February 21, 2007

How to Do: Ashes, Fasting, Abstinence

In the U.S.A. on Ash Wednesday, we usually smear ashes on the forehead in the form of a cross.

However, it does not have to be done that way.

When I was a student in Rome I personally received ashes from Pope John Paul II. During the distribution of ashes he remained seated. Those of us who were to receive ashes from him came to him and knelt down. He took a pinch of ashes between his fingers and dropped them onto the tops of our heads.

One monk received enough ashes to spill from the top of his head onto his shoulders. We all told him, "The Pope wants everyone to know you are the biggest sinner of all."

Certainly the Biblical practice of wearing ashes was to drop them onto the top of one's head, not to smear them onto the forehead.

My classmates from the various European countries told me that ashes on the top of the head was the only way they had ever seen the practice, not ashes on the forehead.

And as for fasting....

The bishops of the U.S.A. issued guidelines years ago telling us that we could fast by eating one normal meal a day, but allow two other "snacks" (with the goal I understand to eat less than what amounts to two complete meals). Well, a meal and two snacks really is not fasting ... rather, it's EATING.

Biblical Jewish fasting, and fasting as understood in the earliest days of the Church was: eating only once a day-- and doing it after sunset.

I would guess that when Islam came along, Islam borrowed the Judeo-Christian practice of fasting by eating nothing until sunset. However, during the Islamic season of fasting, "Ramadan," when sunset arrives it is PARTY TIME. In the city of Cairo, the markets sell more food during Ramadan than at any other time of year.

Today the Church obligates us to fast only on Ash Wednesday and on Good Friday. However, the Church's Latin name for the season that begins with Ash Wednesday still is "Quadragesima"-- referring to FORTY days of fasting.

Fasting in the classical way could be dangerous for some modern Americans due to the fact many drive on highways at speeds not possible in the early Church. Classical fasting can make you light-headed, and you can even faint.

A manageable "compromise" for the safety of commuters? Rather than fasting/eating by scheduling one meal and two snacks, I would propose the following: one meal divided into three parts.

Remember also that classical fasting is always fasting AND abstinence from meat. We're SUPPOSED to do without. Along those lines, I would propose that when fasting you drink no other liquid than plain water. Come on! It's supposed to be penitential.

And what about abstinence from meat?

The definition of "abstinence from meat" is NOT: "go eat fish". To abstain from meat is simply to do without meat.

Nonetheless, the Church does allow us to eat fish when we are abstaining from meat. Where does this "substitution" practice come from?

St. Benedict (who died in A.D. 547) described abstinence from meat as not eating the flesh of four-legged animals. Consider that raising four-legged animals for their meat requires owning sufficient land for pasture to feed those animals. However, poultry can be kept in small yards, and require much less food to survive on than four-legged animals. Fish can just be caught from the wild, with no one needing to "raise" or feed them. In St. Benedict's day, four-legged meat was definitely a luxury food item, and it still is in many parts of the world. Abstinence from meat is a matter of eating like a poor person.

Today in the U.S.A., fish can cost as much as or more than certain cuts of meat. Here, where adequate protein (even excessive protein) is an everyday fact of life for the vast majority, I would propose that abstinence from meat ought to be abstinence from eating the flesh of any animal no matter how many legs or fins it might have.


St. Benedict allowed the sick to eat four-legged meat. The Church does not impose fasting on the young (including those in the womb, so their pregnant mothers also), the elderly, and the sick.

If your health is adequate for the classical fast and literal abstinence, go for it.


Anonymous Bob Farrell said...

I think the U.S. bishops' fasting rules are great in that it makes fasting achieveable for those who have no experience with it. In an abundant and "convenient" society, not being able to eat on demand for more than a few minutes is considered extremely discomforting. I would guess, for those that take Church precepts seriously, the first attempts at fasting end in failure. As they get "better" at minimal compliance, they might be able to experience the spiritual value of fasting and then attempt more stringent practices.

I think our bishops got this one right.

8:42 PM  
Blogger Father Stephanos, O.S.B. said...

The older monks in my monastery tell stories of Lent before Vatican II. Monks fainting in church became more frequent as Lent progressed.

8:24 AM  
Blogger Father Stephanos, O.S.B. said...

Bob, I agree with the need to exercise prudence. However, it is an irony that we are probably the most overfed nation in the world, and that, as far as I know, we are the only nation whose bishops have officially (in document form) reduced "fasting" to "snacking." The document by the U.S. bishops on fasting doesn't even describe what classical fasting really is. It only describes a convenient alternative. The bishops should have told the whole story.

8:33 AM  
Blogger JMC said...

I think the key in the whole matter is what was said in the original post: We drive on highways at speeds that would have been considered incredible centuries ago. Shoot, just 150 years ago, it was believed that you'd get a nosebleed if you traveled faster than 30 mph.
Back to my point, yes, under old fasting rules, there was a LOT of fainting during Lent in particular. We REALLY don't need that happening on the highways; there are enough accidents as it is.

If you're one of the fortunate few who don't have to go out of the house to work, and your body can tolerate classical fasting, then, indeed, go for it. I, for one, envy you. But each of us does the best he can, and that's really all God asks.

6:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Father Stephanos:

Our fasting rules in the United States came about because of an indult for us issued by the Vatican in the 1890s, allowing two small meals nto equal one large meal. It came about because of the fact that many working men needed more nourishment in this very Protestant culture where their manual labor did not ease up during Lent. Even the permission to take meat once a day during all but the Fridays of Lent came with that indult.


3:51 PM  

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