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Lent: Why the Christian Must Deny Himself | Brother Austin G. Murphy, O.S.B. | Part Two |
Obstacles To Grace
So, it is not wrong, in itself, to seek tasty, enjoyable food: but still
a person should not do so. For when a person seeks the enjoyment of eating,
his action is tainted with inclinations to sloth, complacency, and self-love.
 That is, his motives are mixed. For when he seeks the joys of food,
selfish inclinations are at work in his heart along with whatever good
motives there might be. Now, if a person only looks at the external act
of eating or the objective value of enjoying food, he will not see this.
But, if he honestly looks into the heart, he will see that sloth, complacency,
and self-love are present in the desire for the joys of eating. Having
such mixed motives is simply part of our imperfect condition in this world.
These selfish inclinations in a person's heart, which are present when
he seeks the enjoyment of eating, are the sort of things that hinder a
person's growth in holiness and virtue. To grow in holiness and virtue
every person needs God's helpwe know that a person cannot do it
on his own. As Christ says, "Apart from me you can do nothing."  Hence,
the help of God's grace is needed to grow in virtue and to live a life
of continual conversion. Yet the presence of these inclinations to sloth,
complacency, and self-love get in the way of a person's reception of God's
grace. They are obstacles to receiving more grace.
Therefore, the Christian, who is dedicated to conversion, must remove
these obstacles from his heart, so that he may receive more grace and
become a better follower of Christ. A person should not expect God to
force his grace on him without his consent. As we know, God chooses to
work with a person's cooperation. And, so, he is obliged to work with
God to remove these inclinations from his heart as much as possible.
This is done by fasting. For fasting, by checking a person's desires for
what is not necessary, teaches him to seek what is sufficient when he
eats. When he fasts, he does not seek the enjoyment of food, but is simply
seeking what he needs to eat and drink. And since he is no longer pursuing
the joys of food, the self-centered inclinations that accompany this pursuit
are not allowed a chance to spring up in his heart. A person gives up
things he enjoys because in so doing he denies inclinations such as sloth,
complacency, and self-love a chance to be active in his heart.
Purifying The Heart
This is why it is better to fast. Fasting removes these obstacles so that
being more receptive to God's grace, a person will grow in holiness and
virtue. The self-centered inclinations that accompany pleasure-seeking
are not directed towards Godtherefore, they do not lead the heart
to God but away from him. Their presence in the heart creates a divided
hearta heart, which does not completely look to God for its needs.
As St. Augustine teaches, a divided heart is an impure heart. 
Purifying the heart, then, will involve denying oneself the pursuits of
pleasures in things like food and drink. For thus a person protects his
heart from the self-centered inclinations that are bound to coexist with
This provides one answer to the question, "Why must we fast?" (and,
by extension, to the question, "Why should one practice self-denial?").
Since, by fasting, a person no longer seeks after the joys of food and
drink, the heart is set free to focus more completely on God. By turning
away from his concerns for the pleasures of eating, he can turn more wholeheartedly
to God. And this, we know is what continual conversion is all about.
By fasting, then, a person turns to God more intently.
This is reflected in God's words spoken through the Prophet Joel: "Return
to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning."
 Naturally, a person is reluctant to give up through fasting things
he enjoysbut by doing so he turns his attention to God and waits
for him. He places his trust in him that he will give him the joy he needsjoys
"greater than when grain and wine abound."  But he has to trust and
be willing to persevere through the dry times that will accompany fasting.
If he puts his hope in God, however, the Scriptures assure him that he
will not be disappointed. 
For the sake of his ongoing conversion, then, the Christian must fast.
