Priestly Fasting as Spiritual Warfare
The right use of taste and temperance in priestly life
“Taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps 34:9). It is in the holy Mass that the priest offers the most excellent worship of God, the fruit of which is the tasting and seeing of him through holy Communion.
Yet after offering Mass on Mount Calvary, we priests may find ourselves descending and remaining on the plains of our weakness and sins. Much of what keeps us in the lowlands of the spiritual life is our attachment to created things, which by their nature keep us from staying on the summit of love. One of these attachments deals with the use of our senses, particularly that of taste. The right use of our taste has a direct influence on our sanctification. Our focus in this essay is on the virtue of temperance in the priestly life in the context of its relation to food.
St. Paul writes: “Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. … I do not fight as if I were shadowboxing. No, I drive my body and train it, for fear that, after having preached to others, I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:25-27). The apostle here uses images from sports, appealing to Corinthians familiar with Greek gymnasia and the nearby Isthmian games, which involved the need for training well in track and field and shadowboxing. Interestingly, the word asceticism is derived from the Greek word askesis, which means training and self-discipline.
Asceticism is a key virtue for a priest, as it promotes growth in fortitude. A priest who pampers his body makes himself spiritually weak. Growing stronger in the spiritual life involves fasting, which helps one to attain freedom from the influence of the demons (cf. Mk 9:29).
Yet fasting is difficult. Bishop Fulton J. Sheen seldom preached about fasting in a rigorous kind of way, for he always found fasting to be difficult. The fear of the pain and the discomfort of fasting afflicts our soul.
Virtue and Vice
To arrive at perfection in pastoral charity, priests need the virtue of temperance in eating and must avoid its opposing vice, gluttony. Temperance is “the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1809). Temperance tempers, or moderates, our desires for food, drink or sex, under the direction of right reason.
One way by which we attain and maintain the virtue of temperance as it relates to food is through fasting, which is “refraining from food and drink as an expression of interior penance, in imitation of the fast of Jesus for forty days in the desert” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, Glossary). Temperance regulates the proper manner of satisfying our hunger according to God’s law. Its corresponding beatitude, according to St. Augustine, is, “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, / for they will be satisfied” (Mt 5:6).
The vice of gluttony, on the other hand, is the inordinate desire of eating or drinking. Gluttony has an impact on our spiritual life, even if it is not immediately evident. All elements of our priestly life are connected, and often a deeply rooted sin remains hidden from our eyes but is manifested through other sins. The sin of impurity, for example, can be rooted in the sin of gluttony. The inordinate desire for food fuels the unruly sexual passions. St. Maximus the Confessor wrote: “Grievous is the demon of fornication and he presses heavily upon those who struggle with this passion, especially if one neglects to practice moderation in food” (Philokalia, 20). With the excessive indulgence of the body comes neglect of the soul.
The vice of gluttony is usually associated with overeating, but according to St. Thomas Aquinas, it can manifest itself also in (1) fussiness with tastes and fine foods, (2) eating between meals without good reason, (3) eating too expensively and (4) eating too quickly and greedily (cf. Summa Theologiae, II-II, 148, 4).
Ironically, while some of us may avoid regular fasting, we can readily take up a rigorous diet to lose weight. Many contemporary diets, however, promote self-indulgence in which there is little concept of self-control and limiting one’s gratification. For example, with the development of artificially sweetened food, one can eat more dessert with the hope of not gaining weight. Where is the training — that is, asceticism — in virtue in this case?
The same is true of diet soft drinks, which can lend one to the habit of seeking a pleasure that is disconnected from its natural result, that of intaking excessive calories with the resulting weight gain. The desire for sweet things is satisfied without seemingly paying the price.
Other than any negative physical effects obtained through the consumption of potentially dangerous chemicals found in artificial sweeteners, the negative moral effect is avoidance of saying “no” to a desire that needs to be restrained through the virtue of temperance.
Incidentally, this mentality and practice — seeking pleasure without consequences — presents itself in a gravely sinful form with regard to another pleasure that is pursued without its natural consequence: contraception.
Concrete Measures to Take
The ultimate purpose of priestly fasting is to stir up divine charity in our hearts to glorify God, save souls from hell and become saints. We fast to convert our nation, save the unborn and rid our nation of many other evils that afflict it.
The fear of the pain associated with fasting is what holds many priests back from regular asceticism. However, we can fast in a way that won’t harm our health and few will notice. As we grow in the virtue of temperance, we will find ourselves becoming stronger and can more actively engage in spiritual warfare. When we grow in temperance, we are surprised at how relatively easy fasting becomes.
In view of building up our strength to fast, what follows are a few suggestions to incorporate fasting into the priestly life that neither will draw attention to ourselves nor harm our health:
1. We can stop grazing between meals and eating unnecessarily. Have we strategically placed snacks and candy in our rectory and parish offices where we may be eating without thinking?
