A Reflection on Catholic Fasting

 “Man does not live by bread alone…” -Matthew 4:4

With Lent quickly approaching, the practice of fasting is an important topic to reflect on. Fasting is an age-old practice for many religions. In the Catholic faith, fasting, prayer and almsgiving are three forms of penance*. These are often referred to as “The 3 Pillars” which Catholics are encouraged to focus on during the season of Lent to help develop a deeper relationship with God.  

Fasting for medical purposes has also been used for many centuries for various therapeutic reasons. Intermittent fasting has become a hot topic in the nutrition world gaining more attention in the 2000s. With this rise in popularity, it seems the lines have become blurred in terms of spiritual fasting and fasting for physical reasons. The science and research on intermittent fasting is still lacking especially over the long-term. It appears to have health benefits for some people but like all eating patterns, it’s not the answer for everyone and does come with potential risks. The problem is that even if someone chooses to fast for physical reasons, the importance and benefits of spiritual fasting should not be forgotten.

Fasting is a powerful gift that when used with purity of intention can bring us closer to God. Discerning our underlying motives for fasting is important. Using fasting to try to change poor habits or behaviours is not wrong. But if we are using fasting to try to lose weight, get “fit”, or change our appearance, etc. then discerning our intention is beneficial as likely our intentions are more about ourselves and less about God.

“But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” -Matthew 6: 16-18

Spiritual Reasons for Fasting:

There are many different reasons for fasting. First, fasting is one of the precepts* of the church. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “The fifth precept (You shall observe the prescribed days of fasting and abstinence.) ensures the times of ascesis and penance which prepare us for the liturgical feasts; they help us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart.”  (CCC 2043)

Rev. Daniel Merz wrote on reasons for fasting in a reflection for Lent. He noted many reasons from a Christian perspective.  “Christian tradition can name at least seven reasons for fasting:

  1. From the beginning, God commanded some fasting, and sin entered into the world because Adam and Eve broke the fast.
  2. For the Christian, fasting is ultimately about fasting from sin.
  3. Fasting reveals our dependence on God and not the resources of this world.
  4. Fasting is an ancient way of preparing for the Eucharist—the truest of foods.
  5. Fasting is preparation for baptism (and all the sacraments)—for the reception of grace.
  6. Fasting is a means of saving resources to give to the poor.
  7. Fasting is a means of self-discipline, chastity, and the restraining of the appetites.”

(Excerpt from “A Reflection on Lenten Fasting” USCCB website)

Father Mike Schmitz also discusses why Christians should fast in his video “4 reasons for fasting”:

  1. Self-mastery – freedom to say no to ourselves (our sense of pleasure), sacrificing not for ourselves but for others
  2. Obedience and discernment – follow the precepts of the church and opens us up to listen to God’s guidance  
  3. Worship – by sacrificing a sense of pleasure for love of God
  4. To be a Co-redeemer with Jesus. Unite our suffering with Jesus for the redemption of the world.

 (YouTube Ascension Presents: “4 reasons for fasting” Feb 17, 2016)

Last but not least, there are many reasons for fasting found in the Bible. In the gospel of Mark, Jesus tells us that fasting is an important weapon to fight evil. Jesus’ disciples ask him why they were unable to cast out an evil spirit and he said to them: “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting.” -Mark 9:29

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops decrees that the days of fasting1 and abstinence2 in Canada are: (Note: Eastern rites of the church have different rules for fasting.)

  • Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
  • Fridays are days of abstinence, but Catholics can substitute special acts of charity or piety on this day. (See “Keeping Friday” article)

1 Fasting: this refers to the quantity of food taken, thus also refraining from eating between meals.

2 Abstinence: this refers to abstaining from meat.

Who is bound to observe these laws? 

  • The law of abstinence binds all Catholics, beginning on the day after their 14th birthday.
  • The law of fasting binds all adults (beginning on their 18th birthday) until the midnight which completes their 59th birthday.

Who else is Exempt?

  • Those with physical illness ie. diabetes and mental illness ie. eating disorders.
  • Pregnant or nursing women
  • “In all cases common sense should prevail and ill persons should not further jeopardize their health by fasting.”

What is forbidden and allowed to be eaten? 

  • The law of abstinence forbids the use of meat. This does not apply to dairy products, eggs, or condiments and shortening made from animal fat.
  • The law of fasting allows only one full meal a day and two smaller meals (snacks). The two smaller meals should not equal the quantity of the main meal (which in the United States is customarily observed as the evening dinner).
  • When fasting, eating between meals is not permitted, but liquids are allowed, including milk and fruit juices.
  • On fast days, fish and all cold-blooded animals may be eaten (e.g., frogs, clams, turtles, etc.).

