply requires accepting it. Fasting helps us to desire and respond to the gift of grace.
Even though the children in our programs are not required to fast until they are 18, they can definitely experience the grace of fasting through the traditional practice of choosing something to give up. Children love making long lists of things they can give up, because they love the idea of a challenge. However, their enthusiasm soon runs dry, and they become forgetful when they do not sense an immediate reward. One practice to help children feast while fasting is to invite them to think of ways they can purposefully feast on God’s love during Lent. Perhaps turning off the television or phone for a few minutes each day can make time for a few minutes spent in prayer. Perhaps in that moment of turning down a pop at lunch, a prayer can be said for children who are thirsty for clean water. When we create moments in which to experience grace, we begin to notice grace in unexpected moments as well.
Let us get back in touch with the real reason for our fasting this Lent by allowing ourselves to feast on the grace of God, which we accept by making room for it in our lives through the discipline of fasting.