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Cardinal John Henry Newman's Thoughts on Fasting

Fasting for Newman is not encouraged simply as a penance but rather as related to Christian love, which "is quenched and extinguished by self-indulgence, and cherished by self denial . . .

For sensual living hardens the heart, while abstinence softens and refines it." We may "dispense with fasting," but then we "may neglect also to cultivate love." It is remarkable how Newman insists on what may strike many as an unlikely connection: "Is it wonderful that we have no love, when we neglect altogether that great ordinance whereby love is nurtured, abstinence and fasting?" Not that Newman is not careful to warn of the spiritual danger of ascetic practices like fasting, since "in some wonderful unknown way they open the next world for good and evil upon us, and are an introduction to somewhat of an extraordinary conflict with the powers of evil." Moreover, a very practical spiritual rule applies to fasting as to other devotions: "We ought to attempt nothing but what we can do." We ought also to "guard against a reaction" by not, for example, eating to excess after fasting."

However, ascetic practices are also important because they detach us from this world, which "is sweeter to the lips, but bitter to the taste. It pleases at first, but not at last." Not intended to be seen, they also remind us of the cross of Christ, which "though it be the true interpretation of this world, is not prominently manifested in it, upon it surface, but is concealed; so again, when received into the faithful heart, there it abides as a living principle, but deep, and hidden from observation." Thus observances like fasting help us to attain a right balance between the things of this world and the next world, as Newman explains in a superbly succinct passage:

They alone are able truly to enjoy this world, who begin with the world unseen. They alone enjoy it, who have first abstained from it. They alone can truly feast, who have first fasted; they alone are able to use the world, who have learned not to abuse it; they alone inherit it, who take it as a shadow of the world to come, and who for that world to come relinquish it.