What can we do instead if we are exempt from fasting?

In these circumstances there are many other things to fast from other than food. Ideas: ie. social media, shopping, snooze button, TV, etc. If you are having difficulty deciding, consider asking yourself: What do I often turn to in place of God?

Can we overdo fasting?

Yes. Even Jesus insists that fasting is inappropriate in times of joy. Matthew 9:14-15 Then the disciples of John came to him saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? The days will come, when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.” Remember that both feasting and fasting can be forms of worship to our God.


As Catholics we have laws for the minimum fasting and abstinence days. However, we have the option to include more if it will help us to deepen our relationship with God. Spiritual fasting does not only change our hearts but we can unite our suffering with Jesus Christ on the cross for the salvation of the world.

Reflection Questions:

  1. Is fasting from food appropriate with my current physical and mental health? (Unsure? – ask your doctor, psychologist and spiritual guide)
  2. If fasting from food is not appropriate, what else can I fast from that will draw me closer to God?
  3. Why do I fast? What are my motives or intentions?
  4. Is there a specific intention I would like to offer my fast for?
  5. When fasting, what thoughts, emotions, or behaviours arise? (ie. Am I fasting with a joyful spirit or do I get moody?) What can I learn from these moments? What is God trying to teach me?
  6. If fasting from food, are there ways to improve our fasting practice? Examples to reflect on: Eating simpler meals? Eating foods that aren’t your preference to prevent food waste? Not complaining about food or being picky about what is made?
  7. Am I including extra prayer during fasting? Is it allowing me to open myself more to God? Do I hunger or long for time with God?
  8. Is fasting allowing me to open myself more to my neighbour? ie. Are there ways I can use the extra time and money saved while fasting to benefit my neighbour?

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” -Isaiah 58:6-7

*Penance: “Doing penance is not a form of self punishment, or an unhealthy desire to inflict pain on ourselves. Rather, we do penance in order to discipline ourselves (1 Corinthians 9:24-27) and to live in union with Jesus who suffered to save the world. We offer our penitential actions in obedience to the gospel commands, so that our Lord may purify our love for him and make us stronger in the service of God and the people of God. We freely offer our penances to help make up for sin in our own lives and in the lives of others.”(From the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Keeping Friday”)

*Precepts: (CCC 2041) “The precepts of the Church are set in the context of a moral life bound to and nourished by liturgical life. The obligatory character of these positive laws decreed by the pastoral authorities is meant to guarantee to the faithful the indispensable minimum in the spirit of prayer and moral effort, in the growth in love of God and neighbour”

Easter Blessings – Food for the Soul


This Easter weekend I returned to my Ukrainian roots and took part in the Blessing of Easter baskets.  Easter and the Holy Week leading up to it, has always been a very special time of year for me.  Growing up in the Ukrainian Catholic faith, we had so many faith-filled traditions with deep-rooted meaning and many involving food.   I still have fond memories of all of our extended family celebrating at the table with the basket of blessed food.

As a dietitian, Easter is a good reminder to me that food is so much more than nourishment.  Sharing food is also about human connection.  It is a way that people connect on a social and cultural level.  Sharing meals establishes a sense of stability, security, togetherness and belonging that not only benefits children but adults as well.

The day before Easter on Holy Saturday, Ukrainians prepare a basket of food for their families and then have it blessed by the priest at their church. The Easter basket symbolizes the joy and gratitude marking the end of Lent.  After the Easter Sunday Divine Liturgy the food is eaten in celebration of the Resurrection of Christ.  Not a morsel of food is thrown away because everything is blessed.  (Even the egg shells are ground up and often put in the dirt outside with the plants.)  The basket contains specific foods and items that symbolize different aspects of our Christian faith:


  • symbolizes Jesus Christ and the joy of the new life He has given to us
  • a sweet white bread rich in eggs decorated with braids, crosses, etc.



  • symbolizes Christ as “the light of the world”
  • made of beeswax and lit during the blessing



  • symbolizes Christ’s death and resurrection
  • Pysanky are intricately decorated eggs


  • Krashanky are hard-boiled eggs often dyed and meant to be eaten



  • symbolizes the goodness of Christ which we need to reflect to others

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  • symbolizes the great joy and abundance of Easter



  • symbolizes God’s favour and generousity


Cottage Cheese:

  • the blandness symbolizes the moderation that we should cultivate in our daily lives



  • symbolizes that we are followers of Christ and the meaning of life is to live according to the Gospel
  • a reminder of Christ’s words: “You are the salt of the earth.”



