In December of 2009, I was hospitalized for four days in two different hospitals with a blood platelet crisis. Platelets cause your blood to clot when necessary and I didn’t have enough of them (ITP). I had been fighting 3 separate occurrences of cancer since 2003, and while the cancer was no longer present, the treatments (including two stem cell transplants) had been so brutal that I was constantly in the hospital for something.
This particular hospitalization occurred the week before Christmas and came on the heels of a deep inner darkness, a time of great difficulty both spiritually and emotionally. However strange as it might sound from the outside, I found this stint in the hospital to be a great blessing. Having spent many long periods of time in hospitals, I am at home in them. This four-day period became a sort of retreat for me where the darkness lifted and I felt renewed in body, mind, and spirit.
Just a couple days before Christmas, I was released from the University of Chicago Medical Center. My wife drove me back to our home in South Bend in the afternoon. That evening I needed to go to the drug store to get the five prescriptions that awaited me. I was feeling well enough to drive and, frankly, I wanted to experience some autonomy and independence so despite my weakened condition, I decided to go and get them myself.
While I was waiting in line, I noticed a short little Christian book on fasting which seemed like it was jumping out from the stand in the waiting area. (Yes, in Indiana you can still find Christian books in drug stores.) If books could talk, this book was shouting at me! As I browsed through it, I saw that it laid out biblical reasons for fasting and included testimonies about how fruitful the practice of fasting has been in the life of this pastor-author and his congregation. Longing desperately for more fruit in my own life, I purchased it and spent most of the night reading it. The next day, I drove to a local convent’s Eucharistic Adoration chapel and finished reading it, using the Scripture citations in the book to look up and read all the passages directly myself. As I studied them, I could feel my heart burning.
Now it’s not like I’ve never fasted. Fasting was a part of my “re-version” twenty years previous as a young college graduate. But I was a different person then, much more youthful, naïve, and prone to excessive enthusiasm. As my Christian conversion deepened and moved from a lot of emotion toward a more lasting and quiet commitment, I encountered a Catholic Church which seemed rather unenthusiastic about fasting. Except when I was around people who had gone on pilgrimages to Medjugorje, whenever the topic came up, the topic of fasting was usually met with so many warnings and calls for prudence, moderation, and caution that it seemed like fasting was something the Church actually wanted to discourage. My impression was that in the eyes of most Catholics, fasting was really something only for zealots and extremists. To even bring up the topic made people look at you funny. Well, I didn’t want to be a zealot or an extremist, so I avoided fasting altogether, except during Lent when it was “safe” or perhaps secretly for special occasions. I pursued other “safer” routes towards closeness with Christ.
This little book from the drug store rekindled some long smoldering embers. It pointed me towards the biblical basis for fasting. I was familiar with many of the biblical stories, but it was like the scales were falling off my eyes and I began to notice things that I have never noticed. During the ensuing month, I spent many hours in that convent chapel reading and praying about fasting, as I sat in the presence Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament.
Then a couple weeks later, I had a conversation with a devout Catholic doctor friend about the spiritual practice of fasting. I wanted to make sure that it would not hurt my health to fast as I had made a commitment to my wife that I would always do what the doctors recommended. (This promise was to alleviate her stress about her husband having cancer.) As anyone with medical issues should do, I asked him if I could fast. He replied that nobody had ever asked him that. He requested that I give him a little time to read and think about it, and I said, “Of course.” Then only a day or two later, he emailed me some material that actually encouraged the practice of fasting from a physiological point of view. I was surprised but excited as I really wanted to begin as soon as possible. This was the green light I needed to overcome my fear of being a zealot and a fool, a great step forward towards the practice of fasting for me.
One of the drugs I was taking at the time was Prednisone. If you’ve never taken Prednisone, it is a very powerful steroid with many side effects, including bringing about an absolutely voracious appetite. I was on 100 milligrams of it, which is high. (Many people never exceed 20 mgs). I gained about eight or nine pounds in a week. My body felt absolutely disgusting. So, after a huge, delicious, and way overindulgent Christmas night feast, I found myself alone in my living room when everyone else had gone to bed, reading the Scriptures by the light of the Christmas tree and the fire in the fireplace. I felt called to fast both spiritually and physically. As one final test of discernment, as my wife headed up to bed, I told her what I planned to do the next morning. Had she expressed any concern for my health or mental sanity, I would have backed down; but she gave me her blessing. And so, I did it.
For three days, I drank nothing but water. I had many prayer intentions for my fast, but among the foremost was an increase of peace and love in my family. I committed myself to more time in prayer. I continued to research the medical implications of fasting.
And small miracles began to occur.
The night after my first full day of fasting, I was lying in bed reading again when my twelve-year-old son woke up, climbed down from his bunk bed in his room and appeared at our door. He said he was scared and had a strange and inexplicable desire to be near me. This was completely out of character for him. He was a kid who learned not by talking and asking questions, but by trying things and making mistakes and then adjusting. He laid down with his pillow and blanket on the wood floor next to my bed. After a short period of time, he began to ask me questions. Deep questions. Questions about life and death. And God. And sin. And virtue. And hope.
