Wednesday 28 February 2024

The Lenten Fast

On Ash Wednesday we asked the Lord to grant “that we may begin with holy fasting this campaign of Christian service, so that, as we take up battle against spiritual evils, we may be armed with weapons of self-restraint”. We were told to give alms, and pray, and fast. Self-discipline, penance, works of charity and, particularly, fasting will be demanded of us in the liturgy for these forty days. The ancient preface of Lent is all about fasting, by means of which God restrains our faults, raises up our minds, and bestows virtue and its rewards. We speak of the Solemn Lenten Fast — in fact, the Dutch and Afrikaans word for Lent is Die Vaste or Vastyd, “The Fast” or “The time of fasting”.

Fasting has always held a special place in Jewish and Christian religious thought and practice. Both Elijah and Moses fasted for forty days before seeing God. St John the Baptist and his followers fasted. The Lord himself fasted in the desert, not for his own needs, says Dom Guéranger, but to serve as an example for us. The Church has sanctified, encouraged, and sometimes mandated the practice of fasting. Why? According to St Thomas Aquinas, to “bridle the lusts of the flesh, to raise the mind more freely to the contemplation of heavenly things, and to satisfy for sins”. He quotes St Augustine who says, “Fasting cleanses the soul, raises the mind, subjects one’s flesh to the spirit, renders the heart contrite and humble, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, quenches the fire of lust, kindles the true light of chastity.”

For more than a thousand years, the Lenten fast was of the strictest kind. Abstinence from meat, eggs and dairy products was required of all Catholics for the entirety of Lent, and every day except Sunday was a day of fasting — with only a single meal allowed, and only after sunset. In more recent centuries this fast was mitigated, and by the middle of the twentieth century eggs and dairy were permitted and abstinence from meat only required on a couple of days each week. Fasting was still obligatory, but a small breakfast and an evening snack were permitted. Today, the only days of obligatory fasting for us are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and even then we are allowed one meal and two small snacks (which is what many of us would eat ordinarily anyway). So what are we to make of the liturgy’s assumption that we are all engaged in a prolonged and difficult fast from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday?

Some people have said that fasting means to give up doing something, so in Lent we should give up all sorts of bad behaviour: refraining from hurtful words, sadness, anger, worry, bitterness, selfishness, and so on. But surely we should be trying not to act in these ways throughout the year? Fasting has never been seen as giving up what is bad — that goes without saying. Rather, to fast is to deny ourselves something that is good for the sake of a greater good. We reduce our eating not because it is bad — or because we want to lose weight or be healthier — but because in denying ourselves we show the Lord that we are sorry for our sins, for all those times when we have indulged ourselves and let our appetites lead us away from God. We take our attention away from food and drink to focus it on repentance and prayer. We give up something good for the sake of him who gave up his life for us.

St John Henry explains how we should keep Lent, especially at a time when the rules of fasting have been mitigated, in a sermon he gave in 1848 (when, despite several relaxations, Lenten fasting was still much stricter than today). He says:

…fasting is only one branch of a large and momentous duty, the subdual of ourselves to Christ. We must surrender to Him all we have, all we are. We must keep nothing back. We must present to Him as captive prisoners with whom He may do what He will, our soul and body, our reason, our judgement, our affections, our imagination, our tastes, our appetite.

The great thing is to subdue ourselves; but as to the particular form in which the great precept of self-conquest and self-surrender is to be expressed, that depends on the person himself, and on the time or place. What is good for one age or person, is not good for another.

Newman teaches that fasting from food is appropriate in people or places where the struggle against sin is a bodily struggle: against lust, greed, gluttony, drunkenness, and violence. But when fasting rules are relaxed, it is a reminder to us that there are other sins and weaknesses to mortify in us — sins of the intellect, the affections, the will, sins of pride — which need subduing even more than our bodies. He suggests that we mortify our curiosity for news and information (how necessary this is today, with constant exposure to media and social media), and mortify our reason (taking time to hear the opinions of others, and getting into the habit of mistrusting our own views in order to properly try them and purify them). None of these involve giving up that which is objectively bad, but all will involve some effort and renunciation on our part — a real “fasting”.

Lent is a sacred time in which we double our efforts to reject sin, to amend our behaviour, and move from darkness to light. But it is also a time when we offer to the Lord true sacrifices: denying ourselves in little ways and big ones to tell him — and to show our selves — that we love him above all things and repent with our whole heart for having offended him.