Today we honour the memory of Saint Aloysius Gonzaga, who at the age of 16 was all fired-up with the idea of being a missionary. His father wanted him to become a soldier but begrudgingly allowed him to enter the Jesuit novitiate in Rome. Aloysius helped out in the local hospital caring for plaque victims, but he caught the plague himself and, in 1591 died at the age of 23. The short life of Saint Aloysius shows us that even the young can foster a deep relationship with God. Pope Benedict XIII named him the heavenly patron of Catholic youth.
The Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote: “There is no love sincerer than the love of food.” This quote, while originally penned in humour, contains an element of truth. As human beings we love food, we enjoy a tasty dinner. Not only does it satisfy our physical hunger, it can bring us comfort and happiness as well. So, for many people, the idea of intentionally going without food can make us feel uncomfortable, because it goes against our nature.
We need to remember that the culture Our Lord addressed was much more accustomed to fasting than ours. Giving alms to the poor, prayer, and fasting were the three most important spiritual disciplines to a faithful Jew. Fasting, in particular, was seen as a powerful expression of turning to God in repentance. It wasn’t necessarily repentance from a particular sinful activity. Rather, fasting was seen as an active way of tuning in to God. It might help to think of a radio. In order to clear the static and find the station you’re looking for, you have to turn the knob until the radio is in tune with the station’s frequency. In a similar way, fasting was seen as a valuable method of finding God and tuning in to his wavelength.
Fasting is just as valuable today as it was in Our Lord’s time, because it gives us more time to turn to God in prayer. The physical hunger we feel can help put us in touch with our spiritual hunger for God. And it confirms Our Lord’s teaching that we don’t live on bread alone “but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4)