Fasting? But That's So Mortifying!

While I was baking Christmas cookies in mid-December (oh, good, here’s another broken one!), my thoughts suddenly turned to Lent. Clearly I was en route to surpassing the average 1.4 pounds we Americans gain during the Christmas holiday season. So in a perverse sort of way, while munching my way toward Ordinary Time, I thought about Lent-and its benefits.

I’ve never been too keen on fasting. This, of course, is not my fault. It is the fault of the bishop of Ft. Wayne/South Bend, Ind. When I was in college,long ago, fasting daily for the entire season of Lent was required of all Catholics who had reached their 21st birthday. Unless you were a Notre Dame man. In those days, N.D. was a guy place, and the students were dispensed from fasting. Now on the other side of Lake Michigan, we Rosary (now Dominican) College womenhaving certain knowledge that we were put on earth to save the souls of Notre Dame menhad to fast. We were incensed that the bishop chose to make our mission even more challenging. Besides, it didn’t seem fair. Oh, the archbishop of Chicago dispensed us on St. Patrick’s Day, andif you had connections to the right parishesSt. Joseph’s Day, but for 40 days and 40 nights we fasted. Not perkily, I must add.


Following the Second Vatican Council, canonical fasting throughout the entire 40 days of Lent fell out of favor. Suddenly we were supposed to implement a new model. The intent was to guide us to a more mature approach to penance, but the practice took on the secular zeitgeist: self-improvement. We began giving up alcohol, cigarettes, junk food, soda pop. As part of this new model of penance, we were encouraged to perform positive actions in place of the old-fashioned denial of food, but giving up seemed to be the dominant trait of our practical religious heritage.

Over the years, this made for some creative Lents. Once I gave up Talbot’s Outlet Store. Two years ago I gave up day trading. While mention of these self-denials generally gets smiles and an occasional Are you serious? the contemporary model of Lent has taught me that six weeks is enough time to break a habit. (Just look at my wardrobe and my portfolio.)

But I’m thinking about retro, pre-Vatican II fasting again, and not just because of the Christmas cookies. Well, that’s not quite accurate. While baking for the great feast of Christmas, it occurred to me that there is something lacking in current Lenten practices. For one thing, they deny us the concept of feast.

Consider the person who gives up alcohol or gambling. He is not likely to go out on a celebratory binge on Easter Sunday. Or, in my own experience, when I gave up Talbot’s, I wasn’t standing in front of the store waiting for the doors to open on Easter Monday. I found that after a six-week vacation I had lost interest. This is not to say there is nothing redeeming in the behavior-modification kind of fast. There is, if it is done in the right spirit, the one called mortification. Yet even then, you have to admit it misses something when it comes to the feast. Fast/feast. They go together. Yin/yang. One is not really complete without the other.

Just for fun, I looked up pre-Vatican II regulations on fasting. (I know, I need a life.) I was mildly surprised to discover there wasn’t much discussion of feast. The burden of measuring (I can remember my grandmother weighing out her food), figuring out when a liquid was nourishment and fasting under the absolute norm versus relative norm were the focal points of the law. (I also came across an interesting piece of trivia. Our present rule to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday was considered the minimum required under the wartime faculty ofdispensation that Pope Pius XII gave to bishops of the Latin Rite during World War II. Now there’s some food for thought.)

Anyway, back to the idea of feast. But first some thoughts on hunger.

One of our friendly local creative-penance-giving confessors told me a few months ago to meditate on the Magnificat (just why is between the two of us.) In the translation I have of this passage from Luke’s Gospel, there is a line that says, He has filled the hungry with good things.... What does this mean? Those who live from hand to mouthas the vast majority of people in Our Lady’s time, and even in our world todaycertainly know. Yet you and I probably never have known what it is like to be truly hungry for food. I, for example, tend to confuse hunger with a regular craving for Fritos. But does the fact that we know where our next meal is coming from mean we cannot experience real hunger? Do we have other hungers? What are they? Have we identified them? Confronted them?

I have been thinking that the hunger that comes from fasting from food could serve as a metaphor for that real, spiritual hunger I havethe one I find so difficult to name. Fasting could be a vehicle for getting my attention so I can see it. Name it. Reach for it. Embrace it.

To enjoy a genuine feast, we must come to the table hungry. Otherwise the feast is reduced to a rote rituallike that of a young couple faced with having to consume two Christmas dinnersone at her folks’ and one at his. In the words of the Magnificat, God has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. The rich simply were not hungry.

I’m not certain how I will observe this Lent penitentially. Am I readyreally, really readyto fast in the proper spirit for the entire season? In wrestling with this, I must keep my focus on the objective: to learn that my hungers, whatever they may be, will be satisfied only by the Feast.

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