2. On occasion, we can forego putting on salt and pepper or other condiments on our food. St. Thérèse of Lisieux routinely abstained from adding flavoring to the meals that were set before her, both as an act of mortification of her appetite and an act of thanksgiving to God for the gift of food.
3. We can delay quenching our thirst for several minutes, offering the discomfort for dying sinners, and then when drinking, doing it for God’s glory. Small sacrifices like this can act as opportunities for making a spiritual communion by which the grace of our daily Mass can develop throughout the day.
4. Are we enslaved by caffeine? We can work to have one or more caffeine-free days during the week, or at least to limit our intake.
5. At a restaurant, we do not always have to order our favorite dish. Perhaps we can go with our second choice once in a while? Moreover, money saved from ordering less expensive meals can be donated to the poor.
6. Let us not complain about food served, but exercise charity toward the one who prepared the meal and pray for those in the world who die each day of hunger.
7. We can focus more intently on liturgical occasions for fasting, such as observing the Ember Days, maintaining abstinence from meat on Fridays outside of Lent, and increasing the length of our Eucharistic fast on those days when it is possible.
8. Finally, we need to confess the sin of gluttony in the Sacrament of Penance, for we then are apt to receive specific sacramental graces that enable us to overcome this vice.
Eucharist Is Source and Summit
In the priestly life, fasting and the enjoyment of food are not incompatible. Food actually tastes better when the appetite is well ordered. Indeed, we should feel blessed to enjoy our food, and cook well — all for the glory of God.
At the same time, regularly denying ourselves through fasting helps us to be united to Christ crucified, particularly as he is present in the poor and the sick. Our fasting is a real act of spiritual warfare by which we make reparation for the sins of gluttony, sensuality and the love of excess luxury, particularly for our brother priests who may be enslaved by these vices.
The collect for the memorial of St. John Vianney, the patron of parish priests, states: “Almighty and merciful God, who made the Priest Saint John Vianney wonderful in his pastoral zeal. …” This pastoral zeal of the Cure of Ars sprang forth from his ardor for penance and love for prayer. Priestly pastoral charity is a profound fruit of sacerdotal ordination and leads us to pour ourselves out in love for the souls entrusted to our care. Priestly fasting is an essential part of our ministry and significantly contributes to the effectiveness of our spiritual warfare.
Yet the most significant form of fasting is the Eucharistic fast, by which we prepare ourselves for celebrating the holy Mass. Our priestly life is to be centered around the offering of the holy sacrifice of the Mass and the reception of holy Communion, which is the food that we are to desire above everything else.
We ask the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Our Lady of the Eucharist, to help us achieve the perfection in pastoral charity through sacerdotal fasting, so that we may lead to heaven the souls entrusted to our care, where together we may all “taste and see that the LORD is good.”
FATHER GARY B. SELIN, STD, is the formation director at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver.
Temperance in the Sense of Sobriety
Pope Francis identifies temperance in Laudato Si’ as sobriety, a lifestyle he calls, “free of the obsession with consumption.” He encourages an ancient lesson, found in different religious traditions and also in the Bible. It is the conviction that “less is more.” He writes:
“Such sobriety, when lived freely and consciously, is liberating. It is not a lesser life or one lived with less intensity. On the contrary, it is a way of living life to the full. In reality, those who enjoy more and live better each moment are those who have given up dipping here and there, always on the lookout for what they do not have. They experience what it means to appreciate each person and each thing, learning familiarity with the simplest things and how to enjoy them. …
“Sobriety and humility were not favorably regarded in the last century. And yet, when there is a general breakdown in the exercise of a certain virtue in personal and social life, it ends up causing a number of imbalances, including environmental ones. That is why it is no longer enough to speak only of the integrity of ecosystems. We have to dare to speak of the integrity of human life, of the need to promote and unify all the great values. Once we lose our humility, and become enthralled with the possibility of limitless mastery over everything, we inevitably end up harming society and the environment. It is not easy to promote this kind of healthy humility or happy sobriety when we consider ourselves autonomous, when we exclude God from our lives or replace him with our own ego, and think that our subjective feelings can define what is right and what is wrong. …
“We are speaking of an attitude of the heart, one which approaches life with serene attentiveness, which is capable of being fully present to someone without thinking of what comes next, which accepts each moment as a gift from God to be lived to the full. Jesus taught us this attitude when he invited us to contemplate the lilies of the field and the birds of the air, or when seeing the rich young man and knowing his restlessness, ‘he looked at him with love’ (Mk 10:21). He was completely present to everyone and to everything, and in this way he showed us the way to overcome that unhealthy anxiety which makes us superficial, aggressive and compulsive consumers.
“One expression of this attitude is when we stop and give thanks to God before and after meals. I ask all believers to return to this beautiful and meaningful custom. That moment of blessing, however brief, reminds us of our dependence on God for life; it strengthens our feeling of gratitude for the gifts of creation; it acknowledges those who by their labors provide us with these goods; and it reaffirms our solidarity with those in greatest need” (Nos. 222-227).