Aquinas on Fasting

From St Augustine, to St Francis de Sales, to Pope Benedict XVI, Catholic intellectual heavyweights have illuminated us with their writings explaining the importance of fasting for the Christian life. The Church’s greatest intellect, St Thomas Aquinas, also felt this importance. St Thomas was a thirteenth-century Dominican theologian, who, in the words of Pope Pius XI, had an ‘almost divine brilliance’. So much so that St Thomas came to be known as the Angelic Doctor, owing to his incredible mind, but also his pure and virtuous life. St Thomas’ writings on fasting came in his magnum opus: the Summa Theologica (IIII.147); his words are not only of historical importance, but are also crucial for living out a life of fasting today. I think his words are just as true in the Middle Ages as they are in today’s world.

Firstly, St Thomas explains the three purposes of fasting. I think his insight is something we all can relate to in this period of lent, and they’re a helpful guide to enter into a more intimate relationship with God. The first purpose of fasting, Aquinas tells us rather starkly, is to ‘bridle the lusts of the flesh’. In other words, fasting preserves chastity by reducing lust, as the pleasure you lack from fasting reduces the urge to gain pleasure from other bodily activities. We all suffer from these sins from time to time, so the advice Aquinas gives here is important if we want to prevent sin, and therefore not be a slave to the Evil One. The second purpose of fasting is to be able to contemplate the Divine more clearly, be it angels or God Himself. Biblically, this can be found in Daniel (chapter 10). Daniel, after fasting for three weeks, receives a revelation from God. When we fast, we enter a more clear mental state, allowing us to enter into a stronger relationship with God, free from less important thoughts. The third purpose of fasting, according to Aquinas, is as a penance for our sins. This is drawn from Joel 2:12, where God tells the Prophet: ‘return to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning’ (RSV-CE). All of us commit sins, and fasting is a great voluntary penance that allows you to enter back into a stronger connection with the Lord.

So we have the three purposes of fasting:

  • To decrease lust

  • To be able to contemplate God and His creation

  • As penance for our sins

Aquinas asks in Question 147 of the Summa whether everyone has to fast, or if there are any exceptions? His answer is surprisingly similar to the current practice of the Church. The current practise states that a child has no obligation to fast, and Aquinas agrees. However Aquinas advises that children, although not bound to fast, should do so ‘in accordance with their age’, in order to gain the three benefits described above, and to prepare them for the adult fast (granted the Medieval fast was harsher than it is currently). Aquinas also agrees that the physically and mentally ill, and pregnant women are also exempt, which is the current policy in place set forth by groups such as the USCCB in the USA and the Bishops’ Conference in England and Wales.

Aquinas also highlights the importance of the Lenten fast before Easter. As fasting is primarily, as we have seen, about deleting sin from our lives and raising our minds to God, the pre-Easter Lenten fast is essential. The Easter festival is when, as St Thomas tells us, ‘the mind of man ought to be devoutly raised to the glory of eternity, which Christ restored by rising from the dead, and so the Church ordered a fast to be observed immediately before the Paschal feast’. As Easter is a celebration of the Victory over sin, and therefore death, by Our Lord, it is fitting that we do everything we can to be free from sin and to rest our minds on God. Fasting helps us to achieve both of these goals.

On particular fast days, such as Ash Wednesday, we only eat one full meal. When this should be is a bit of an issue for some. St Thomas seemed to think so as well, and so asked: when should the faster’s meal be? Although any time is acceptable, Thomas highlighted the particular significance of what he called the ‘ninth hour’, what we call 3pm. This is because it ‘agrees with the mystery of Christ’s Passion, which was brought to a close at the ninth hour’ (see Matthew 27:46 and Mark 15:34). Because those that fast, like Jesus, are punishing their flesh, by doing this we are said to be conformed to the Passion of Our Lord. As St Paul writes in Galatians 5:24, ‘they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts’ (KJV). As our goal in life is to be conformed perfectly with God, and although this can only be accomplished in Heaven, it is good to be conformed to Jesus even in only a symbolic sense with the timing of the meal, and in fasting in general through the hardship it can bring. And this is why Jesus came to this world. As the great St Athanasius puts it: ‘For the Son of God became man so that we might become God’. With the help of fasting, this is what the Christian has the chance to achieve.

St Thomas Aquinas, ora pro nobis.

~ O. Sanderson, University of Hull

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