What the Early Church Fathers Said About Fasting

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In a time and culture as obsessed with food as ours, it would be a good thing to take a look at what the Church teaches about fasting. As a Kinesiologist and bodybuilder, I can say that fasting has its merits and its toils. Fasting can actually help the body find its proper balance of hormones. While many might take fasting as an outdated mode of life, what the Church offers is evergreen. When combined with proper nutritional habits and exercise, a regular fast can help both the body and the soul. Today, the average diet consists of fast food and pre-packaged snacks, which carry very little if any nutritional value. A regular fasting routine can help us understand what food is, fuel. Just to remind you of the importance of proper discipline with food, I thought I might offer a few quotes from the Church’s beloved Early Fathers.

Pope Clement I  (died 99 or 101)

“Let them, therefore, with fasting and with prayer make their adjurations, and not with the elegant and well-arranged and fitly-ordered words of learning, but as men who have received the gift of healing from God, confidently, to the glory of God. By your fastings and prayers and perpetual watching, together with your other good works, mortify the works of the flesh by the power of the Holy Spirit” – Two Epistles of Virginity, 12

Didache (The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles) (c. 70-140)

“Before the baptism, moreover, the one who baptizes and the one being baptized must fast, and any others who can. And you must tell the one being baptized to fast for one or two days beforehand. Your fasts must not be identical with those of the hypocrites.” – Didache, 7

The Shepherd of Hermas (c. 90-140)

“This fasting … is very good, provided the commandments of the Lord be observed … First of all, be on your guard against every evil word, and every evil desire, and purify your heart from all the vanities of this world. If you guard against these things, your fasting will be perfect. And you will do also as follows. Having fulfilled what is written, in the day on which you fast you will taste nothing but bread and water; and having reckoned up the price of the dishes of that day which you intended to have eaten, you will give it to a widow, or an orphan, or to some person in want, and thus you will exhibit humility of mind, so that he who has received benefit from your humility may fill his own soul, and pray for you to the Lord.

If you observe fasting, as I have commanded you, your sacrifice will be acceptable to God, and this fasting will be written down; and the service thus performed is noble, and sacred, and acceptable to the Lord.” – Shepherd of Hermas, Book 3, Similitude 5, Chapter 3

Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 220 AD)

“Let us fast, brethren and sisters, lest tomorrow perchance we die.” Openly let us vindicate our disciplines. Sure we are that “they who are in the flesh cannot please God;” not, of course, those who are in the substance of the flesh, but in the care, the affection, the work, the will, of it. Emaciation displeases not us; for it is not by weight that God bestows flesh, any more than He does “the Spirit by measure.” – On Fasting, 17

The Desert Fathers (c. 250-300)

“Abba Isidore said, “If you fast regularly, do not be inflated with pride; if you think highly of yourself because of it, then you had better eat meat. It is better for a man to eat meat than to be inflated with pride and glorify himself” – Silence (EWTN link)

Macarius of Egypt (ca. 300 – 391)

“This is the mark of Christianity: however much a man toils, and however many righteous deeds he performs, to feel that he has done nothing, and in fasting to say, “This is not fasting,” and in praying, “This is not prayer,” and in perseverance at prayer, “I have shown no perseverance; I am only just beginning to practice and to take pains”; and even if he is righteous before God, he should say, “I am not righteous, not I; I do not take pains, but only make a beginning every day.” – Abba Macarius the Great, Homily 26 (text available in print)

Saint Basil the Great, (330–379)

“Fasting gives birth to prophets and strengthens the powerful; fasting makes lawgivers wise. Fasting is a good safeguard for the soul, a steadfast companion for the body, a weapon for the valiant, and a gymnasium for athletes. Fasting repels temptations, anoints unto piety; it is the comrade of watchfulness and the artificer of chastity. In war it fights bravely, in peace it teaches stillness.” – Homily on Fasting (text available in print)

Saint Augustine (354–430)

“Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one’s flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, quenches the fire of lust, and kindles the true light of chastity. Enter again into yourself.”- Sermon, On Prayer and Fasting, LXXII

So, next time you feel the urge to fill your face with that after dinner stack of cookies or fear the drive needed to hit the treadmill, think about what your Apostolic predecessors have urged you to do and how that discipline might definitely help you in the spiritual life.

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Jared is a Catholic author, speaker, blogger, husband and father of 4, and the Director of Adult Catechesis and Evangelization at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church in Grapevine, TX. He is the founder of Strength for the Kingdom, a ministry promoting men’s growth in virtue, knowledge of the Catholic faith, and the understanding of authentic masculinity through physical endeavors. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology, is a competitive all-natural bodybuilder and a passionate advocate of evangelizing the fitness and bodybuilding culture with the help of the Catholic Faith.
His website is JaredZimmerer.com where he regularly blogs and posts videos on subjects of fitness, faith and philosophy.
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