fasting and Conversion of HEART
Mother Adela, SCTJM
For private use only -



The message of repentance and conversion is always directed first to our hearts: “Rend your hearts and not your garments,” says the prophet Joel to us (Joel 2:12-18).  This is the passage of Scriptures that we hear in the first reading of Ash Wednesday.

“As we see in the prophets, the call of Jesus to conversion and to penance does not attend, primarily to exterior acts, ‘to the sackcloth and ashes,’ to fasting and mortifications, but to the conversion of heart, to inner penance.  Without it, the works of penance remain sterile and deceiving; on the contrary, interior conversion inspires one to the expression of this attitude by means of visible signs, gestures and works of penance” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1430).

Conversion is the change of heart.  If this change is authentic, it ought to manifest itself in all areas of our lives, since it is the heart that moves our decisions, actions, sentiments and dispositions.  The heart is the interior throne of the human person.  All interior reality must necessarily manifest itself in the exterior.  God revealed His love for us by sending His only Son in the mystery of the Incarnation.  “The Word became flesh.”  This is how our lives must be: conversion must have a concrete expression that is incarnated in each area of our lives.  Conversion is not only about saying, “Lord, Lord” with our mouths, but it is saying that our entire lives, minds, hearts, talents, gifts, capacities and body belong to the Lord and are for His glory.  Sincere conversion is to change the interests of our hearts; it is to no longer live for our own desires, which is contrary to the Gospel:  “Who ever wants to follow me, let him deny himself” (Mark 8:34).

We are created with body and soul.  The necessary purification of our interior for the conversion of our hearts must also necessarily take place in our bodies, senses, thoughts, actions, habits.  Interior penance, the tearing of the heart, must have external expressions and therefore lead us to a growth in grace in all of our being.  All things must be integrated and ordered by grace, with our cooperation through prayer and penance.

The Church teaches us that there are three traditional expressions of penance.  These are fasting, prayer and almsgiving.  These three are mentioned by Jesus in the Gospel of St. Matthew (6:1-6, 16-18), which is precisely the Gospel of Ash Wednesday. Fasting, prayer and almsgiving remind us that conversion includes all of the aspects of our life: “they express conversion in relation to ourselves, to God and to others” (CCC, 1434).

In this conference I want to dedicate myself specifically to fasting, which is so necessary in order to grow in self-control, in moderation of our appetites, and in opening ourselves to spiritual realities and eternal nourishment.

What Is Fasting?

It is the practice of limiting the amount of food and water received in order to imitate the sufferings of Christ during His passion and throughout His earthly life.  Fasting reminds us that conversion affects and ought to affect all areas of our lives.

The Fasting as a Part of the Jewish Tradition

If we examine the Old Testament, we can see that fasting played an important role in Jewish life and tradition:

Leviticus 16: 29-30.   The Lord orders a day of fasting as expiation and purification for their sins: “you will fast… for in that day there will be expiation done you in order to purify you.”

Joel 2:12. Fasting is a sign of repentance: “Return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning.”

Exodus 34:28. Fasting is a preparation for the manifestations which are to come. Moses spent forty days and forty nights on Mount Sinai without eating bread or drinking water. After this, he received the new Tablets of the Law.

Deuteronomy 10:10. Fasting has intercessory power: “I had spent these other forty days and forty nights on the mountain, and the LORD had once again heard me and decided not to destroy you.”

Jonah 3:7. In the face of the future destruction of Nineveh, the people did fasting and penance.

Psalm 35:13. Faced with an unjust persecution, David fasted and did penance.

Psalm 109:24.  In order to receive the help of the Lord, the psalmist fasted until he was weak in the knees.

Judith 4:9-15.  Before the threats of Nebuchadnezzar, the Israelites offered praises, prayers, penance and fasting.  The Lord heard their voices and saw their anguish because of it.

