Oh wait, we don’t say that anymore… It’s Ash Wednesday, which means Lent is upon us. Lent, of course, is a time for penance and self-denial. Fasting and abstinence (from meat, that is), almsgiving, increased devotions. But many Christians, especially from my generation, aren’t quite sure how to understand these practices. Rereading the Pope’s Lenten Message may shed some light. So will this article, originally in the Homiletic & Pastoral Review, reprinted here in Ignatius Insight. In “Lent: Why the Christian Must Deny Himself,” Brother Austin G. Murphy, O.S.B., explains in simple but profound terms the rationale behind many of our traditional lenten practices and the spirit with which we should approach them. Some snippets:
What, then, is the reason for fasting? To answer this let us first clarify what fasting entails. It involves more than the occasional fast, such as on Good Friday. To be effective, fasting requires disciplined eating habits all the time. There are certainly days when a person should make a greater effort at abstaining from food and drink. These are what we usually consider days of fasting and they must be practiced regularly. But, still, there are never days when a person is allowed to abandon all restraint. A person must always practice some restraint over his appetites or those periodic days of fasting arc valueless. Always keeping a check on his desires, a person develops good habits, which foster constancy in his interior life. So, in addition to practicing days of fasting on a regular basis, a person should continuously restrain his desires, such as those that incline him to eat too much, to be too concerned with what he eats, or to eat too often.
We might, then speak of the discipline of fasting in order to avoid the impression that fasting is sporadic. The operative principle behind the discipline of fasting is simple: to limit yourself to only what is necessary for your physical and psychological health-no more, no less. St. Augustine puts it concisely when he teaches: “As far as your health allows, keep your bodily appetites in check by fasting and abstinence from food and drink.” So, fasting is meant only to keep a person’s unnecessary wants in check. A person is not- nor is he permitted-to deny himself what is necessary for his health. The discipline of fasting instead asks a person to check his desires for what is superfluous and not necessary.
Fasting actually does good for the body by helping it realize its well-being. The body needs to be in conformity with the spirit and this requires such disciplines as fasting. In this way, the body is like a child. Children would never realize their true well-being if their parents never told them “no,” but gave in to every one of their desires. In the same way, if a person never says “no” to his bodily desires, his body will never realize its true well-being. That is, the body needs such discipline to be brought into conformity with the spirit. For otherwise, it cannot share in the spiritual blessings of Christ.
This makes perfect sense when we consider that the human person is not just a soul, but is matter as well. A person’s body, too, is to be renewed in Christ. Fasting is one way that a person brings about a harmony between body and soul, so that being made whole he can be one with Christ.
The Christian belief that the body is intimately united to the soul should also make a person suspicious of the opinion that fasting is merely external. External acts stem from the desires of the heart within, as Our Lord says in the Gospel. So, a person’s external acts are linked to his interior desires. The external act of abstaining from food and drink, therefore, clearly affects a person internally. It does not permit his desires within to reach fulfillment. Thus fasting has the ability to keep interior desires in check, which is important for improving a person’s interior life.
This provides one answer to the question, “Why must we fast?” (and, by extension, to the question, “Why should one practice self-denial?”). Since, by fasting, a person no longer seeks after the joys of food and drink, the heart is set free to focus more completely on God. By turning away from his concerns for the pleasures of eating, he can turn more wholeheartedly to God. And this, we know is what continual conversion is all about.
Moreover, this service to his neighbor through fasting is an imitation of Christ. He offered himself on the Cross for others. A person too, in union with Christ, offers himself through the sacrifice of fasting. In fasting, he has the opportunity to join Christ in offering himself for the sake of others. Thus, even if a person’s heart were pure and always free from selfish inclinations-as was Christ’s-he should still fast-as did Christ. Through Christ he has the chance of helping others through voluntary acts of self-denial. Christian love is, indeed, eager for such chances to serve others.
There is much more in the article, and it’s well worth reading in full.
For an eye-opening discussion of what the elimination of communal lenten practices has meant for the Church, you should check out Eamon Duffy’s 2005 article for First Things. One taste:
The ritual observance of dietary rules—fasting and abstinence from meat in Lent, and abstinence from meat and meat products every Friday, as well as the eucharistic fast from midnight before the reception of Communion—were as much defining marks of Catholicism before the council as abstention from pork is a defining characteristic of Judaism. The Friday abstinence in particular was a focus of Catholic identity which transcended class and educational barriers, uniting “good” and “bad” Catholics in a single eloquent observance. Here was a universally recognized expression of Catholicism which was nothing to do with priests or authority.
But instead of seeing this as one of its greatest strengths, it was often used as an argument against Friday abstinence. Bad or badly instructed Catholics—who it was thought drank their wages or beat their wives, yet who were nevertheless punctilious in eating fish on Fridays—were adhering to the mere externals, it was claimed, while ignoring the essence of “real” Christianity. What was needed was a more spiritual sort of religion that offered no such crutches to lame practice.
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.
Why did it happen?
Read the rest of the article to find out.