In his Physiology of Taste, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, that philosopher of the delicious, describes Lenten fasting during his youth in 18th-century France: “Nobody breakfasted, and therefore all were more hungry than usual. All dined as well as possible, but fish and vegetables are soon gone through with. At five o’clock all were furiously hungry, looked at their watches and became enraged, though they were securing their soul’s salvation. At eight o’clock they had not a good supper, but a collation, a word derived from ‘cloister’… Neither butter, eggs, nor anything animal was served at these collations. They had to be satisfied with salads, confitures and sweetmeats, a very unsatisfactory food to such appetites at that time. They went to bed, however, and lived in hope as long as the fast lasted.”
Even as early as the 18th century, however, the custom was under assault, leading Pope Benedict XIV to write in a manner that should give us pause today:
The observance of Lent is the very badge of Christian warfare. By it we prove ourselves not to be enemies of Christ. By it we avert the scourges of divine justice. By it we gain strength against the princes of darkness, for it shields us with heavenly help. Should men grow remiss in their observance of Lent, it would be a detriment to God’s glory, a disgrace to the Catholic religion, and a danger to Christian souls. Neither can it be doubted that such negligence would become the source of misery to the world, of public calamity, and of private woe.
This statement ranks as accurate papal prophecy – ranking up there with Paul VI’s exact prediction of the modern dating scene in Humanae Vitae.
Brillat-Savarin later speaks of the gradual decline of fasting during the Age of Reason in a manner eerily parallel to Dom Guéranger’s account in his Liturgical Year. In the end, all was swept away in the French Revolution. Although the Catholic Revival of the 19th century saw a partial re-establishment of the practice (though most notably with two collations), even this was gradually done away with, until we reached the point we are at now. It cannot be said that the current conditions in church and state – to say nothing of the individual piety and happiness of Catholics – speak well for the results of the relaxation.
So, how do we react to this as individuals? First, we have to admit that our own practice of Lent is severely deficient, and seek eventually to reach the heights of fasting attained by our forefathers. But to do so all at once is probably beyond most of us (including this writer).
So let us start with the easy things, which we are used to thinking of as all we need to do – daily Mass if possible, Stations of the Cross on Lenten Fridays, redoubled prayer, visits to the Blessed Sacrament, frequent Confession and more almsgiving. Indeed, it is fair to say that unless we attend to those things, expanding our fasting and abstinence might merely give us a sort of Catholic Ramadan.
Then next Lent, let us say, we can begin. We should first mark out those saints’ days on which we are not going to fast or abstain, unless they fall on a Friday: perhaps the feasts of Ss David, Patrick and Joseph, and the Annunciation. The French would add the Third Thursday in Lent, Mi-Carême. (Sundays in Lent are exempt in any case.)
It is important to do that in advance, because if we do not, all sorts of reasons to break Lenten discipline will present themselves, and it shall be easy to give up entirely. Then, say, we give up meat.
The following year, perhaps, we could add fasting in the sense of one meal and two collations. The year after that, we might drop dairy products, and then remove one collation a day the following Lent – and so we might continue, until we were keeping Lent in all its former rigour. Naturally any failures on our part to do so would not be sins, since they are private acts of devotion – and, in any case, must be modified if our health really does require it.
Now this might seem a tall order. Why put ourselves through this? Well, think of all the evils in society we routinely condemn, but are politically powerless to alter. Almost all of them are insults to God as well as evils in themselves. What better way to separate ourselves from our rulers in this respect – and to attempt both to convert our nation and save it and our countrymen from the ruin these policies will bring about if unchanged – than to perform such penance? After all, we know how Nineveh was saved. Who shall do it, if not we who claim to be Catholic?
There is another personal benefit to be had from attempting to follow Christ more literally in his 40 days of fasting: not only will the mysteries of Holy Week become ever more real to us, but Easter will be both a spiritual and a physical triumph. As Brillat-Savarin observes: “I have seen two of my grand uncles, very excellent men, too, almost faint with pleasure, when, on the day after Easter, they saw a ham, or a pâté brought on the table. A degenerate race like the present one experiences no such sensation.”
Charles A Coulombe is an author and lecturer based in Los Angeles
This article first appeared in the March 16 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here