Esther 4:16. Esther told Mordecai:  “Go and assemble all the Jews who are in Susa; fast on my behalf, all of you, not eating or drinking, night or day, for three days. I and my maids will also fast in the same way. Thus prepared, I will go to the king, contrary to the law. If I perish, I perish!”  (Esther was about to go before the king in defense of her people who were condemned to death.  She was going to unmask the enemy.  It almost seems like the petition of the Virgin of Fatima, who appears with a star on her mantle.  Esther means “star.”)

Fasting in the New Testament

Matthew 4, Luke 4.  We see Jesus in the desert praying without eating or drinking anything for forty days.

Mark 9:29. Jesus drove out an unclean spirit that his disciples were not able to drive out. When asked why they were not able, he replied, “This kind can only be cast out by prayer and fasting.”

Luke 2: 37. “Ana never left the temple, but worshiped night and day with fasting and prayer.”

Acts 13:3. “The community, after having prayed and fasted, laid hands on them and sent them off.”

Acts 14:23. “They appointed presbyters for them in each church and, with prayer and fasting, commended them to the Lord.”

Col 1:24. “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church.”

1 Cor 9:25. “Every athlete exercises discipline in every way. They do it to win a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one.”

Gal 5:17. “For the flesh has desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you may not do what you want.”

The Temptations in the Desert

An important passage for us to meditate is Matthew 4: the temptations in the desert.  Within it we find many teachings that are necessary for the spiritual life.  I will concentrate on those which I consider demonstrate the importance of fasting.

Jesus receives Baptism and the Holy Spirit descends upon Him, and a voice is heard which says, “This is my beloved Son.” All of this is a beautiful and very spiritual experience.  Immediately, that same Spirit takes Him into the desert (a solitary place, dry, dangerous and without any provisions at all) to be tempted by the devil.  The desert is necessary so that the Lord can do great things in us.  He has always revealed Himself to His people in an extraordinary ways during times of desert, and He has always prepared His people for the mission during the times of desert.  But precisely because of this, the devil also wages a great battle in the desert in order to place obstacles in front of what God wants to do.

Jesus prepares Himself for this battle with prayer and fasting for forty days and nights.  How do we prepare ourselves for the battle that our lives wage in the contemporary world?  We prepare ourselves with prayer and fasting.  When we feel greater temptations, we must pray and fast more.

The Israelites were freed from Egypt and were taken to the desert towards the Promise Land.  After just a short time of having left Egypt and of walking through the desert, their resources were depleting.  Then they began to rebel against Moses and their first complaint was about their hunger and thirst, and they demanded that God provide for them.  The Lord did the miracle of the manna, and had water come out from the rock when Moses struck it with his staff. 

Jesus fasted in the desert, and with His fasts, He made reparation for the complaints and injuries the Israelites made in the desert against God.

First temptation:  Jesus feels hunger (a human reality) and here the devil takes advantage of it in order to throw out his first temptation and seduction:  “If you are the Son of God, turn these rocks into bread.”  Jesus replies: “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God” (Deut. 8:3).

The devil is not able to make Jesus fall even though He was hungry because, through His fasting, He had placed His need to satisfy His hunger and His physical gratification in second place.  Through fasting, we dominate this area so that when the temptation comes to us, we can resist it.

“Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of the God.”  Jesus responds by making reference to Deuteronomy 8.  This is a characteristic of Christ, to show us that to fulfill the will of God gives more life than that which we can receive by eating.  This response of Christ reveals to us what those forty days were: there was no bread or water, but there was a profound communication with the Father.  This is more important than anything else: to not seek food outside of the will of God. The appetites that we seek to dominate are varied: those of the body, those of the emotions, those stemming from our sexuality, those of the mind, those that desire to feed our ego, those that seek fame and recognition, etc.

Second temptation (because He feels hunger): He is taken to the pinnacle of the temple and is told, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down, for it is written: your angels will come to your rescue, they will carry you in their hands so that your foot will not stumble upon any stone.”  Jesus tells him, “It is also written, you shall not tempt the Lord your God” (Deut. 6:16).

