We are a week into Lent. Probably we’ve all had some moments to be proud of, and some fails, right? That’s to be expected. The spring Ember Days begin today, Wednesday, and continue on Friday and Saturday. Ember Days are seasonal days of fasting and repentance that occur three times in a week, four times per year. (see here for more details) They are no longer mandatory, but many Catholics are returning to pious practices like this and finding them very fruitful. The spring Ember Days occur the week after Ash Wednesday, so they’re always a good chance to revisit one’s voluntary Lenten disciplines and see if they are bearing fruit, and tweak them as necessary. They’re also a good chance to flex those fasting muscles again, as you are able.*
But from what shall we fast?
Well, the short answer is food. And the slightly longer answer is attachments.
While non-food-related voluntary Lenten disciplines are good and useful and I highly recommend them, I think it bears mentioning that, for a healthy 19-59 year old who is not pregnant or nursing, the CURRENT recommended practice is self-imposed fasting on every Lenten weekday. (see the USCCB Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence no. 14) As in one full meal, and two “collations” which together don’t add up to as much as the one full meal, Monday through Saturday. The one full meal can include meat on days other than Fridays.
Not many of us are attempting that. Many of us shouldn’t, and are therefore exempt. But it seems to me like the messages out there on social media during the first week of Lent have largely been encouragement of non-traditional fasting to the exclusion of traditional food-type fasting, often accompanied by fake quotes from Pope Francis about fasting from harsh words and whatnot, and/or misapplication of a genuine Saint Josemaria quote.
Here, on an Ember Day in Lent, is a good time to consider that the Church has recommended fasting from food as a prayerful and penitential practice since her inception, and it’s been only in the last fifty years or so that we have drifted away from it.
The Catholic Gentleman has one of the best explanations I’ve ever read on why we fast. The whole post is worth the time of Catholic gentlemen and ladies, but here’s an excerpt:
For our purposes, asceticism can be loosely defined as self-denial with the ultimate goal of self-control. And this self denial most often takes the form of, you guessed it, fasting.
Asceticism is necessary for everyone because of our passions—intense fleshly desires, which are sometimes referred to as concupiscence. Experience teaches us that we are often lead about by these desires in a way we can barely control. . . .
In other words, we find freedom from the passions by mortifying them, putting them to death, through the practice of grace-empowered asceticism—specifically, fasting. Fasting helps us tame the wild stallion of our flesh and bring it under the bridle of self-control.Spiritual Weapons: Fasting, by Sam Guzman, The Catholic Gentleman
A fake Pope Francis (FPF) quote that gets shared around every Lent is frustrating to me because OF COURSE we should be doing things like avoiding worries and trusting in God and avoiding sadness and being filled with gratitude and avoiding anger and being filled with patience but in no way does any of that preclude one from fasting from food and eating less food. The FPF suggestions are HARD. Impossible even . . . without grace. A genuine Pope Francis quote says, “Lenten fasting frees us from our attachment to things, from the worldliness that anaesthetizes the heart.” Fasting from food, if we are able, can help us achieve those other goals!
The Saint Josemaria quote I referenced above is this: “Choose mortifications that don’t mortify others.” (The Way 6.179) It’s a really good quote. It’s true that we should take care that our personal Lenten disciplines aren’t a hardship for other people. But one sometimes sees this quote used as a reason why a person couldn’t possibly give up coffee or Diet Coke or whatever. If I’ll be unpleasant to my loved ones without cigarettes, then I just can’t ever give up cigarettes. Period. #nottrue
And, you know what, maybe in a particular year, it’s true that we are facing so much involuntary penance that we can’t handle the additional penance of giving up a cherished food or drink. I get that. I have been there. But I don’t like the message that if we have an attachment to something, we are just stuck with that attachment . . . forever. Saint Josemaria wouldn’t like that message either. His very next two maxims are: “Where there is no self-denial, there is no virtue.” (180) and “Interior mortification. I don’t believe in your interior self-denial if I see that you despise, that you do not practise, mortification of the senses.” (181)
If I can’t keep it together around my family without the aid of Dr. Pepper, that is a problem that needs solving.
^Actual footage of me.^ If I have a good reason that this isn’t the Lent to work on it, then I’m going to commit to trying again the next year, and the year after that. And I can tell you from my personal experience with Dr. Pepper, not to mention TV and treats and snacking (and yelling, mostly? that one is still in progress, but so much better), that a failed Lenten fast can be a stepping stone to a successful one in another year. It doesn’t mean that I have to resign myself to my attachments.
I have a great fondness for silly things of this world like Dr. Pepper, and Chamba Chai, and Netflix, and snacks, and having a stash of clearance Christmas candy in my bedside table. But I just can’t tell you how much interior peace and confidence comes from knowing that by the grace of God I CAN SURVIVE without those things. Every Lent is another chance to prove to myself that I can practice detachment. I don’t want to let those chances slip away without a fight.
*P.S. Some folks are legitimately excused from traditional food-type fasting. Maybe even most of the people who read my blog are excused from that type of fasting, since it covers women who are pregnant or nursing, and those who are ill, including chronic and mental illness, or are under or over the age requirements. That’s a lot of people, and there are good reasons why the Church, in her wisdom, gives those exemptions. If you are exempt from traditional fasting for health reasons, I wouldn’t recommend disregarding that exemption without the advice of a trusted spiritual advisor.
P.P.S. If you’re looking to add some meaningful Lenten devotions this year, you might like this Printable Lent DIY set, which includes a countdown calendar, a sacrifice bean jar kit, and voluntary Lenten discipline pledge slips. Or this set of March/Lent Printables, which includes stations of the cross coloring pages, prayers and devotions for the whole month, and a Holy Week meal and activity planner.