Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are usually the listed means by which the holy season of Lent can sanctify us. Yesterday, I mentioned prayer, and what a life of prayer (surely the goal of the spiritual life) might look like. In continuance of that theme, I will now look at fasting.
The best way to understand fasting is not purely as an abstention from food or any other thing. Self denial is a good thing, but not in a vacuum. Like the demon from the cleansed but empty soul, such self-denial would merely clear space for some other self-indulgence. Perhaps we might gain some good just from this--self knowledge, for instance. But ultimately, we do not fast purely for the sake of fasting, for the sake of the space. The space we might create is merely a means to a further end, as would be any self-knowledge gained.
Ideally, what happens when we fast is that, with the separation we create from daily things, we can remove our attention from things that are too comfortable to us. As Pope Benedict XVI once said, we were not called to be comfortable, but to be holy. The daily things that we fast from conform to us; we form them, we form the immediate reality surrounding us in a way that we see fit. As we all know, however, this is not how things really are, so we need to separate from the immediateness of life, as a first step. Fasting allows us to pull back from the easy aspects of life.
Once we have created that space, we are no longer surrounded by things that reflect our self and our desires. We can examine ourselves, assuming real humility on our parts, in the light of unchanging and perfect Goodness.
What we must do, lastly, is make use of the newly created space in our lives, by putting more important things close to us. Remove a distraction or self-reflecting thing from our daily existence, and put God and His works in their place. Thus, it is clear that fasting is the real key to the whole work of Lent, the growthof the person in holiness. It unlocks the door of the self, and clears away the detritus of the past year's habits and indulgences: the result is a reclaimed space for truly living a life in God through prayer, which should then overflow into concrete acts of charity towards others.