The devil is tempting Jesus to dishonor the Father’s protection and to take control of things outside of obedience to God.  It was the temptation of personal satisfaction: of being served by the angels, of being protected by them so that nothing would happen to Him.  Jesus is tempted in this area after having fasted; could this be because fasting has the power to free us from our egos, to free us from our desire to be served and honored?

Third Temptation:  (because He feels hunger):  He is taken to a very high mountain and is shown all the kingdoms of the world and is told, “I will give you all of this if you prostrate yourself before me in adoration.”  Jesus responds, “Get away from me satan, for it is written: the Lord your God you will adore and give worship to” (Deut 6:13).  The devil tempts Him towards earthly power and fame.  Could it be that fasting liberates us from these desires?  Could it be that when we experience our weakness, emptiness, and need in fasting we recognize that we are creatures, dependant on God, and thus are freed from the great temptation to adore false gods (including ourselves)?

The three temptations in the desert were directed towards pleasure, power and fame.  The three were presented during the forty days of prayer and fasting.  The three were overcome with the contrary virtues: denial, total submission to God and His Word, and humility.  These three virtues are the fruits of fasting.

The Old Testament reveals to us the power of fasting over our external enemies; the New Testament also reveals to us the power it has to overcome the enemies of our soul: the flesh, the devil and the world.

Fruits of Fasting

Fasting is not an end in itself, but a means to conversion. Why is this so?

  • It induces us to liberty of mind and heart, taking us through a process in which we are freed from earthly attachments and all those things that keep us bound: willfulness, desires, excessive self-preservation, etc.  Furthermore, it leads us to peace.

  • It strengthens and stabilizes us and develops self-control, which is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit.

  • It helps us to recognize our weakness and dependence on God.

  •  It makes us poor in spirit.

  • It edifies our interior life.

  • It eliminates the excesses of our life in order to make more room for God.

Fasting leads us more readily towards a life of inner union with God and with the Heavenly world; fasting frees us from the burdens and attachments of material things.  The saints recommend fasting to all those who desire to achieve greater interiority.  Fasting debilitates, little by little, our concupiscence.

Fasting and the Word of God

“Man does not live by bread along, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).

“My food is to do the will of the one who has sent me and to fulfill His work” (John 4:32).

A day of fasting ought to be a day of profound prayer, meditation of the Scriptures and the teachings of the Magisterium of the Church, thereby enriching our minds by finding our food and satisfaction in the Truth.  Fasting permits our souls to be filled with the Word that is life, that frees us and that elevates us and teaches us to think, feel and act according to the will of God.  On days of fasting, I have found, for some reason, that it is easier to penetrate into the Scriptures, to meditate on them and to more profoundly capture the message that is hidden behind its words.  When we fast, we give priority to the soul.

Fasting and the Eucharist

“Work not for the food that perishes but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you” (John 6:27).

In fasting, we discover the emptiness of earthly realities and the true food of the Eucharist. The physical emptiness that we experience in fasting helps us to become more aware of our interior emptiness and our need for spiritual realities. In a preeminent manner, a day of fasting ought to be a Eucharistic day: one of adoration, reparation, etc.

On Bread and Water?

The message of Our Lady of Medjugorje on August 14, 1984 (the day that Saint Maximilian was condemned to death by starvation in the concentration camp of Auschwitz) was, “Fast on Wednesdays and Fridays on bread and water.”

Bread is the food of the poor.  The disposition to live on bread and water for a day demonstrates the good will one has to be poor before God and well-disposed to His will.

Bread and water: two important symbols in the Scriptures

Bread: It symbolizes life, nourishment (Bread, food – Eucharist).

Water: It symbolizes purification (from His pierced Heart flows water, symbolizing baptism).

These are also the two miracles that the Lord did with the Israelites while they were in the desert.

