Churches overflow with Catholics on Ash Wednesday, a day of fasting that marks the beginning of Lent. Throughout the penitential season, the faithful refrain from eating meat on Fridays.

Fasting, prayer and almsgiving are three Lenten disciplines the Church prescribes to help Catholics journey deeper into the Paschal mystery.

When the Apostles asked Jesus about a demon who they could not expel, Christ answered, “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting.” (Mark 9:29) Indeed, since the time of Abraham, fasting has always been part of living the faith.

Fasting is a common practice among lay and religious Catholics.

“We fast from Sept. 14 until Easter as our monastic fast, which means we have a lighter meal or collation in the evening and one main meal at noon time,” said Dominican Sister Mary St. Pius, prioress of Our Lady of the Angels Monastery in Los Angeles. “We keep all Fridays and Wednesdays with no meat and Saturdays in Advent and Lent in addition.”

Living the cloistered life, the sisters have retreated and are in a sense fasting from the temptations and lures of the materialistic world. The sisters also simplify all of their meals during Lent and cut out desserts and sweets, except on solemnities.

“In special seasons, more prayer and devotions come into play, especially in regard to the needs of so many and the needs of the Church,” said Sister Mary. “There are some sisters who may wish to do more, but it always has to be discrete and not undermine one’s health.”

This discretion in fasting follows the commandment of Jesus in Matthew 6:17-18: “But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

Fasting is not a badge of honor or a competition.  It is a private sacrifice, an offering to God.

Always keep your fasting reasonable and not risk any health or safety issues. Your suffering should be spiritual, not a suffering that lands you in the hospital.

“Fasting helps simplify our life and cravings to focus on the essentials, especially in Lent when we follow our Blessed Lord so closely in the Liturgy and all the readings and special devotions, and identify ourselves with him and try to share something of his sufferings in our own person,” Sister Mary said.

Fasting is meant as liberation from worldly distractions.

“It helps to be more concentrated on others, their needs and the needs of the Church as well,” said Sister Mary. “It helps give us a mastery over our self-will and a greater freedom to act for the Good.”

Yet fasting does not need to be only dietary. The faithful can also fast from negative thoughts, bad language, television, the Internet and social media (especially now that they are all so accessible) and judgment of your neighbor.

Fasting connects us to our bodies and reminds us of our humanity. During Lent, this discipline can remind Catholics of the humanity of Christ in his suffering and crucifixion. Through the suffering, the faithful come to know his limitless love.