Last Sunday, a good priest friend of mine mentioned something in his homily which made me think, particularly with Lent coming up. To paraphrase, he noted that many people in the secular world are often impressed by acts of piety and asceticism on the part of religious believers, especially if they seem exotic. Thus, the Lenten disciplines of fasting and prayer can serve both as a witness, as well as a way to reform the imago Dei in us that has become deformed through sin.
A Catholic myself, I cannot help but be impressed by the piety of many Muslims who fast during Ramadan, and I know I am not alone. Many in our secularized culture understandably look upon the discipline of Ramadan with a kind of awe, as it reminds them of a religious culture which has been lost to a very large degree here in the West. In this regard, our culture seems to have an almost schizoid attitude in regard to religion, on the one hand parroting the oft-repeated mantra of its intolerance, while on the other drawn to it in a way that demonstrates just how much our society really hungers for God. This fascination, I believe, is a poignant reminder of the Christendom that the modern West thought it had "evolved" beyond and left behind forever. As I was reminded on Sunday, it also signals to us as believing Catholics that the disciplines, rituals, and practices of the Church, particularly fasting and fixed times of prayer, serve as a quiet yet powerful witness to the world around us. In many ways, our faith has been and is still very much outside the mainstream culture, particularly in America and the England. We have a unique opportunity, then, to witness this Lent to our faith through the traditional disciplines of prayer and fasting.
As the Church has always taught, any fasting or ascetical discipline must by necessity be a natural accompaniment of genuine repentance, as well as an increase of prayer. Indeed, true sincerity and contrition of heart must be the root from which the tree of penance springs, if it is to bear fruit. But this does not mean that fasting and abstinence can be summarily dismissed as of a sort of false righteousness either. On the contrary, in a world and a culture which has lost its sense of the true good of bodily existence, it is even more vital that we allow God to use us as examples of a life lived in communion with Him.
And so, as a witness for Christ, let us consider doing more this Lent than just giving up television or Facebook (although these are certainly laudable things to do). The Church requires us to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, as well as abstain from meat on those days in addition to the Fridays of Lent. Perhaps one may consider fasting on the Lenten Fridays as well, in addition to the already required abstinence, or in some way prayerfully discerning a personal rule of fasting and abstinence above and beyond the established minimum (it is most wise to consult a priest, of course, before adopting any kind of ascetical regimen).
In addition to this, the Church Fathers stress the importance of prayer. This is in order to avoid the "fast of the demons", as even the demons fast (being incorporeal), but they do not pray, and they certainly do not perform works of charity. Increasing time spent in daily prayer, then, is a necessity in addition to even the required fasting during Lent. A daily Rosary, praying the Liturgy of the Hours or the Angelus every day, attending daily Mass, all are ways that we can draw closer to Christ during this season of grace. In drawing closer to Him, we are conformed to Him, and in being conformed to Him, we become living icons of Him.
Ultimately, fasting and prayer, when done in a spirit of genuine repentance, is meant to restore the image of Christ that has been marred in us by sin. By living a life in increased attentiveness to Him and in conformity to His will and in cooperation with His grace, our Lenten disciplines serve as a powerful witness to Christ and His Church, in the midst of a world which is in such desperate need of Divine guidance.