We must seek true life by means of purification.  Fasting on bread and water is a call to grow in dependence on the Eucharist.  It is also a call to enter into a life of purification, of conversion, of stripping ourselves of all that separates us from the Lord or does not allow us to be His adoptive sons or His image and likeness.

“I am the bread of life, he who comes to me will not hunger, he who believes in me will not thirst” (John 6:34).

We Have Heard the Blessed Virgin Call Us to Fasting:

In Medjugorje, Our Lady has given us the following messages:

“Your fasting has the power to prevent wars and natural catastrophes.”

“Practice fasting because with fasting you will obtain the complete realization of the plan that God has.  With this you will make me most happy.”

“I invite you to prayer and fasting.  With your help I can do all things and obligate satan to no longer instigate souls.”

“Pray and fast, only in this manner you will be able to know what is evil within you and to offer it to God with the hope that He will purify your hearts of all things.”

 “That kind can only be cast out with prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:29).

His Holiness John Paul II spoke on the need to fast to weaken the “spirit of death and the culture of death”:

“I repeat what I said to those families who carry out their challenging mission amid so many difficulties: a great prayer for life is urgently needed, a prayer which will rise up throughout the world. Through special initiatives and in daily prayer, may an impassioned plea rise to God, the Creator and lover of life, from every Christian community, from every group and association, from every family and from the heart of every believer. Jesus himself has shown us by his own example that prayer and fasting are the first and most effective weapons against the forces of evil (cf. Mt 4:1-11). As he taught his disciples, some demons cannot be driven out except in this way (cf. Mk 9:29). Let us therefore discover anew the humility and the courage to pray and fast so that power from on high will break down the walls of lies and deceit: the walls which conceal from the sight of so many of our brothers and sisters the evil of practices and laws which are hostile to life. May this same power turn their hearts to resolutions and goals inspired by the civilization of life and love” (Evangelium Vitae, 100).

Fasting Appeases Gluttony

With fasting we learn to dominate ourselves and to free ourselves from the sin of gluttony, which does not only manifest itself in excessive eating, but also in more refined and spiritual forms.

1.  Intellectual gluttony: this is an uncontrolled desire in the areas of knowledge (curiosity) of science.  This is very dangerous because it was the first sin of Eve: curiosity.  From here comes sins of the occult, psychics, astrology, the reading of hands, a desire to know the future, etc.

2Spiritual gluttony:  this is a seeking of sentiments that come from pious reading and sensible pleasures. It is also not wanting to miss out on any spiritual experience.

3.  Gluttony of pleasure, honor or fame: this is when one does anything in order to have attention, to be recognized, etc.

To Fast Not Only from Food

Saint John Chrysostom said,

“The value of fasting consists not only on avoiding certain foods, but of renouncing to all attitudes, thoughts and sinful desires.  Whoever limits fasting simply to food is minimizing the great value that fasting has.  If you fast, prove it in your actions!  If you see a brother in need, have compassion on him.  If you see a brother receiving recognition, do not envy him.  For fasting to be true, it cannot be so only in our mouths, it must be a fasting of our eyes, ears, feet, hands…of all our bodies, interior and exterior.

“Fast with your hands by keeping them pure in the disinterested service of others.  Fast in your feet by not being slow in love and service.  Fast with your eyes by not seeing impure things or by not looking at others to criticize them.  Fast of all that puts your soul or your holiness in danger.  It will be useless to deny my body food while I am feeding my heart with waste, with impurity, with selfishness, with competitions, with comfort.

“You fast of food, but you allow yourself to hear vain and worldly things.  You ought to also fast with your ears.  You ought to fast from hearing things that are said about your brothers, lies that are said about others, especially gossip, rumors, cold words that are hurtful and against others.

“You also ought to fast with your mouth; you ought to fast from saying anything bad about others.  For of what value is it for you do not eat if you devour your brother?”

What does St. John Chrysostom want to tell us with this reflection?

