“Love fasting” (RB 4:13) may be the shortest verse in the entire Rule, but it is one that I find myself stumbling over every time it is read either aloud in community or in my own personal reading. Nestled among the long list of “Tools for Good Works” that makes up Chapter 4, this simple statement challenges not only our American culture’s impulse to pursue “feel good” experiences at all times, but it also confronts basic creaturely instincts that threaten genuine spiritual freedom.
It is common knowledge that St. Benedict borrowed much from the monastic tradition that preceded him, especially in the first seven chapters of his Rule. He was an innovator only insofar as the manner in which he combined selections of Scripture and existing monastic literature and presented a balanced approach to the Christian common life that is as practical as it is spiritual. Infused with his own personal experience and the wisdom gained from being a spiritual leader of others, St. Benedict offers a vision for life in Christ that includes something for the strong to yearn for and something the weak have no need to run from (RB 64:19). “All things in moderation” is an overarching principle that we are to take from St. Benedict’s approach to the spiritual quest.
Returning to St. Benedict’s “tool” to love fasting, we consider the context in which it is mentioned. “Renounce yourself in order to follow Christ” (Mt 16:24 & Lk 9:23) and “discipline your body” (1 Cor 9:27) are the scriptural references that precede RB 4:13. Then verse 12 states, “Don’t pamper yourself.” So, the love of fasting to which St. Benedict is referring is about curbing the impulses of our bodily natures with intentionality so that the intent of following Christ may have first consideration.
This is further supported by the corporal and spiritual works of mercy that immediately follow verse 13: “You must relieve the lot of the poor, ‘clothe the naked, visit the sick’ (Mt 25:36), and bury the dead. Go to help the troubled and console the sorrowing.” (vv.14-19). The bigger picture regarding fasting is to be free from self-interested pursuits of pleasure in order to be free for ministering to others. So, fasting, whether it be in Lent or at any other time, is not about self-denial for the sake of self-punishment, self-neglect, or earning heavenly “rewards/points” to be redeemed at a later date. Fasting, as a spiritual discipline, is not aimed at controlling weight or physical appearance. “Love fasting” is about loving others as well as loving ourselves in a wholesome and godly way, just like loving our neighbors along with our enemies. Fasting is a tool for good work!
In a monastery, the practice of fasting may look a bit different from the stereotype. Sometimes it means forgoing a name brand item when a generic one will do. Sometimes it means taking half of a potato from the food line instead of a whole one to be sure that there is enough for everyone at the meal, then going back later if more is available. Sometimes it means passing on clothes we don’t wear or need anymore to someone else who could use them. Sometimes it means choosing to go without something I would like to be in solidarity with others who do not have access to basic food, water, shelter, and clothing. “Love fasting” manifests itself in a variety of ways that is in keeping with a life of simplicity and life-long conversion.
Essentially, in St. Benedict’s vision, nobody’s “wants” are more important than everyone’s needs. Peace is the greater purpose—peace within ourselves and peace in the whole community. Imagine if more people in the world shared this vision. How different our world would be!
By Sister Therese Haydel, OSB