One of the traditional Lenten practices is fasting, a practice that can be found in many world religions. Jews fast from all food and drink on Yom Kippur, Muslims fast from first light until sundown during the month of Ramadan, Tibetan Buddhists fast durign Nyung-Na retreats and other times. Catholics are required to fast only on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and are encouraged to fast at other times during Lent.

Why is it that so many religious groups view fasting as a worthwhile spiritual practice? I think it is good to spend some time reflecting on the value of fasting, lest our Lenten fast becomes, as one of my former parish pastors used to joke, Weight Watchers for Catholics.

Rabbi Allen Maller has an article in a recent issue of America magazine that talks about the value of fasting. One of the points he makes is that fasting teaches compassion. It is one thing, he says, to talk about world hunger and feel sorry that some people don’t have enough food. “But not until one feels hunger in one’s own body is there a real impact: empathy is much stronger than pity. Empathy should lead us to action.” The goal is for our own experience of hunger to impel us to act to (in Isaiah’s words) “remove the chains of oppresiona nd the yoke of injustice and [s]hare your food with the hungry.”

Additionally, Rabbi Maller makes the point that fasting imposes a self-restraint that helps us understand that we don’t always have to have more. We live in a consumer society whose constant message is that we need to have more of this or that to be happy. “By fasting we assert that we need not be toally dependent on external things, even such essentials as food. If our most basic need for food and drink can be suspended for 24 hours, how much more our needs for all the nonessentials.”

Many people, for health reasons, can’t fast. But many of us can. So consider picking some days during Lent to fast, maybe Fridays, the traditional Lenten days of abstinence, or maybe even more often. And if you do, perhaps you might also consider taking the money you would have spent on food that day and donating it to a local food organization that feeds the poor.

Here’s one idea for orgnanizations: at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, our Christian Legal Society is sponsoring a “Bread and Water Fast” on Thursdays during Lent. They provide bread and water to members of the community at no cost and those partaking make a donation of what they would have spent for lunch. The funds collected will be donated at the end of Lent. I’m sure you can think of other ideas.