Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving are spiritual disciplines that are used in Lent to help us to deal with spiritual obstacles and move us closer to our God. One writer says, “As cars hit potholes on the road and need to be brought into the garage to be aligned, so too, us. Lent is our time to be aligned to God.”
Many of us grew up knowing that Wednesdays and Fridays were days we abstained from meat and ate fish instead. As time went by, Fridays became the day to lime and meat was often part of the event. However, we still try to observe this custom during Lent. What is the purpose and value of this abstinence and is it the same as fasting?
What is fasting?
In his “Apostolic Constitution on Penance” (1966), Pope Paul VI revised the Church law concerning fast and abstinence. He reminded us of the divine law that each of us in our own way must do penance. We must all turn from sin and make reparation to God for our sins. The 1983 revision of the Code of Canon Law sums up those requirements of Pope Paul VI: Catholics between the ages of 18 and 59 are obliged to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and all Fridays in Lent.
Fasting, as explained by the US bishops, means partaking of only one full meal. Some food (not equaling another full meal) is permitted at breakfast and around midday or in the evening, depending on when a person chooses to eat the main or full meal (Americancatholic.org). The Church teaches that people’s health must not be compromised during the observance of fasting. People who are not able to observe the fast above, for serious reasons, may develop a fast that is penitential and sacrificial in nature. We can have simple, less costly meals and eat nutritious things, some of which might not be to our liking, but less expensive. In this way we sacrifice our pleasure of a food we enjoy so that someone else will have food. This can be done with children and the elderly.
Fasting allows us:-
1) To feel the pangs of hunger so that we can enter into penance and sacrifice for our sins and gain strength and wisdom to avoid future sins. As we feel hunger we may ask ourselves, ‘what are our hungers or addictions in life’. This will help us to look at areas of our lives that have led us away from God and so we will be able to control these areas, with God’s help, and get back on the road to God.
2) To use the time we would have spent eating as a time of prayer or study that will nourish our souls.
3) To save the money usually spent on food and give it to someone in need, either by purchasing supplies or donating the money.
4) To live in solidarity with those in need as we enter their world.
The practice of abstaining from meat is traditional in our Church’s history. Meat is seen as the ‘pleasure food’ or, more commonly, ‘comfort food’ and by giving up this food we are giving up some pleasure. Abstinence disciplines the mind in the choices that we make. There are many choices that have become so much a part of us that we make them without even thinking. Many of these choices govern us – and not for the better. Addiction is one such choice. We are all addicted to something. In abstaining from meat, we begin to reflect on what else we need to abstain from.
Psychologically, abstaining from meat will bring other cravings to the surface and we will begin to discover other addictions, some of which may be unhealthy. As these come to the surface and as we begin to deal with them, the abstinence from meat will help strengthen our willpower to also abstain from this other negative behaviour.
Meat is not the only thing we can abstain from. Anything that provides pleasure can become our object of fast, example chocolate, soft drinks, snacks, computer games, TV, etc. Abstinence is not the same as fasting and can be done without fasting but fasting usually involves some form of abstinence.
It is important that we understand the concept of fasting and abstinence and how it relates to our spiritual and holistic development. If we simply abstain from meat and eat fish instead, which is three times more expensive, then we defeat the purpose of fasting. We must always be aware of the penitential and sacrificial nature of our abstinence and fasting. Remember that prayer and almsgiving must go hand in hand with our fasting.
– Bernadette Gopaul Ramkhalawan, Archdiocesan Catechetical Office, http://catechetics.rcpos.org