The spiritual season of Lent sometimes brings out the creativity in people. In fulfilling our Lenten obligations of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, we try to come up with something new, something more meaningful, something that will change our lives. I recently heard in passing of a different kind of Lenten fast that has captivated my imagination: It’s called a fast from all fears.
Think of it: fasting from fear would be perfectly in-tune with the Gospel message of Jesus, who tells us, over and over, “Be not afraid.” Says Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew: “So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows” (Mt 10:31). In the Gospel of Mark: “Do not fear, only believe” (Mk 5:36). In Luke’s Gospel: “Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Lk 12:32). And in John’s Gospel, when the terrified disciples see Jesus walking on the sea: “It is I; do not be afraid” (Jn 6:20). We hear these words of Jesus, and they sound simple, but fear is a difficult reaction to put aside. Fear is our self-preservation gone wild, our instinctive way of coping with the unknown. Sometimes we even speak of fear as “healthy.” To fast from fear would be a daunting project, and a full-time commitment.
Fasting is a time-honored Lenten practice. Those of us who grew up Catholic are well acquainted with fasting, not only during Lent, but also every Sunday morning before we receive the Eucharist at Mass. Fasting is a spiritual discipline that is common to many religions. We fast to fine-tune our self-discipline and to focus our prayer lives. Hunger sharpens our senses, and helps us to appreciate the goodness of the food that breaks our fast. We are also called to fast in solidarity with all the people in the world who go hungry not by choice.
Jesus fasted, most notably for forty days and nights in the desert. I have barely made it through forty-hour fasts, so I cannot imagine the severity of Jesus’ desert experience, where he faced deprivation and temptation, and perhaps his own fears. Did Jesus fast from fear?
During Lent, we give up the things that we love, or we give up the things that damage us. Fear is definitely a destructive force, and yet there is a part of me that clings to fear as something familiar. What would it be like to fast from all fear?
What questions would I ask if I were truly to fast from all my fears? How would I behave? Where would I go? What causes would I embrace? What would I do differently if I were to fast from my fear of looking stupid, or my fear of offending someone, or my fear of losing what I have, or my fear of losing control, or my fear of missing out, or my fear of taking a stand, or my fear of what others think of me? Fasting from fear requires that we take our cues from Jesus. Again in the Gospel of John, Jesus tells his disciples, and us, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not be afraid” (14:27). The fear deep within us can be replaced by trust, if we only take the time to be conscious of the easy way that fear creeps in from our unconscious minds.
“When I am afraid/ I put my trust in you,” writes the Psalmist (Ps 56:3). So let us be on our fearless way. We are safe in the presence of God; more than that, we are beloved in God’s sight. With a little faith, with prayer, with faces turned toward the dawning hope of Easter and with the help of the Holy Spirit, we might just be able to fast from all fears.