  • symbolizes the passion and death of Christ and the bitterness of sin


Embroidered Cloth Cover: 

  • symbolizes Christ’s shroud (white linen)
  • (this cloth is usually embroidered with an image of the risen Christ, a cross or other appropriate symbol or words)


I feel blessed to have a heritage so rich in customs and traditions that has brought me so many fond childhood memories.  Whatever your culture or customs may be, I encourage you to keep them alive with your family and pass on these beautiful and meaningful traditions to your children!


What Spirituality means to Me

fallpic2I’m often asked about my spirituality but struggle to verbally express what it is and how it continues to transform my life. Therefore, I’m writing this now to organize my thoughts and allow those that are interested to hear my experience.

My parents exposed me to God at a young age by teaching me their understanding and experience of religion and giving me the tools to learn more. However, because faith is a personal journey every person will come to a point in their lives (like I did) where they will question and explore their own personal beliefs.  This leads to a rediscovery of their relationship with God on their own in a whole new and exciting way.  This personal piece adds a new layer to that base my parents gave me and is what makes spirituality so fulfilling.  I’m grateful for my childhood exposure to faith and spirituality because otherwise I don’t know if I would have considered exploring it further as an adult.  As a mother now, I want to pass this “gift” of faith on to my own children.

Over the past few decades it appears that religion is on the decline… self-focused spirituality has become increasingly more popular.  Meditation techniques like the mindfulness movement offers are everywhere from psychological therapy to nutritional counselling to exercise classes. I have seen great benefit to utilizing some of these mindfulness techniques in practice.  However, in my own experience they are not replacements for the fullness of a God-focused spirituality.  They are tools that can help with or without faith and religion.  However, personally I found simply using mindfulness practices without God still left me with a sense of emptiness and restlessness.  A God-focused spirituality provides me with so much more meaning and fullness to life…  God is love.  God is mercy.  God is peace.  

What God has done in my life:

Resiliency.  Even in difficulties and stressful times God is always present with me and prayer offers a genuine connection which helps me to cope.  Emotions and feelings are a part of our humanness so it’s not an expectation for God to take them away.  And God does want us to reach out to the people in our lives for support.  However also reaching out to God in prayer allows me to feel connected and not overwhelmed by these emotions/feelings because I’m never left to deal with them alone.  Inviting God to be with me provides a sense of hope that prevents despair.

Guidance.  When faced with difficult decisions, remembering to pray for guidance has been life-changing.  It might not be immediate but after praying I will feel more compelled to one choice or the other.  As added reassurance then I often experience a great peace about that choice before I officially make the final decision.

Imperfection.  Motherhood has taught me more about my issue with perfectionism than any other life experience (I have 3 boys haha). Being a mother you are undeniably forced to let go of control and nothing has helped me more than being able to offer my worries to God.  But knowing that God is in control and not me allows for a whole new level of freedom.  This is where true peace is felt.

Joy.  I’m a very task-oriented individual and feel the need to accomplish things in order to feel like I’ve achieved anything.  This can be a downfall in terms being too serious and not making time for fun with family and friends. Spirituality has helped me recognize that God actually wants us to be joyful.  Exploring and deepening my faith is exciting and actually increases my joy.  Spreading joy with the people in our lives is how God reaches others as well.

Good use of time.  I loved a comment by Pope Francis a few years ago when he stated to parents to “Waste time with your children.”  This was a good reminder that life is not just about achievements but more about our human connections.  God has taught me the importance being fully present with people and sharing my gift of time in simply being together.

Purpose.  Spirituality brings meaning to life: whether it is suffering, helping others, seeking meaningful work or volunteering.  I’m no saint but it helps me to look past my self and respond to the needs of others.  The old saying “it feels better to give than to receive” always prove to be true.

Empathy.  Spirituality reminds me that we are all on different journeys- we all have experienced different sufferings and joys that in some way have shaped us into who we are.  How can we judge anyone when we haven’t walked in their shoes?  This outlook allows our love for souls to grow.

Love & acceptance.  There was a time in my life where I felt heavily weighed down by the expectations of me by everyone in my life (including God).  Through prayer and discernment I realized that this was my own false perception of expectations I was placing on myself.  God actually has no expectations of me.  God just wants my love.  God loves me unconditionally no matter what I do or accomplish.   This was a life-changing revelation.

What’s next?

I have learned that faith in God is a life-long journey with no straight path.  There will always be struggles.  It will never be perfect.  However, I never regret continuing to explore and seek out where God is leading me.  It’s exciting to see and realize the events and people God places in my life are all for a reason.  And I will never be alone in my journey!

If you are searching, don’t worry about the logistics and details of what you want your faith to be or look like.  Just start with prayer – simply have an open and honest conversation with God about what is on your mind and heart♥.