Fasting is a practice that many Catholics reserve only for Lent, but it can (and should) be practiced year-round. One style of retreat that can be great for spiritual discipline and growth is a fasting retreat.
If you look at the schedule for your local retreat center you will probably not see a fasting retreat listed. In recent times fasting retreats have not been widely practiced as such, but throughout Christendom there has always been an emphasis placed on times of dedicated fasting and prayer.
What is Fasting
“Fasting” is the practice of refraining from food or drink to some degree, according to the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults. You may also hear the term “abstinence” thrown around when speaking of fasting. Abstinence refers to refraining from specific food or drink (a common example is refraining from meat).
What is Considered a Fast?
When you try to figure out what a day of fasting looks like you will find many different descriptions. Some would contend that a day of fasting is to be a day without any food or drink whatsoever, and some would say that water is allowed but not food. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) defines days of fasting as the following: “When fasting, a person is permitted to eat one full meal. Two smaller meals may also be taken, but not to equal a full meal.” See more Here.
When Do We Have to Fast and Abstain?
Catholics are required to both fast and abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. In the Roman Catholic rite fasting is obligatory from ages 18 through 59, and abstinence is obligatory from age 14 and on (as is described Here). Eastern Catholic Rites may have different requirements. Every Friday throughout the year is actually recommended as a day of abstinence from meat, although Catholics (at least in the United States) may follow some other act of penance if abstinence from meat is not followed (except on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday), as is explained in this pastoral statement. Outside of the United States you will have to check with your local bishops’ conference in regards to this requirement.
Fasting and Prayer
There are numerous examples in the Bible of fasting and prayer. Some instances were times of repentance and others were a process of growing closer to God. The latter is what we will focus on here.
Why use fasting to improve our spiritual life? One of the intentions with fasting is that we will replace time that would have been spent preparing food and eating with time spent in prayer. Fasting helps us to both put our bodily desires at bay and focus more intensely on our spiritual well-being. Some say that having a satiated stomach can make us “drowsy” or “lethargic” spiritually. The hunger pangs of an empty stomach serve as a reminder for us to pray throughout the day.
Some Examples of Fasting and Prayer in the Bible
“And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
-Matthew 6: 16-18
“Now John’s disciples and the Pharisees were fasting; and people came and said to him, “Why do John’s disciples and the disciples of the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them? As long as they have the bridegroom with them, they cannot fast. The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast in that day.”
-Mark 2: 18-20
“While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. ”
-Acts 13: 2-3
“And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they believed. ”
-Acts 14: 23
What Is a Fasting Retreat?
A fasting retreat is simply a dedicated time of fasting and prayer. A retreat like this can take many different forms.
You might join in on a regular preached retreat weekend at a local retreat center, even if it is not intended as a fasting retreat, and simply practice some form of fasting. You will still get the spiritual nourishment intended from the scheduled talks and times of prayer during the retreat, and on top of that you will get the added benefits of the practice of fasting.
You might also find a retreat that is specifically focused on fasting and prayer. Sometimes it is easier to hold to a fast when you know that the others around you are also doing so. This is not an exceptionally common retreat theme, but if you watch the schedules of nearby retreat centers you may find one.
Sometimes there are no good options in your area for a preached retreat, fasting-themed or not. You might put on your own fasting retreat of sorts. It is not uncommon to hear of day-long fasts put on by local youth groups and the like. Catholic Relief Services even provides the resources for planning a day-long fasting retreat Here. Their intention is raise awareness of hunger issues around the world but their framework could also be used for a prayer and fasting retreat, both for youth or as a parish-mission style of retreat.
A private retreat of prayer and fasting is a very spiritually-enriching option. You may recall Jesus fasting in the desert for forty days in preparation for His ministry (Matthew 4:2). In the early centuries of Christianity there were many who lived lives of fasting and prayer as hermits in the desert. They are often referred to as the “Desert Fathers” and provide us with a great example of the practices of fasting and prayer.
A day or weekend (or longer) spent fasting at a retreat center or hermitage is a great way to mimic this exercise in today’s world, and it is always a fruitful time for prayer and spiritual growth. If you are unfamiliar with the practice of private retreats it may be beneficial to revisit our post about them Here for an overview of what a private retreat might look like for you. Re recommend dedicated times of prayer and journaling, but of course you may have your own method of making a private retreat.
Choosing a Theme for a Private Retreat
There are many ways you could go with the theme for a fasting retreat. Perhaps you will choose to reflect on instances of fasting in the Bible. Or maybe reflections on the Desert Fathers would be appropriate. Another option would be to reflect on writings or homilies about the most important of foods, the Eucharist, or the Mass. You could instead choose to focus on the life of Jesus through the writings of Pope Benedict XVI or through the Rosary. You might even choose not to have a specific theme. You may just read scripture as you feel compelled throughout the retreat, or use the Liturgy of the Hours.
Choose a theme based on what would seem to be the most appropriate for where you are spiritually, and based on what you are interested in right now. If the topic does not interest you it will not hold your attention and be as edifying over several days of focusing on it. Do not stress about about the theme too much, though. God will work in your time of retreat, and you will be better off for just having made the retreat – guaranteed.
Structuring a Private Retreat
If you rent out a room at a retreat center or a hermitage you will have a dedicated time to fast and pray in a quiet and prayerful atmosphere. Some may find it difficult to structure a weekend or longer of unscheduled, uninterrupted time. Some people will be able to approach a time of retreat without a plan – just going with the flow and the movings of the Holy Spirit. Others prefer to have some structure and at least the outline of a schedule to fall back on. If you prefer more structure, below is an example of how you might plan out a weekend-long retreat with a focus on the life of Jesus through the Rosary.
-Journaling Session #1
-Rosary: The Joyful Mysteries
-Journaling Session #2
-Journaling Session #3
-Journaling Session #4
-Rosary: Luminous Mysteries
-Journaling Session #5
-Journaling Session #6
-Rosary: Sorrowful Mysteries
-Journaling Session #7
-Journaling Session #8
-Rosary: Glorious Mysteries
-Journaling Session #9
-Journaling Session #10
The length of each session is variable depending on your hopes for the retreat. Prayer, journaling and examing your spiritual life (and meeting with a spiritual director if possible), and down time are all important aspects to the private retreat.
Have you ever made a retreat that incorporated fasting? What was your experience like?