A Modest Proposal: Fast and Abstinence for all of Lent

The other day one of the messaging groups I'm part of was full of questions as to whether that day required partial or full abstinence and what the norms were outside of Ember Days in Lent. Old books were consulted and screen shots of missals were shared. In that country a given weekday was also a day of abstinence, but that wasn't the biggest shock to the group: every single day of Lent was listed as a fasting day, save Holy Days of Obligation. The text was from the 1940s.

So, not that long ago our Catholic ancestors were at least fasting all of Lent. They were also, in some countries, abstaining from meat twice a week apart from the additional days from Ember Week in Lent. Here in France fast and abstinence during Lent was normative until World War II, when supply chain disruptions and food shortages led to a temporary relaxation of the rules which were then restored some years after the war ended.

I made the transition to an all-Lent fast and abstinence a couple years ago after being virtually scolded by Dom Gueranger when I would read The Liturgical Year. For context, you have to realize that Dom Gueranger began writing in 1841 and died in 1875, nine volumes into what would eventually be a 15-volume work. Lent is Volume 5, so I know that it is he himself who is scolding us, not one of his successors who finished the work.

Read some of his lamenting and see if it does not sound as if addressed to us, here and now, instead of to the Catholic faithful of almost 200 years ago:

"Accordingly, as Lent approaches, they must get all manner of dispensations. Abstinence is an inconvenience; fasting has an effect upon their health, it would interfere with their occupations, it is such a change from their ordinary way of living; besides, there are so many people who are better than themselves, and yet who never fast or abstain..."

And yet, what is the "difficulty" of abstinence? For those in the developed world, the supermarket offers an abundance of alternative ingredients to make it through the 40 days, be they more vegetables or grains. Abstinence in the Roman Church allows for eggs and milk and butter, so there is no shortage of alternatives for those who are willing to do something outside of their routine for what is barely 11% of the year. The fasting and abstinence is not even continuous, as Sundays, never permitted as a day of fasting, break up Lent into 6-day rounds.

This is to say nothing of the salutary effects of fasting. As if discovering something new, scientists are now trumpeting the virtues of intermittent fasting, a natural remedy well-known to the Church who prescribed it as a supernatural remedy for the ills of this world. Indeed, Our Lord said in His time that some evils could only be driven out by prayer and fasting, but how reluctant Catholics are to fast during Lent, and how frequently they will make excuses.

What will happen should they fast and abstain? Will they die? Will they wither away into illness? No. In all likelihood, they will at least lose some weight they could stand to lose. More importantly, they will be constantly reminded of what liturgical season they are in: an extraordinary one.

Perhaps my fellow Catholics are just afraid. I am sure I was before I started this practice, but to be honest, it never occurred to me to restore the ancient practice in my life until Dom Gueranger pushed me.

I maintain that unless medically or spiritually advised against fast and abstinence for the entirety of Lent, there's really no reason not to go back to the old ways...as if the Traditional Mass is good enough for us, but not the traditional disciplines. Once again, let Dom Gueranger speak:

"It is true, there are exceptions; but how rare they are, especially in our large towns! Groundless prejudices, idle excuses, bad example, all tend to lead men from the observance of Lent. Is it not sad to hear people giving such a reason as this for their not fasting or abstaining — because they feel it? Surely, they forget that the very aim of fasting and abstinence is to make these bodies of sin suffer and feel. And what will they answer on the day of judgment, when our Savior will show them how the very Turks, who were the disciples of a gross and sensual religion, had the courage to practice, every year, the austerities of their Ramadan?"

He then goes on to opine on how Catholics, united in a strict and traditional observance of Lent, could be a witness within their respective nations to how seriously they take the time, and how that might lead others to consider the truths of the Gospel.

I encourage you to read Dom Gueranger yourself (this link begins on page 29 of Volume 5, the section I took the quotes above from), It was his shaming (and encouragement) that led me to permanently change my Lenten practice to that of my Catholic forebears, who were possessed of so many fewer culinary options that we have today. They were able to do more with less. Surely we can do less with more.

As I made this suggestion in the messaging group, one of the younger converts quipped, "Maybe next year." I reminded him that Lent is all about progressing and having the spirit that it's never too late to begin a good work. Don't wait until next year. Start now.

"During these forty days of penance, which seem so long to our poor nature, we shall not be deprived of the company of Our Jesus," says Dom Gueranger. Indeed, how often we forget that this is not a solitary journey, and how unwilling Our Lord is to be outdone in generosity. Are you willing to give him this little gift?

Consider living up to the standards set up for the Catholics who went before us: fast and abstinence through all of Lent. Such a standard is, after all, a minimum, a discipline that starts in our bodies which can inspire our minds and hearts to devotions and meditation, and to use this Lent to climb higher.

Stephen Heiner

Stephen founded True Restoration in 2006 and served as its first President until 2023. He now lives in Reading, Pennsylvania.

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