Fasting and Lent

Can the children of the bridegroom mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then they shall fast.

This Wednesday begins Quadragesima or Lent, the time in which Holy Church has set aside for prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. On this practice of fasting (L. ieiunium), I have take a page from the Benedictine monks of Norcia, Italy:

Fasting and Abstinence

The Church’s current regulations in the U. S. require fasting and abstinence from meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday; abstinence from meat on the Fridays of Lent; and abstinence from meat or some other penitential or charitable work on every non-Lenten Friday of the year, unless the Friday falls on a solemnity. Abstinence is binding from age 14; fasting is binding from age 18 until age 59. “According to the Church’s law, the ‘substantial observance’ of Fridays as days of penance, whether by abstinence or in other ways, ‘is a grave obligation.’ (Pope Paul VI, Paenitemini, 1966, Norm II, 2).” (Fr. John Hardon, S.J., Modern Catholic Dictionary, 1979).

What is Fasting?

Fasting according to the Church’s norms means eating only one full meal per day. Two smaller meals or snacks may also be eaten, sufficient to maintain one’s strength, but together they should not equal the one full meal. No food may be taken between meals; but liquids, including milk and juice, may be taken between meals. Expectant mothers and the sick are not bound to fast. When health or ability to work would be seriously affected, the law does not oblige. In the current regulations, fasting is always accompanied by abstinence from meat. That is, both of the obligatory fasting days (Ash Wednesday and Good Friday) are also days of abstinence from meat. “Self-imposed observance of fasting on all weekdays of Lent is strongly recommended.” (NCCB, November 18, 1966). Fasting on Holy Saturday is specifically recommended by the Church (currently).

What is Abstinence?

Abstinence from meat means that no meat (the flesh and organs of mam- mals and fowl), meat gravy, or meat soup may be taken.

The Monastic Fast

The Rule of St. Benedict establishes a fourfold variation in the yearly rhythm of feasting and fasting. From Easter until Pentecost there are two meals, both lunch and supper, since we cannot fast while the Bridegroom is with us. From Pentecost to mid-September, there is fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays, with one meal only, taken in the middle of the afternoon, around 3:00 pm. (There was no custom of breakfast in the Rule). From mid-September until Lent, there is one meal only, taken in mid-afternoon (except Sundays and feasts). During Lent, there is one meal only, but taken later in the day, at 5:30 pm. The Rule also has the monks abstain from meat (although there is some ambiguity in the text about the details). In all these variations, there is a wonderful harmony between what happens in church and what happens at table, as we celebrate the feasts and fasts of the Church’s liturgical year.

Brueghel’s “The Battle of Carnival and Lent” (1559)

Because I largely think the heart of the Church is located in the monasteries and convents of her religious, I believe the last fast, “the monastic fast” is particularly instructive and surely edifying, even to the lay faithful. Consider also the Catholic Encyclopedia, published a decade into the twentieth century (1909):

In the United States of America all the days of Lent; the Fridays of Advent (generally); the Ember Days; the vigils of Christmas and Pentecost, as well as those (14 Aug.) of the Assumption; (31 Oct.) of All Saints, are now fasting days… Fasting essentially consists in eating but one full meal in twenty-four hours and that about midday. It also implies the obligation of abstaining from flesh meat during the same period, unless legitimate authority grants permission to eat meat. The quantity of food allowed at this meal has never been made the subject of positive legislation. Whosoever, therefore, eats a hearty or sumptuous meal in order to bear the burden of fasting satisfies the obligation of fasting. Any excess during the meal mitigates against the virtue of temperance, without jeopardizing the obligation of fasting.

In many ways, the Church has as of recent years relaxed many of its fasting obligations. I have no doubt the bishops have their reasoning for relaxing the Lenten fast, just as they have relaxed the Communion fast — from midnight of the previous day to three hours before to now simply one hour prior (e.g., not eating during Mass…) But for me, the point of the matter is that our Lord fasted in his earthly life and that the saints after him fasted as well. For my own practice, I hope to maintain the fast throughout the day until returning home from work, breaking the fast for a late afternoon/evening meal with my family and then resuming the fast for the remainder of the day.