February 26, 2009


The simplest definition of fasting is “not eating.”

In the Bible, fasting was a way of mourning either over a tragedy or over sins. On occasion it was part of a sacrificial vow. It sometimes seems to be observed by eating no food at all for one or more days, but usually appears as eating no food until sundown.

The classic Christian form of fasting was to eat nothing except one meal in late afternoon or early evening. That is the manner of fasting that St. Benedict took for granted and described in the monastic regulations he wrote before his death in A.D. 547.

The single meal of a day of fasting was also a minimal meal. In other words, it was not an attempt to make up for what had not been eaten previously.

Furthermore, fasting always meant eating no meat. Today, Catholics use the phrase “abstinence from meat” as distinct from fasting, which, strictly speaking, is abstinence from all food.

Remember that fasting is a form of self-denial. It is supposed to be a challenge to oneself, and not supposed to be easy.

The English name for the season of preparation for Easter is “Lent”— deriving from the Old English (A.D. 450 to A.D. 1150) lencten, a reference to the Spring season when the days begin to lengthen after Winter. However, in the Church’s official language, Latin (and languages rooted in Latin— Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, etc.), the name for the season of preparation for Easter is based on the Latin word for “forty,” because the Church fasted for FORTY days in preparation for Easter. German, a major non-Latin language of Western Europe, calls the whole season Fastenzeit, “Fasting Time.”

Today, a forty-day stretch of fasting is merely an option, while only two days of fasting remain mandatory, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.

What form of fasting does the Church want us to follow today?

The Church has never banned the ancient way of eating only one meal a day. However, the laws of the universal Church leave to each nation’s bishops the task of considering the conditions of that nation, and issuing for the Catholics of that nation some prudent guidelines for fasting.

In the U.S.A., our bishops describe what I’d call a “soft fast” consisting of one meal a day, but with allowance for two other meals that do not add up to a second meal. In other words, in the U.S.A. our bishops teach that fasting can mean eating what amounts to more than one meal but less than two meals. However, no one forbids Catholics to observe a harder fast than that.

Today the Church directs Catholics who have reached their fourteenth birthday but not their sixtieth to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Those two days are also to be kept as days of abstinence from meat.

Most Catholics— both clergy and laity— are unaware that the Church tells us to observe a third day of fasting, Holy Saturday. The Vatican Council II, in its “Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy,” Sacrosanctum Concilium, paragraph 110, directs us as follows:
Nevertheless, let the Paschal Fast be kept sacred. Let it be observed everywhere on Good Friday and, where possible, prolonged throughout Holy Saturday, as a way of coming to the joys of the Sunday of the Resurrection with uplifted and welcoming heart.

Many Catholics today are also not aware that the Church still directs us to abstain from meat on all Fridays of the entire year except those on which a liturgical solemnity falls.

Here are the statements on fasting and abstinence from the Church’s “Code of Canon Law.”
Canon 1249. All members of the Christian faithful in their own way are bound to do penance in virtue of divine law; in order that all may be joined in a common observance of penance, penitential days are prescribed in which the Christian faithful in a special way pray, exercise works of piety and charity, and deny themselves by fulfilling their responsibilities more faithfully and especially by observing fast and abstinence according to the norm of the following canons.

Canon 1249. All members of the Christian faithful in their own way are bound to do penance in virtue of divine law; in order that all may be joined in a common observance of penance, penitential days are prescribed in which the Christian faithful in a special way pray, exercise works of piety and charity, and deny themselves by fulfilling their responsibilities more faithfully and especially by observing fast and abstinence according to the norm of the following canons.

Canon 1250. All Fridays through the year and the time of Lent are penitential days and times throughout the universal Church.

Canon 1251. Abstinence from eating meat or another food according to the prescriptions of the conference of bishops is to be observed on Fridays throughout the year unless they are solemnities; abstinence and fast are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and on the Friday of the Passion and Death of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Canon 1252. All persons who have completed their fourteenth year are bound by the law of abstinence; all adults are bound by the law of fast up to the beginning of their sixtieth year. Nevertheless, pastors and parents are to see to it that minors who are not bound by the law of fast and abstinence are educated in an authentic sense of penance.

Canon 1253. It is for the conference of bishops to determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence and to substitute in whole or in part for fast and abstinence other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety.

Why would a Christian fast?
+ Jesus fasted.
+ Jesus, during his own forty-day fast, upheld that “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.”
+ Jesus taught us to fast secretly for our heavenly Father to see secretly and to reward secretly— by repeating and stressing “secretly” Jesus gives fasting a context of intimacy with the Father.
+ Jesus described the fasting of his followers as being tied to the day of his being taken away, a day we traditionally understand as the day of his departing through death on the cross for our sins.

