Fast and Abstain for the Sake of Your Soul

Lent’s penitential character reminds us that we’re called to something greater.

‘Pretzels’ (photo: Shutterstock)

In her 1966 book Purity and Danger, Mary Douglas, one of the most important British anthropologists of the second half of the 20th century, described the “abominations” of Leviticus and Numbers in the Torah. She saw the Mosaic proscription against cloven-hoofed animals that didn’t chew the cud as a natural anomaly out of place in an ordered world. Thus, pork and rabbit meat were both dangerous and their rejection was an assertion of the holy.

In her later research, she rejected her original idea and instead and came to see the proscriptions of Leviticus and Numbers as more than a bunch of seemingly unrelated laws. In her 1970 book Natural Symbols, in the chapter entitled “The Bog Irish,” she made a strong pronouncement about the Catholic Church and the importance of ritual. She explained that Friday abstinence from meat “was the only ritual which brought Christian symbols down into the kitchen and on to the dinner table in the manner of Jewish rules of impurity.”

She then questioned the wisdom of the Church’s decision to end obligatory Friday fasting in 1967 saying, “People who have become unritualistic in every other way, will eventually lose their capacity for responding to condensed symbols such as that of the Blessed Sacrament.”

She refers to the suppression of the Catholic custom of absence of meat on Fridays as a result of Calvinist and positivist influences in modern life. Calvin, for example, shortsightedly saw Catholic fasting and other rituals as shadows of empty ritual. Similarly, modern secularists see our formulas and piety as primitive and worthless — atheists even call it “dangerous.” In actuality, it’s something unspeakably beautiful.

Fasting refers to abstaining from or limiting food for religious purposes. It might seem strange in a modern secular society, but most Christians abstain from food, drink or certain behaviors for limited periods. This is not as uncommon as non-Christians might think. Alcoholics abstain from alcohol. Athletes are warned to abstain from smoking and unhealthy food. Married people chastely abstain from sex with people other than their spouses. Vegetarians abstain from meat and those who pursue their own beauty abstain from food in general, making them very unpopular at dinner parties. Even in the 21st century, fast-food restaurants still report that Ash Wednesdays and Fridays in general are still the biggest day for selling fish sandwiches.

Christians are required to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Communicants fast for an hour before Holy Communion. And it is customary during Lent to give up a certain food or some other favorite item or activity (e.g., smoking, alcohol or dessert).

Franciscan Father Jim Van Vurst had some interesting ideas for alternatives to the Lenten traditional fasting. He suggested that we could give up:

  • insisting we are always right in any argument;
  • controlling family members and others by means of anger or deadly silence;
  • relying on a clever but sarcastic tongue that we might think is cute but hurtfully cuts others, even loved ones;
  • wasting hours on the internet when we could be spending time with our family.

All these examples of abstinence are by far more challenging than cutting down on coffee or that stray bag of potato chips. To Father Van Vurst’s list, I might add the following:

  • Avoid gossiping.
  • Forgive more.
  • Give up video games.
  • Give up gossip tabloids and celebrity news programs.
  • Set aside time to pray.
  • Attend Mass and other liturgical services more often.
  • Go to confession throughout Lent. Promise to continue this habit for the rest of your life.
  • Do more spiritual reading including the Bible.
  • Go on a pilgrimage to a local shrine church for a Mass or prayer service during Lent.
  • Volunteer by helping the homeless.
  • Visit the infirmed and other shut-ins.
  • Donate old clothing to St. Vincent de Paul.

Lent is once again upon us. In a very real sense, it has always been upon us. There is never a time in the time allotted us between our baptism and the tomb in which we should give up on recalling our debt to the Savior.

The good thing about Lent is that it’s the heavy hand upon our shoulder that reminds us we’re called to something greater than what we already are — sempiternal creatures made especially in the Divine Image. But to those who keep the Season of Lent in their hearts all year round, that heavy hand feels more like a gentle, warm embrace.