He wants to tells us that the days of fasting ought to be special days of abstaining from all disordered and exaggerated use of our senses.  This means that I should not look at what I should not; not speak what I should not; not hear what I should not; not desire what I should not; not seek satisfaction of my emotional or spiritual needs; not seek to fill my loneliness by immediately seeking companionship; not want to know everything; not seek immediate answers to all that comes into my mind, etc.

We fast seeking conversion.  Therefore, we must fast from all of these attitudes that are contrary to virtue.  Perhaps your fasting will be about being more serviceable (to fast from sloth or from comfort).  For just as the Blessed Virgin Mary asks us to pray with the heart, we need to fast with our hearts.  Maybe we need to fast from our anger by being more amiable, more sweet and more docile on the days we fast.  Maybe I have to fast from pride by actively seeking to be humbled and by doing concrete acts of humility.

Fasting and Bodily Purity

Let us listen to Cardinal Ratzinger:

“To fast means to accept an essential aspect of the Christian life.  It is necessary to rediscover again the corporal aspect of the Faith:  abstention from food is one of those aspects.  Sexuality and nourishment are among the fundamental elements of the physicality of man. In our time, the decline in the understanding of virginity goes hand in hand with the decline in the understanding of fasting.  And these two declines have a single root: the present-day eclipse of the eschatological tension, which is to say, of the tension of the Christian faith towards eternal life.  Virginity and periodic abstinence from food  are meant to testify that eternal life awaits us, indeed that it is already among us, and ‘the form of this world passes away.’ Without virginity and without fasting, the Church is no longer Church; she is assimilated to her historical surroundings.” (cf. The Ratzinger Report, p. 113-114)

“Today more than ever, penance and mortification are necessary in order to expiate our sins and to repair for those of the whole world.  Through the years, humanity has always been sinful, but it recognized it and would do penance for this.  Today this is not so; one lives in sin and does not call it sin, but rather is proud of it.  All moral and ethical principals are being rejected and for this reason humanity has lost its interior liberty and has become a victim of the worse dictator: oneself and the devil” (cf. Cardinal Ratzinger).

“Fasting as a common and public act of the Church, is so necessary today as it was yesterday it seems to me; it is a public witness both of the primacy of God and of the spiritual values such as solidarity with all those who go hungry.  If we do not fast we will not be able to free ourselves of certain devils of our times” (cf. Journey Towards Easter).

For this reason the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “The way of perfection passes by way of the Cross. There is no holiness without renunciation and spiritual battle. Spiritual progress entails the ascesis and mortification that gradually lead to living in the peace and joy of the Beatitudes” (2015).

Fasting and Charity

Fasting also cannot be separated from fraternal charity.  If a Christian would deny himself all things, it is in order to give it to his brothers and be, therefore, a testimony of his love for God.

Pius XII in 1950 said, “What removes vanity, the Christian will give in charity and mercifully will give to the Church of the poor.  This is what the faithful of the primitive Church did:  they nourished the fountains of charity with fasting and abstinence of permissible things.” Saint Augustine wrote, “Your denials will be fruitful if you demonstrate patience with others.”  Privations are Christian if they make us grow in holiness, in charity and generosity.

In the first Christian communities whenever there was a poor person among them who needed to be helped, they would fast for two or three days, and then send him nourishments that they had prepared for themselves. The primitive Church observed two days of fasting during the week: Wednesdays and Fridays.

In conclusion, if we are to making fasting truly efficacious in our hearts and lives, it must be done intending to bring forth an internal conversion and change of heart. The denial or our bodily appetites must lead to a denial of our sinful inclinations that arise from the disorder present in our hearts. In this way, the renewal of fasting in our lives and in the life of the Church should bring about an authentic spiritual renewal as well. May we go forth embracing a spirit of penance and mortification so as to transform our own hearts, and through them, the world.

Let us respond to Our Lady’s call for prayer, fasting, conversion and consecration to the Hearts of Jesus and Mary!

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