Monday, February 28, 2011

The Great Fast

burning candle

Not very long ago, the Lenten Fast observed by both Catholics and Orthodox Christians was a rigorous one. While Orthodox Christians have held to this tradition of voluntary self-denial, Roman Catholics by and large—especially in first-world nations—have abandoned such ascetic practices. Rather than give you my opinion about this change, I would rather pose a simple question: Why?

Live with that for a moment. Why? Why do we abstain from meat only on Fridays and Ash Wednesday? Why do we eat eggs, drink milk, and fry our foods in butter through these weeks of penitence? Why do we drink hot chocolate and wine?

There is nothing wrong with it. The bishopric has told us that there is nothing wrong with this. We can choose what to give up for the six weeks of Lent. Many would argue that giving up the internet or gossiping or some other time-guzzling practice or bad habit would be more beneficial than giving up food. I might tend to agree. But, why not maintain the fast anyway?

It’s just a question, no agenda, no ulterior motives. You might have perfectly good reasons for choosing not to fast through all 40 days of Lent. That is perfectly alright. I just thought it was worth asking.

I asked myself this question last year, after following Emily’s Lenten journey at Charming the Birds from the Trees. I know from past personal experiences that my prayer life is sharper and my resolve to follow Christ stronger during times of intentional, prolonged fasting. I want that this year as I prepare to celebrate the glorious Resurrection of our Lord.

So, this year, my family will be following a form of the old Catholic Lenten regulations. For those who are interested, here’s what we’ll be doing:

  • We’ll be eating pseudo-vegan, except for the kids who will get milk to drink and dairy in their snacks. We’ll be giving up meat, eggs and all dairy, but we will still eat fish and other seafood. (What’s Lent without fish for a Catholic, right?)
  • Brian and I will be giving up all alcohol for the duration of Lent, except on certain feast days and Sundays (which are always celebrated as a day of feasting).
  • We will be giving up all desserts and sweets, apart from fruit.
  • Apart from designated fast days (Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday), we will not reduce the portion sizes of our regular meals, and we’ll continue to snack on healthy foods if we’re hungry between meals.

In addition to fasting from food, we are also starting to think about what habits or practices we would like to abstain from through the season. Ideally, they will be things that normally steal our time (so that we can devote more of it to prayer), distract us from following Christ more closely, or otherwise hinder our walks with the Lord.

Sometimes what we give up for Lent is simply a sacrifice, united to that of Christ. Sometimes, it has the power to transform the way we live. Either way, it is an acknowledgement of God’s sovereignty and a demonstration of our love for him.

“And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” – Colossians 3:17

What will you be giving up this Lent?


  1. This is something I've wondered about as well: are we as Westerners just too comfortable? And why do we think the sacrifice of food is somehow less worthwhile than the sacrifice of technology and other creature comforts? Is food just not that important to us as Westerners, since we have it in such abundance and variety? Maybe that's all the more reason to seriously consider a rigorous food fast, so that we learn food isn't something we shouldn't simply take for granted. These are just conjectures on my part, but your post sparked them so I thought I'd share. :-)

    I don't know if I could do vegan (I'm a vegetarian, so not having any lacto-ovo protein might turn into a problem, since I don't eat seafood either), but thank you for the encouragement to observe lent in an intentional way that involves all areas of life that distract us from true, committed faith.

  2. Gina - I find your line of reasoning very compelling. I'm no social scientist, but I'm sure this is at least part of the basis for the societal trends and attitudes toward fasting that we see today. And, I completely understand not want to abstain from lacto-ovo proteins if you don't eat fish. Seafood will definitely be an important part of our diet during Lent! (And, of course, my growing babies will still get their milk and cheese.)

  3. I'm choosing not to fast food-wise this year (besides Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and no meat on Fridays). I am on a really restrictive diet already, so there's not a lot left for me to give up!

    I think the reason we've moved away from food fasts is because food isn't as central to our being as it used to be. Yeah, we still need it to survive, but most people don't spend hours in the kitchen anymore. Choosing to get a fish-filet vs. a chicken sandwich in the drive thru isn't much of a sacrifice.

    I still want to give something up, but I don't know what yet. I think its important to do something extra, too, because it is the time we set aside for God that we really grow.

  4. The pre-Vatican II practices of fast and abstinence were something that united all Catholics in the old days. (Just as Jewish dietary laws did.) It was something that identified us as a group. Nobody ate meat on Friday. Having nothing like this to unite us now is a tragic loss. Without getting into polemics and the awful divisions in the Church, this is the point of traditional Catholics. No matter where you went in the old times, the Mass was the same, the laws of fast and abstinence were the same; we were united as a people. Try and find two Masses today that are alike in any given city, impossible. This is what I find so sad.
    But we can do things on our own. I never eat meat on Fridays; this helps me to feel a part of that larger Church that went before us. Just my thoughts.

  5. Laurence - Thank you for this. Our family also does not eat meat on Fridays throughout the year. It was something often done in my hometown when I was growing up, and it has been a real blessing in our lives.
    God bless,

  6. I think this is a great idea. What will you do if you are invited over to someone's place and the dinner they make is not within fasting rules? I have wondered about what I would do. Thanks!

  7. Katie - Great question! As it happens, we do already have some invites during Lent--AND I'm the matron-of-honor in my best friend's wedding (both her wedding and the rehearsal dinner fall during Lent). If I am asked my preference, I will let people know that our family is eating vegan for Lent (fish allowable). However, if we are not asked and happen to be served meat we will graciously and gratefully eat whatever is offered (provided it's not Ash Wednesday or a Friday, when we will have to humbly forgo an meat, at least). Being a gracious guest is more important than adhering to a voluntary fast (Ash Wednesday and Friday abstention and fasting are binding, however, and can be broken only with previously sought dispensation). If, however, I'm at an open house or something where food is simply laid out, I will either select only vegan options or I will pass and be sure to eat before or after the event.

    Hope that helps!

  8. A new reader of your blog -- I came here through Ladies against Feminism.

    As a family we will be giving up all TV/movie watching. Also, we will be stepping up our pro-life action which has always been pretty minimal, despite really being strongly pro-life. Also, I am hoping that we can start the family rosary again.

    Personally, I'll be giving up wine and reading novels, but as I'm a reading addict i'll still be doing spiritual reading and possibly lives of the saints.

  9. Thanks for your thought-provoking post. I had already decided to limit blog reading and increase intentional prayer time, but was/am ambivalent about food fasting. I've been successful sometimes, but other times I get too crazy thinking about what I'm giving up. Unlike some other commenters who think folks don't fast because food isn't as big in Western lives, for me food and tastiness are too important. That probably means I should give up more, not less, but I'm not sure how to get past the constant, crazed focus I've experienced before. I've got (almost) a week to ask God what he wants from me this Lent!

    BTW, I'm the one who asked you about the photo of the jumping-off rock in the lake. Thanks for replying!

  10. Thank you for answering my question! I am struggling to get dinner on the table as it is, but I would like to do fasting for next Lent. I will keep your guidelines in mind.

  11. I am going to give up sweets and artificial sweetener, except on Sundays. (I was thinking of giving up blogs, but they can be a source of spiritual reflection for me, so I will keep reading them.)

  12. P.S. I wonder if the "new" rules on fasting have anything to do with eating disorders and anorexia? I could see how someone with a vulnerability to anorexia could misuse fasting as a smokescreen for severely limiting calories with the goal of losing weight. But then again, I think awareness of eating disorders came much later than changes in fasting. So that theory wouldn't make sense.


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