Practical Tips from a Reformed Fasting Failure

“I just made myself, for once in my life, shut up.”

Like most people, I have struggled with fasting, even failed. I had good intentions at the beginning of the day, and envisioned myself as the epitome of purity and obedience, so courageously turning away from the left-over cinnamon Pop Tarts and bearing the stomach grumbles without so much as a whimper. And I made it until, oh, about 11:00 am before I started breaking out the snacks and barking at the over-fed and ungrateful kids who just didn’t understand how miserable it felt to be doing all the housework when I was certainly about to pass out from malnourishment. I’d re-gather myself, and survive until my husband got home, and at 5:00 I’d call it. “Dinner starts now, buddy!” Then I would launch into the soliloquy on suffering, and feed us one course after another until bedtime. Downright shameful, I know.

I was a baby-Catholic in those days, and didn’t really get fasting, but as I learned that fasting teaches us to detach ourselves from the world, that it provides us with the power to battle temptations and free ourselves from our passions, I realized that I needed to take a more serious approach. I needed some rules and structure, and I needed to remain focused on the purpose of it. But let’s face it, a busy mom (or anyone) can easily lose this focus carrying out her vocation, and she needs a bag of tools, so to speak, to guard against derailment. Now I sit myself down, mentally, each year and get prepared, and it makes all the difference.

#1 Define your terms.

What we are allowed is pretty lenient, two snacks and one meal. However, it is easy to blur those lines in the middle of the day if you are unprepared. Decide beforehand what a snack is, and hold yourself to it. If you break your fast by changing the definition of a snack, at least be honest with yourself and admit it. If, for example, you define the left-overs of your kids’ meals as a snack, you’ll feel a tempted to cook too much for them so there will be more for you to “snack” on. You laugh? Oh, it is so easy to do…and to deny.

I use popcorn. A palm-sized amount of kernels makes a rather large bowl, and it takes time to prepare and to eat. I also decided fasting for me didn’t mean two snacks and a meal. It meant one snack if I just couldn’t make it to dinnertime. I needed that simplicity, less room for error. 11:00? Okay, wait until noon to pop the popcorn. Noon would come, I’d get busy, and before I knew it, it would be 3:00. Okay, just get to 5:00. My husband would get home, we’d visit and before I knew it, it would be time to prepare dinner. I wasn’t pondering all the things I might eat, I was only pondering popcorn, and pushing myself to wait. There is a sense of accomplishment in making it through the day. Do yourself a favor and define your terms firmly, including the definition of failure.

#2 Consider fasting all 40 days.

I cannot fast only on Fridays. After a few days, the stomach will adjust to a new eating schedule, but if you regularly eat breakfast and lunch, and snacks in between, your body comes to expect it and every Friday is like starting over. Think about it this way: if you woke at 3:00 am every night and ate a meal, you’d feel pain if you gave that up even though right now you make it through the night without even thinking about eating. What I have learned by fasting for all 40 days of Lent is that I really do not need to eat as much as I thought I did in general. As we age, our metabolism slows down. Fasting for a period of time resets the body so you are less likely to make a habit of over-eating. Give it a try.

Further, it simplifies what I have to remember. I too easily forget what day of the week it is, and I used to blow it every Friday by tossing the chicken nuggets into the oven before someone stopped me (#firstworldproblems). Now, my husband and even children all forego meat for the entire Lent. No meat, fast every day is a lot easier to keep up with, and frankly, it made me want to pull my hair out trying to help kids figure out what to give up or take up during Lent because it always turned into a competition to outdo each other. We all give up meat, if they want to do more, they can, but this one big thing we do together. Period.

#3 Be specific with virtue development.

I need goals. I need purpose. I need something to remind me that I’m not just wallowing in self-inflicted pain because as ugly as that sounds, it’s way too easy for the mind and will to go there. I try to name one virtue, or several, every year and mature in my practice of it. Pick a virtue you have, and grow in other virtues from it. Believe me ladies, you’ll like a more virtuous you. So will your family. Make it a gift, a gift to God and all He has given you.

One year, I chose to practice meekness, and I chose it because I so admired it in others. I also recognized that I have a tendency to talk over people, desperately trying to make my point. In honesty, meekness is not a virtue I could ascribed to myself. Determination, on the other hand, is a virtue I have developed. So, I used my determination to firmly tell myself, “You are not to say a word – no, not a blip – about your discomfort as you fast this year. Just zip it.” I didn’t tell anyone I was fasting, I didn’t mention my success or struggles, I just kept it to myself. I just made myself, for once in my life, shut up. I learned that most of my discomfort comes from my focus on discomfort. When I focused on prayer and silence, fasting didn’t seem all that hard. Grace? Yes, undoubtedly.

My husband took notice too (on his own, amazingly without me telling him first!), and that little effort on my part strengthened our marital bond. It seems small, but it laid a foundation that told him that his wife 1) cares about growing in virtue and 2) is committed to making a real effort. Some other virtues you might try? If you are already generous, how about growing in courtesy? Be more elegant in your behavior, polite in manner, graceful and considerate, noble, benevolent. Maybe set the table more formally than normal, make the extra effort to say “Thank you” to your family members. If you are already patient, how about growing in generosity? Be more courageous in giving of your material things and yourself. Be plentiful with others, maybe cook for someone else or even just pick up the phone and call a friend for no particular reason.

Overall, I think, the best advice I can give is to keep trying. If you really, sincerely try and fail, call it a failure, ask for forgiveness, and get up and try again to reform your practice. Do not give up, do not grumble, commit to overcoming one struggle at a time — because you will. And pray. Fasting will help you hear God better, will lift you higher, will make you freer. Do it with that goal in mind and refuse to let anything tempt you to failure. I still struggle and I don’t have it mastered yet, but when I consider the successes all together, it makes me want to keep on trying harder.

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