He listened to my answers and asked further questions. We talked for a long time. Finally, as the conversation was winding down, he asked if he could get into bed with us because he was getting uncomfortable (my wife was sleeping next to me). I knew I couldn’t allow this because she has a bad back and a tough enough time sleeping as it is. Another body would not be good for her. So impulsively I just told him to switch with me and he did immediately. So, there I was lying on the floor, not wanting to break this special moment when my son suddenly realized that his father was lying on a wood floor and he was lying in the bed. It shocked him, and he said, “Dad, I don’t want you to sleep on the floor.” To which I replied, “Michael, I want to do it because I love you.” And then, after a few moments of quiet, as he began to fall asleep, he said, “Dad, I want to become just like you.”
My eyes filled with tears. I was overcome with gratitude and a knowledge of the presence of God. This was the miracle of my very first day of a fast. There were more to come.
Fasting allows miracles to happen. Whenever I humble myself before God in prayer and fasting, positive things always seem to happen around me. I’ll get a phone call out of the blue with good news. Someone I love who is hurting will suddenly make a turn for the better. Relationships begin to thrive. Exciting things unexpectedly occur in the lives of my loved ones. The cool thing is that I rarely have a direct connection to these things. They just happen and they all seem like answers to my prayers. I’m glad that it usually unfolds this way; because if I were more directly involved, I’d probably be tempted to take credit. It’s better for me to know for certain that God is acting, not me.
During Advent in 2011, I fasted in preparation for Christmas. Many, many wonderful things happened. Here are three of them.
My Friend David
I had a friend who died in October 2011. It was sudden, unexpected, and heartbreaking. He was very wealthy and had lived alone for most of his adult life. The previous August as we were talking about life, he told me that he had just decided to change his will to leave most of his money to the Elkhart County Community Foundation whenever he died. I was thrilled to hear this, but didn’t think too much about it since I didn’t think he was going to die for another 30 years.
In a separate conversation, he also told me that he was going to give Holy Cross College (where I worked) $1.5 million for a much-needed scholarship—the first fully endowed scholarship in the college’s history—and that this would happen right away. The money would be funded by Christmas. After his untimely death, there was no written record of his promise to me and no guarantee that his estate could even recover his money from overseas.
After his funeral, I told the people working on his estate about his intent to give Holy Cross $1.5 million. Boy was I uncomfortable and self-conscious. Surely, I must be sounding like a con man! But it was the truth so I had to say it. Christmas came and went and recovery of any of his money from his overseas investments was anything but certain, let alone the $1.5 million for Holy Cross College. But in early 2012, I was informed by the executor of the estate that they had successfully recovered all his money. After taxes it was about $150 million. The Elkhart Community Foundation got their money, which made me extremely happy. But I still felt uneasy about his gift to Holy Cross College. Would enough people involved believe me? Shortly thereafter, I was informed that they were funding the scholarship at Holy Cross based on my word. They DID believe me! And then they gave us $2 million instead of $1.5 million!
My 6th Grade Basketball Team
I was coaching my son’s 6th grade boys’ basketball team with another dad. We weren’t the coaches the previous year, but we had sat in the stands together and watched our boys lose all 14 games as 5th graders. After opening the season with 4 more losses, we finally won a 2-quarter exhibition game at a holiday tournament. Afterwards, we celebrated this minor achievement like we had just won the championship! It was the first time these boys had EVER won anything on a basketball court. They had broken an 18-game losing streak!
This happened during my Advent fasting. Unfortunately, we lost our next game, but then something magical happened. We won 11 in a row!!! ELEVEN!!! There was something surreal about that run of 11 consecutive victories. Almost every game came down to the wire. Time after time after time, somehow, some way, our boys kept finding a way to pull a victory. It was incredible! Parents and coaches alike saw our boys grow in self-confidence. They saw smiles and joy. They saw a team come together in a most unexpected way.
Before the winning streak began, I had been fasting. After 9 days of no food and only drinking water, I told my wife that I probably needed to stop fasting, but I really didn’t want to since we were receiving so many graces already. She chuckled and agreed with me, both that I should stop fasting and that she didn’t want to see it end either. The beautiful thing is that this huge blessing with my basketball team didn’t happen until after I stopped.
During this time period, my beautiful goddaughter, Anna, was struggling through a very difficult bout of cancer. She was young and really on the ropes, suffering significantly. I, along with many others, prayed for her. When I fasted that Advent, I was fasting for her too. I prayed for her intensely. She went through a living hell, but she survived! Today, she is strong and healthy: a beautiful young woman. I’m convinced that all of our prayers and fasting had something to do with her successful recovery.
Fasting properly understood is not bartering with God any more than prayer itself is bartering with God. Fasting is simply prayer through the means of your body. Although I did ask for my goddaughter’s healing, the episodes with my son in my bedroom and my basketball team’s 11 game winning streak were completely unsolicited blessings. I only recognized the connection after the fact. That’s how God often works.
I realize that a skeptic could say that these things could be explained without any supernatural intervention. I understand that. All I can tell you is that I felt the grace of God working in the world, and my wife did too. My fasting was definitely connected to it. I don’t know how, but I do know that it was.
But what’s so hard to believe about that? What’s so hard to believe that God rewards fasting just like the Bible, the early Church Fathers, and a multitude of saints have said? For me, the power of fasting isn’t just theoretical. I have experienced it first-hand!
After a 20-year career in Catholic education, Robert Kloska now helps Notre Dame Federal Credit Union implement Catholic Social Teaching in the service of its membership, including many Catholic parishes, schools, and non-profits. He is married and the father of five children.
This article originally appeared on pages 38-40 of the printed edition.