Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

21 May 2013

"Unpacking the Precepts": Fasting and Abstinence

The fourth precept ("You shall observe the days of fasting and abstinence established by the Church") ensures the times of ascesis and penance which prepares us for the liturgical feasts and helps us acquire mastery over our instincts and freedom of heart.  (CCC 2043)
Here the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops elucidate the national regulations for fasting and abstinence.  An amplified summary:

  • "Abstinence" (refraining from eating meat and products containing meat--broth base, gravy, etc.) is binding on Ash Wednesday, on all Fridays of Lent, and Good Friday.
  • "Fasting" (eating one full meal and two smaller meals that do not equal a full meal) is binding on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.  It is recommended, if possible, to continue the fast begun on Good Friday all the way to the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday night.
  • Fridays during the year remain penitential days to honor the Lord's passion and death.  Abstinence from meat is the standard Friday practice.  Currently, however, Americans are permitted to substitute another suitable penance of their own choosing.
Canon 1253 supports the third point: "The conference of bishops can determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence as well as substitute other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety, in whole or in part, for abstinence and fast."
Church historians and ascetical theologians could treat the history of fasting and abstinence better than I could; but I do know (from the attestation of older Catholics) that Friday abstinence was the norm until perhaps the 1960s or 70s; in addition, there were other fasting days such as Ember Days.  In various times and places in Church history, Advent had a penitential tone marked by fasting.

Judaism and Orthodox Christianity continue to observe fasting practices that surpass the mandatory practices of Catholicism, both in nature and extent.  Orthodox Christians fast, as Catholics do, in order to "gain mastery over oneself and to conquer the passions of the flesh," as one priest notes in a comprehensive and illustrative article.  In this and many other dimensions of Orthodox Christianity, I sense a profound unity with the West--if not in terms of terminology or practice, then definitely of theory.  One Catholic author who seems to enjoy the good things of life has profited much from roundly adopting the Orthodox fast, and believes that a renewed "Catechesis of Fasting" would profit Latin-Rite Catholics (q.v.), even if we Latins are more adept at adapting than adopting.  Much of traditional Catholicism's education on fasting has favored the purpose of self-discipline for virtue (as opposed to self-improvement for its own sake).  In the process we undoubtedly, and acutely, realize our human weakness.  We do well to consider the Orthodox perspective for its joy--an aspect usually lost on the West.

Some have opined that the purpose of fasting is not primarily to discipline the will for a greater resistance of temptation (although it does), or to foster spiritual growth in us (which strangely enough can become a matter of pride!), but rather to reveal the profound need to depend on divine mercy in the likely event of failure to maintain the discipline.  I believe I read this in an article concerning the practice of "giving up" something for Lent...

...AHA!  Here it is!  In his criticism of an article by an evangelical Christian, a local Orthodox priest by the name of Fr. Andrew S. Damick reminds his readers that a faster's goals of self-improvement and self-realization-as-sinner are indeed secondary to what we might call the objective objective: to dispose oneself, body and soul, to divine grace so that we may become, as the first Bishop of Rome puts it, "partakers in the divine nature" (2 Pet 1:4).  Making room for grace inevitably involves the uprooting of vice; but that is as much God's activity as ours.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen keenly contrasted fasting with dieting, the latter being a cherished practice among moderns.  Dieting often involves the improvement of one's physical appearance and self-esteem, often in order to look more attractive to one's spouse or paramour, actual or potential.  The improvement of one's "numbers" (e.g., body weight, cholesterol, triglycerides, blood sugar) is another, praiseworthy, objective for the dieter.  When Lent comes around, however, people sometimes adopt their Lenten disciplines with ill-fitting and self-centered motives.  In the interest of purifying one's motives for ascesis (discipline), one may want to adopt different  disciplines such as refraining from the television or computer, and/or "doing a good turn daily," implementing the virtues that our families, workplaces, and schools sorely need.

Recall, too, that the Catechism mentions freedom of heart as a positive reason for ecclesial and personal disciplines.  I want to be able to put down something I dearly cherish: for example, the cup of coffee that frequently...currently...sits by my side.  I might have been in the seminary for two or three years when a retreat master suggested giving up coffee (temporarily or permanently) as an ascetical strategy.  It didn't perk me up.  That exchange has been percolating in my mind for all these years because it awakened me to my profound attachment to certain practices and substances.  (That, too, is a good motive of fasting.)  I have since made various life changes for various reasons, but coffee abides with me.  For how much longer, I don't know; but if my mentors suggested it to me, I wouldn't resist as much as I did 15-20 years ago.
"...But not yet!"
I sincerely hope that we Catholics--the Reverend Blogger foremost among them--can recover a genuine appreciation for the value of sacrifice, which is manifested above all in repentance for sin and charity toward neighbor.  Perhaps we can return to fasting with creativity and ingenuity, moved by the willingness to surpass the expected minimum (as the Precepts of the Church prescribe) toward ever greater lengths, "for our good and for the good of all His holy Church."

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