In recent years, fasting has made something of a comeback. Nine years ago, the Bishops of England and Wales asked Catholics to once again return to Friday abstinence from meat. Programs like the rigorous Exodus 90 emphasize fasting as a spiritual discipline.
Perhaps the pendulum of history is swinging back, as it tends to do. After all, the last few decades have seen a growing understanding of the relationship between body and spirit, as diet and fitness are understood as impacting the whole person. Fasting has become a popular path to physical and mental wellbeing, for example with the intermittent fasting of programs such as those found in Dr Jason Fung’s bestselling The Obesity Code.
Catholics look at the sacrifices they’re willing to make for career and to stay in shape, and recognize what the saints have always told us and lived out – that growth in the spiritual life requires sacrifice as well.
The years since the Second Vatican Council were, in general, a time when fasting was emphasized less. That shift was of a piece with the more general Conciliar goals: encouraging a deeper, more consistently lived faith, not just through education (as had been the focus of much of the early Liturgical Movement), but instead by emphasizing the inner life and Christian freedom over external regulations, and then dispensing with many of those regulations.
This framework is evident in how these changes are explained in various bishops’ statements in wake of the Council. The United States bishops, for example, said in their 1966 document, referring here to the now-abandoned obligation of fasting on Vigils and Ember Days: “We impose no fast before any feast day, but we suggest that the devout will find greater Christian joy in the feasts of the liturgical calendar if they freely bind themselves, for their own motives and in their own spirit of piety, to prepare for each Church festival by a day of particular self-denial, penitential prayer and fasting.”
And so it went with all of it: the year-round Friday abstinence, the Vigils and Ember Days, and of course, the Lenten disciplines.
The whole idea of the post-Conciliar changes to penitential fasting and abstinence was to present, as it were, a minimum on paper, with the expectation that the individual, flush with the glory of the Freedom of the Christian (and the Spirit of the Council), would take it from there.
The “rules” are intended to be minimal. That legal minimalism would, it was hoped, unleash an internal maximalist lurking in all of us who had just been waiting to be treated like adults instead of children, constrained and defined by adherence to those rigid rules.
How did that work out? The historian Eamon Duffy has described this post-Conciliar landscape:
So fasting is now confined to a derisory two days of the year, and compulsory Friday abstinence has been replaced by a genteel and totally individualistic injunction to do some penitential act on a Friday – an injunction, incidentally, that most Catholics know nothing about. What had been a corporate mark of identity has been marginalized into an individualistic option.
Certainly we have come a long way from the general practice of the Medieval Church, which had involved fasting every day of Lent – and not only abstinence from meat, but also eggs and dairy products for the entire season. Laments about modern laxity have become common; but it should be pointed out that fasting requirements were lightened well before the 1960s, and for good reason. As St John Henry Newman observed as long ago as 1848:
I suppose it has struck many persons as very remarkable, that in these latter times the strictness and severity in religion of former ages has been so much relaxed. There has been a gradual abandonment of painful duties which were formerly inforced upon all. Time was when all persons, to speak generally, abstained from flesh through the whole of Lent. There have been dispensations on this point again and again, and this very year there is a fresh one. What is the meaning of this? What are we to gather from it?
And what are we, indeed to gather from changing practices? We might be tempted to scold ourselves for our purported weakness, but Newman suggests a more nuanced view. Perhaps, he says, if our sins are not so closely tied to our crudest appetites, it is not such a bad thing to shift our Lenten disciplines to other sorts of weaknesses: “The great thing,” he says, “is to subdue ourselves; but as to the particular form in which the great precept of self-conquest and self-surrender is to be expressed, that depends on the person himself, and on the time or place. What is good for one age or person, is not good for another.”
Moreover, we should be careful not to idealise the past. St Augustine shook his head at “certain persons” who “seek out rare liquors in place of their ordinary wine … that, in place of meat, they procure food of manifold variety and appeal; that they store up, as opportune for this season, delights which they would be ashamed to indulge in at other times.” A millennium later, St Charles Borromeo noted that some Catholics, “on their fasting-days, eat as much in one meal, as they do on other days, at their dinner and supper together”.
Human nature doesn’t change much. In 1912 the great liturgical scholar Dom Gueranger lamented: “How few Christians do we meet who are strict observers of Lent, even in its present mild form!”
The “present mild form” of Gueranger’s early twentieth century Roman Catholicism was codified in the 1917 Code of Canon Law. It was expected that all healthy non-elderly adults not engaged in hard manual labour would fast – taking no more than one full meal – every day (except Sunday) of Lent. The “mild form” of the discipline was that the abstinence from meat was partial, rather than full. Meat was permitted during that one meal – except on Fridays, of course. Dairy products and eggs were permitted on any day.
But we are right, in thinking about fasting, to look back: beginning with the call to fast throughout Scripture and moving to the saints who knew well the weakness of human nature and spoke quite directly about those weaknesses – which don’t seem to be any different than our own. Our tradition is peopled with wise spiritual teachers who knew the temptations to be either too hard or too easy on ourselves, who articulated the social dimension of the practice as well as its penitential center, and yes, emphasized the role of obedience and guidance in fruitful fasting. We don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We just have to listen – for example, to St Francis de Sales, who wrote:
The first thing is that your fast should be entire and universal; that is, that you should make all the members of your body and the powers of your soul fast: keeping your eyes lowered, or at least lower than ordinarily; keeping better silence, or at least keeping it more punctually than is usual; mortifying the hearing and the tongue so that you will no longer hear or speak of anything vain or useless…The second condition is that you do not observe your fast or perform your works for the eyes of others. And the third is that you do all your actions, and consequently your fasting, to please God alone, to whom be honor and glory forever and ever.
Amy Welborn is the author of more than 20 books on Catholic spirituality, history and catechesis. Her website is amywelborn.com
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