Fasting and almsgiving are two pillars of Christian prayer. We normally only hear about them during Lent, when we are called to fast and give alms as part of our Lenten journey. Fasting means to willingly abstain from food and drink, and almsgiving is the practice of giving food or money to the poor. Jesus himself fasted in the desert, and gave bread to the hungry. In Matthew 6, He links fasting and almsgiving with prayer, like a one-two punch of walking the Christian life.
But can I be honest? I hate fasting. I could give alms all day, but I’m one of those people who gets really grouchy and feels sick when I don’t eat. Hangry, you might call it. So you can imagine my reaction when I found out in college that the Catholic sorority I wanted to join (called a household) fasted on bread and water every week, once a week. Wednesdays automatically became my least favorite day.
However, about a semester into it, I realized I was doing it all wrong. It wasn’t about eating nothing but Wonder Bread and being miserable all day (which is what I had been doing up until that point). I learned quickly that fasting is an incredibly powerful type of prayer. You don’t just fast to fast, to somehow prove your endurance to both God and yourself. Fasting is meant to aid prayer, to unite the suffering that you willingly experience to Christ’s suffering and offer it up for a certain intention. Big things happen when we fast for each other and for our loved ones. Conversions happen, bodies and hearts are healed, and evil flies to the foot of the Cross. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.
Another thing I learned was that there isn’t only one way to fast, and it’s not a competition. Bread and water fasts are considered the more extreme type of fasting, while most of us are more used to the “2 small meals and one large meal with no snacks” type of fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, as well as those Fish Stick Fridays during Lent. As a perfectionist, if I was going to do a bread and water fast I wanted to at least do it right. But even though I was following all of the “rules” of fasting, my heart wasn’t in it because I was so weak and irritable. I realized that if I relaxed my approach a bit, like eating bread with more sustenance and putting some juice in my water, I was better able to keep the spirit of the law and my heart was in a better place.
And while fasting is typically associated with food, it doesn’t always have to be. One semester we had a few women in my household who struggled with eating disorders, and fasting from food was hard for them. We decided to fast from something non-food related every Wednesday, like music, Facebook, sleeping with a pillow, makeup, or even looking in mirrors! This also completely changed my opinion of fasting, making it much more accessible and practical. There’s just some days where a bread and water fast is impossible. Instead of thinking it’s either go big or go home, try to find a smaller abstinence that you can still offer up to God. It was also somewhat fun (as fun as fasting could be) to come up with a new fast every week as a group and walk around campus knowing what we were all sacrificing that day.
Almsgiving, on the other hand, is traditionally the practice of donating money or food. But while these acts of charity are good and necessary, we can also “give alms” in other ways as well. Is there someone struggling who needs your time, or simply your presence? Are there small acts of kindness that you can perform throughout your day? These are all types of almsgiving, for they are all works of charity.
Fasting and almsgiving are meant to go together and always be connected to prayer. They are the best tools to help us grow in love of God and love of neighbor, for they kill what is selfish in us. Jesus teaches that if we are still prideful while doing them, we are not doing it right. They aid prayer because they use our bodies and not just our souls, using our whole selves in prayer. As St. Augustine put it so beautifully, “Do you wish your prayer to fly toward God? Give it two wings: fasting and almsgiving.”
Reflect: How have you always looked upon fasting and almsgiving? Have you seen them as powerful prayers or unnecessary suffering? Has reading this changed your mind at all?
Act: Is there someone or something you could fast for this week? It doesn’t have to be a bread and water fast (although here is the fasting bread recipe I use on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday). Consider asking someone to join you in your fast. And instead of doing one calendar day, try doing sundown to sundown (this means you get to have a big dinner at the end!).
Act: Also consider choosing one charity to donate to this week - either with a one-time donation or setting up an automatic withdrawal on a recurring basis. It’s best to pick a charity close to your heart! Pray for those whom your donation will be helping.