If I personally were to keep the “soft fast” and abstinence described by the bishops of the U.S.A., I myself would do it as follows.
+ At Morning and Noon: one moderate portion of one food item.
+ In the Evening: a normal-sized meal.
+ Drink only water, plain tea, or black coffee— without sugar, milk, cream, or flavoring. No other kind of beverage.
+ No sweets.
+ No meat. No fish. I don’t translate “Abstain from meat” as, “Go eat fish”— especially since some seafood items are much more expensive than flesh of mammals or fowl ... and flesh is flesh.

Yesterday, Ash Wednesday in A.D. 2009, I did not follow the “soft fast” of the U.S.A. Instead, I tried an adaptation of the “harder” classical fasting described by St. Benedict that allows nothing more than one meal a day. I would describe the adaptation as one meal split into three parts: plain bread (two slices) at breakfast, the same at lunch, and the same in the evening. Coffee or tea.

I found it was not a big accomplishment.

There are persons who are not expected to fast: persons who are sick or whose conditions, such as diabetes, require specific nutrition; pregnant or nursing women— since their bodies are the source of nutrition for children; persons, already mentioned above in Canon Law, who are younger than fourteen years of age or who have already reached sixty years of age.

Jesus gives his longest teaching on fasting in the passage we hear on Ash Wednesday. There, he sets fasting side by side with prayer and almsgiving (charitable giving or service to meet the real needs of others). Jesus verbally “obsesses” about the Father in speaking about the combined disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Each is to be done secretly for the Father to see secretly and the Father to reward secretly. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving belong together. Together they are ways for us to draw close to the Father. They prepare us during Lent to renew at Easter the promises of our Baptism in which we became children of our heavenly Father through the death and resurrection of the Son that opened to us the power of the Holy Spirit.

I close with what St. Benedict says about the Spirit and the Lenten preparations for Easter.
During these days, therefore, we will add to the usual measure of our service something by way of private prayer and abstinence from food or drink, so that each of us will have something above the assigned measure to offer God of his own will WITH THE JOY OF THE HOLY SPIRIT. In other words, let each deny himself some food, drink, sleep, needless talking and idle jesting, and LOOK FORWARD TO HOLY EASTER WITH JOY AND SPIRITUAL LONGING.


Anonymous Bob Farrell said...

Most appreciative of your answer, but here's more questions:

How do you judge the accomplishment of your fast?

If your fast had caused you to turn towards God more often during the day, would you consider it to have been a bigger accomplishment?

Is there more to be said about the purpose of acts of mortification other than they are penitential in character?

11:25 AM  
Blogger Father Stephanos, O.S.B. said...

Good questions, Bob!

Don't judge the accomplishment of your fasting. The question is similar to: "How do you judge the accomplishment of going for a quiet walk with your wife?" It has value in and of itself.

So what is that value anyway?

In the Ash Wednesday Gospel, Jesus teaches the same thing about fasting as he does about prayer and almsgiving: they are ways of secret intimacy with the Father.

Almsgiving is literally the giving of some of your material wealth to those who are in need. It makes for some degree of vulnerability on your part. Intentional vulnerability is what makes genuine intimacy possible whether that is intimacy with your wife or intimacy with the Father.

No vulnerability = no intimacy.

Jesus says to give alms, but not to let your one had know what the other is doing, in other words, don't pat yourself on the back, don't measure the accomplishment. However, give the alms so that your FATHER who sees in secret will repay you. The notion of the Father seeing in secret sets a context of intimacy.

Much the same is to be said about prayer. You go to your room to be isolated from all other human support-- an isolation that makes for vulnerability-- and you offer that vulnerability in secret to the Father.

So also for fasting. Fasting makes you PHYSICALLY vulnerable. Jesus tells us to do it-- be vulnerable, even physically-- for the FATHER to see or have in secret.

"Mortification"-- a word with powerful meaning. It means literally "making dead." At the very least it aims at vulnerability. At the most, it would literally mean killing yourself-- which isn't possible if you're not vulnerable. Mortification takes the form of denying yourself something legitimate as well as something illegitimate. This again leaves you vulnerable.

A sort of "diagram" of the above.

[Mortifications, Prayer, Fasting, Almsgiving]offered to the Father
Vulnerability offered to the Father
Intimacy offered to the Father

1:53 PM  

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