But we might add another, better reason for fasting. Not only does fasting
benefit a person's own individual spiritual progress, it also benefits
It is commonly pointed out that fasting can help others by allowing those
who fast to increase their almsgiving with the money saved from eating
less. But the benefit referred to here is of a different sort. It is due
to our being connected with each other through prayer, so that a person's
offering of prayer can help others. Now, prayers for others are more effective
the more united the person praying is to Christ, since Christ is the source
of the benefits gained through prayer. So the more converted a person
becomes to the Lord, the more effective his prayers for others: "The prayer
of a righteous man has great power in its effects."  And since fasting
aids a person's continual conversion, it strengthens his prayers so that
they benefit others more. In this way, he can help his neighbor through
Moreover, this service to his neighbor through fasting is an imitation
of Christ. He offered himself on the Cross for others. A person too, in
union with Christ, offers himself through the sacrifice of fasting. In
fasting, he has the opportunity to join Christ in offering himself for
the sake of others. Thus, even if a person's heart were pure and always
free from selfish inclinationsas was Christ'she should still
fastas did Christ. Through Christ he has the chance of helping others
through voluntary acts of self-denial. Christian love is, indeed, eager
for such chances to serve others.
So, in a very real way that is clearly visible to the eyes of faith, the
Christian must fast out of love of neighbor. He is commanded by Jesus
to live in his love.  This love is the love that compels a person
"to lay down his life for his friends."  That is, it is the love that
compels him to sacrifice his own preferences and desires on behalf of
others. And this is what each person is invited to do through fasting
to give up things he enjoys for the benefit of others. And, as we are
told, "there is no greater love than this." 
There are good reasons then, why a person must practice fasting and develop
disciplined eating habits. Fasting and, by extension, self-denial are
important for a person's continual conversion as well as for others who
need our prayers. So, the Christian should regularly ask himself, "What
do I really need? What can I do without?" and consider the advantages
of denying himself even things that are not necessarily bad.
A better understanding of the virtue of denying oneself would undoubtedly
benefit our society, where one is taught only how to say, "yes" to what
one wants and desires. The practice of self-denial provides a humble yet
profound way of giving oneself to God and others out of love, thus breaking
the tendency to self-absorption. For, as we have said, self-denial is
necessary for helping bring about ongoing conversion, which is sought
out of love of God: and one restrains oneself and sacrifices one's desires
out of love of neighbor. Love, thenreal liberating, sacrificial
loveis behind voluntary self-denial.
This article was originally published in the February 2000 issue of Homiletic
& Pastoral Review.
 Luke 16:10.
 John Cassian Institutes 5.23.
 Augustine Rule 3.1.
 Luke 6:45.
 1 Tim. 4:3-5.
 The theme of the mind ascending from created goods to God, the Ultimate
Good, is common among spiritual writers. The spiritual master, Saint John
of the Cross, refers to it in The Ascent of Mount Carmel (trans.
Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D., and Otilio Rodrigues, O.C.D., in The Collected
Works of St. John of the Cross [Washington, D.C.: Institute of Carmelite
Studies Publication, 1979]) 3.24.3-7,3.26.5-7. For a more recent discussion
on the subject, see Dietrich von Hildebrand Transformation in Christ
(Garden City, N.Y.: Image Books, 1963) 192-193.
 Col. 3:1-2.
 Heb. 11:26.
 For further insights into this subject, see Saint John of the Cross,
 See Dietrich von Hildebrand In Defense of Purity (New York:
Sheed and Ward Inc., 1935) 150-156.
 John 15:5.
 Augustine The Lord's Sermon on the Mount 2.11.
 Joel 2:12.
 Ps 4:8.
 Rom. 5:5: Ps 22:5.
 Jas. 5:16.
 John 15:9.
 John 15:13.
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Brother Austin G. Murphy, O.S.B., is a member
of St. Procopius Abbey in Lisle, Ill. He was born in Huntington, L.I.,
and grew up in Suffern, N.Y. In December of 1995 he received his B.A.
in Economics from the University of Chicago. While in formation and preparation
to take solemn vows at St. Procopius Abbey, he teaches high school mathematics
at the abbeys high school, Benet Academy.
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