In her stupendous novel In This House of Brede, author Rumer Godden chronicles the pre- and post-Second-Vatican-Council journey of a successful English professional woman who becomes an enclosed Benedictine nun. When the novel’s main character, Philippa Talbot, is asked by a co-worker, “but will you be able to be obedient, a stiff-necked creature like you?” she responds rather naively, “I shall find it restful.”
For the most part, she does. After a lifetime of settling and deciding matters for others, Philippa takes a kind of refuge in obedience. The vow only becomes difficult for her when it encroaches on a private issue she has managed to hold in reserve, even while trying to make a gift of her whole self, to God.
I was reminded of that while reading about a surprising statement issued last week by the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales, announcing the intended restoration of the Friday Fast, or, as it is commonly called, “meatless Fridays.”
Every Friday is set aside by the Church as a special day of penance, for it is the day of the death of our Lord . . . The Bishops have decided to re-establish the practice that this should be fulfilled by abstaining from meat.
Wrapped as I am in nostalgia, I rejoiced to read this. My mother was such a dreadful cook that our Fridays, with or without meat, were as penitential as any other day of the week, but as a child I had always liked the cultural commonality that set Fridays aside and made them feel oddly, wonderfully safe and homey. In our working-class neighborhood the Sunday dinners might vary widely from roast beef to braciola, but on Fridays we were all taking cozily meatless meals. If my mother was heating up cans of tuna and cream of mushroom soup, my neighbors were having home-made pizza or scrambled eggs.
There was something comforting about these less-than-formal suppers where the modesty of the meal meant that food became incidental to the companionship and conversation which was brought to the fore. If company was coming, all the better—the sense of unity was broadened as our guest dug into the same simple fare as the rest of us.
Within a culture as poorly catechized as our own, though, most Catholics are not even aware that they have always been expected to sacrifice something of a Friday. For these people nostalgia alone may not be enough to re-establish obedience to the Friday Fast. I was a grown woman before a priest told me that the lifting of the Friday ban on meat was not—as I had come to think of it—the equivalent of a doctrinal tooth extraction that replaced something with nothing and left a gaping hole in my understanding. Who knew that the Council’s intent was to free the faithful to choose their own, more personally meaningful, sacrifice in remembrance of Good Friday?
Admittedly, some did know it, and after last week’s announcement, several rousing internet discussions quickly began on Facebook and elsewhere. Some sneered that meatless Fridays will make a poor sacrifice if everyone will simply “eat lobster and shrimp” instead of steak. Others decried this as a move to “re-infantilize” the faithful when the Council had meant “to treat us like adults.” One friend of mine emailed with flat incredulity, “we’re just supposed to obey?”
Well, yes, in England and Wales, anyway.
But why not a little renewed obedience throughout the Catholic world, as in the secular? We pause at a stop sign—even on a deserted road at four in the morning—because it is the law, but also because it is the right thing to do within our community; it is a sacrifice of our own observational abilities, made to a common expectation, and we obey without complaint.
Forty years after the quasi-autonomy of “do your own thing” we are flung far from our spiritual origins, many of us languishing in unintended isolation. Perhaps a reacquaintance with the concept of common obedience, begun in this very small way, may help rekindle in Catholics the shared sense of identity and unity which people of good will have too often sought through superficial and fractious means. If telling people they may not kneel, but must remain standing after communion “for the sake of ‘unity’” did more harm than good, perhaps the modesty and simplicity of a meatless Friday (and if it is weekly, the budget will not stretch to “lobster and shrimp” for long)—can initiate a trend toward a more voluntary simplification of our lives, and a less materialistic mindset, to boot.
For “unity-minded” Catholics who like innovation, that word, “obedience,” may set some teeth on edge, while those Catholics (like me) who distrust the compelled conformity of absent missalettes and hymns projected on church walls may, in their rush to re-embrace the fast, miss the irony.
William Oddie, writing in the UK’s Catholic Herald, applauded the move, noting that it is not personal choice but “obedience that holds us together as a people.” It is also, he argues, the formulator of a healthy Catholic conscience.
It is the formulator of humility, too, which—especially in these self-celebratory decades — most of us could stand to cultivate. Her novice mistress tells Philippa Talbot that, sensitivities aside, in pursuit of spiritual growth “it is far more salutary for you to do as you are told.”
And if reading that line rankles, then perhaps our sensibilities have moved us too far into ourselves to connect with the idea of reserving nothing from God, which is part and parcel of the faith journey as the saints teach it.
“Obedience,” wrote Godden was “the stumbling block for almost everyone.” It is, even for the most earnest, a difficult discipline, especially when it costs something As the Stumbling block named Jesus knew, however, what it costs is what makes it so valuable.
Elizabeth Scalia is the Managing Editor of the Catholic Portal at Patheos and blogs as The Anchoress. Her previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here.
Catholic Herald, The restoration of the Friday fast is a historic day for English and Welsh Catholics