The more a man desires spiritual life, the more bitter the present becomes to him, because he understands better and sees more clearly the defects, the corruption of human nature. To eat and drink, to watch and sleep, to rest, to labor, and to be bound by other human necessities is certainly a great misery and affliction to the devout man, who would gladly be released from them and be free from all sin. Truly, the inner man is greatly burdened in this world by the necessities of the body, and for this reason the Prophet prayed [Psalm 25:17] that he might be as free from them as possible, when he said: “From my necessities, O Lord, deliver me.” [Thomas a Kempis, Imitation of Christ].
Anguish and Despair
Fasting requires an internal pain, a great anguish – not physical pain, but mental and spiritual sorrow. Fasting produces thoughts that afflict the soul. It presents a reality that renders the rational process mute. The only response available to relieve our anguish is submission.
The intent of the fast is to approach God. Our need for God becomes most intense when our human condition ebbs to its lowest level of physical and mental energy. A fast without pain, without anguish and despair, is incomplete. One must be propelled by the fast to flee to God for comfort and relief.
We can attire our human condition in alluring garments of material accomplishments. Cosmetics of pleasure and entertainment can beautify it, and we can disguise it under masks and cloaks of intellectual and academic sophistry.
Fasting exposes the human condition, leaving no concealing cover, stripping whatever pretense and disguise we may devise. When viewed in its solitary, naked form, humanity can be most frightening. Truly to see yourself for what you were, for what you are and for what you might be, can provoke considerable anxiety and grief.
At the depth of the fast, we must experience pain. Self esteem is then reduced from boastful pride to humble submission. We discard material props and psychological supports. After all rational systems have failed, one is left stumbling and falling, reaching for and clinging to whatever Divine support is available.
Such episodes, occurring within us, produce emotions of profound intensity. Our faith is tested beyond the rational process. We nullify the cliches and conventions of religion. Pretense, pedagogic exercises and ritual observances become void.
What you believe must now save you from your despair, so it cannot be shallow, trivial. You can no longer play at religion or fool yourself into the comfort of social and cultural affirmations. You must now reach into the depth of your faith and grab what is most sacred to alleviate the anguish and despair of the fast.
The first thing is constantly to urge the injunction of Joel, “Rend your heart, and not your garments” [Joel 2:13]; that is, to remind the people that fasting in itself is not of great value in the sight of God, unless accompanied with internal affection of the heart, true dissatisfaction with sin and with one’s self, true humiliation, and true grief, from the fear of God . . . There is nothing which God more abominates than when men endeavour to cloak themselves by substituting signs and external appearance for integrity of heart. [John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion].