Lent: Why the Christian Must Deny Himself | Brother Austin G. Murphy, O.S.B. | Part Two | Part One
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 these pursuits.
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. 
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, op. cit.
 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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