Catholics today are encouraged to give up for Lent “favorite things” that are often less tangible than “whiskers on kittens” and “warm woollen mittens.” But there is something important to be said for the traditional practice of giving up meat. I have been abstaining from meat on Fridays and through Lent for about five years and have discovered that giving up meat makes it easier to give up other things, like web-surfing, TV, or reading newspapers.
Vegetarian and vegan practices are not something new, imported from eastern religions. They have sustained the Church since the first centuries. They belong to us for some of the same reasons they were practised by ancient Pythagoreans and modern Buddhists: natural, human religious wisdom acknowledges that the body must be tamed before the soul.
We split spiritual and carnal abstinence in two, and define abstinence as something that happens in the head not the body. However, Christian spiritual writers depict the ascent to God with the metaphor of a ladder. Experienced spiritual travellers like St. Bonaventure describe the ‘soul’s journey to God’ as ascending through sensible things, taking pleasure in their beauty, while being purged of undue attachment to them, up to the mind, and its graced experience of God, and on up into God himself. They knew all about the effects of giving up meat. Abstaining from the ‘mind’ habits is more lightly achieved by a vegetarian. Giving up favourite things paves the way for giving up favourite ideas.
Here’s the thing: the spiritual writers know that we are carnal creatures, and that we cannot skip that step in the ladder of ascent. When we try that, we’re aiming to leap up a step before we’re ready. We won’t make it. When we can’t make it, we will think of Lent—and possibly other disciplines as well—as a brief but necessarily failed resolution to do something impossible. You might say, rightly, anything is possible with the grace of God. But, why not let the grace of God work with your animal nature? Grace, as St. Thomas Aquinas taught, “does not destroy nature, it perfects it.” God’s grace works against our fallenness. But it does not eliminate our created human nature. It makes our natures whole. As carnal, embodied creatures, our desire to eat meat works in us at a more elemental level than desires for cognitive pleasures. Our carnality is at the rock bottom of what forms us as persons. Our fallenness, it goes all the way down too, so why not let God’s grace rebuild you from the bottom up?
Early in Lent, we hear the Gospel accounts of Jesus fasting for forty days in the wilderness: the Devil’s first temptation to the Incarnate God was to turn rock into bread. He must beat that temptation before he can thrash the temptations to security and power. Fasting and abstinence are not a matter of “what would Jesus do?” It’s a straightforward matter of what Jesus did, the spiritual path he actually took. A child can see that the Bible story tells that Jesus was hungry in the desert. As fully man, Jesus knew that hunger can help us to discipline other, ‘higher’ cognitive desires. The first thing his forty days in the wilderness teach us is that absence of the food we crave can become a place in which the grace of God shapes and forms us.
Lent calls us to a deeper participation in the love of God. God loves you as a carnal, embodied creature. The first part of your nature he would heal is your body and its physical desires. Even this omnipotent Doctor can’t wholly heal our mind and soul until we let him access our bodily desires.
It’s sometimes said that people who worship a crucified God must be anti-body. It’s said that the accent on suffering in Christianity is telling us to despise our bodies. The opposite is true: you never know you are embodied more than when you are suffering, and that includes wanting food you can’t have. Christian fasting and abstinence is not intended to destroy or eliminate the body. It’s not intended to make a negative statement about our embodied condition. It’s intended to cleanse and sanctify that condition. Christians “crucify” their bodies in the hope of rising one day in resurrected bodies, our physicality sanctified by the grace of God.
Christ rose in the body, and his resurrected body was marked by the wounds of the crucifixion. He bears in his resurrected, glorified body all the marks of the victory he had won in the body. He did not win a disembodied victory.
A few practical suggestions. Our Lenten abstention seems to begin on Ash Wednesday and run until Easter morning. Or does it? Canon law requires us to fast for forty days, as Jesus fasted in the wilderness, yet Lent lasts 46 days. It includes six feast days, and these are the Sundays of Lent. You can eat meat on Sundays in Lent. You don’t have to, but you can.
If you are mocked as a legalist for fasting or for feasting on feast days, remember the Proverb: “A soft answer turneth away wrath” (Proverbs 15.1). When people (usually siblings) scoff at your efforts and say, “That’s nothing,” you should reply, “Yes, it’s really easy.” Explain that practising temporary vegetarianism is no big deal, just the first rung on a ladder whose upper reaches are beyond you.
If you make no song and dance about your fasting, family and friends won’t disrespect your religion on account of it. They may respect it more, though if they do, it’s not you, but the religion your abstention represents they respect.
Dig out a vegetarian cookbook. It’s easier, for the weak-willed, than working through the vegetables in cookbooks for omnivores, because one is not distracted by pictures of roasts and chicken stews. The danger of gourmet vegetarianism is there, but often enough one will eat something less palatable than the plate one’s eyes and stomach demand. Look at Eastern Catholic and Orthodox websites and Greek or Middle Eastern cookbooks for recipes: veganism has flourished in their fasting culture since the first millennium. Lenten fasting Catholics are looking forward to the church “breathing with both lungs,” East and West, in the future.
Some Christians are already year-round vegetarians. My advice to them is to go vegan in Lent and on Fridays. Meat-eaters may find Lenten vegetarianism so spiritually enriching that they take it on to Fridays during the rest of the year (except for Easter and Christmas seasons), and to an Advent Fast, and even adopt the Eastern fasts, like the ‘Dormition Fast’ the fortnight before the Feast of the Assumption, which the East calls the Feast of the Dormition. Catholics can set a day a week aside from taking from the earth, and let it be. For us that day is Friday, the day of the crucifixion.
God is love, and the incarnate God sympathises with our weakness. Not eating meat is about having a heart for yourself, as an embodied creature, and so having a heart for others. “I, if I am lifted up from the earth,” on the Cross, “will draw all to myself” (John 12.32). God wills to draw all humanity into his body. All of nature, his entire creation, vegetable, animal, and human will be made whole in heaven. Our wounds will be glorified, as the means by which God heals the created world. We share the Church’s universal mission by fasting with the poor. This is authentic sentimentality: it is feeling with others, by being genuinely beside them.
Francesca Aran Murphy is professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame. Her most recent book is a Commentary on I Samuel in the Brazos theological commentary series.