"You will be a better mom because you are a theologian, and a better theologian because you are a mom."

Is it true? In this blog, I explore the interplay and intersection of motherhood and theologianhood.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

The Habit of Fasting

On Good Friday, my dear husband returned from his holy hour(s) at the church to find us in the kitchen at lunch time. He happened to walk in while I was lecturing one of them about not interrupting me once I've started eating. They have this tendency to ask for food, and after I've gotten them all situated and sit down to eat my own lunch, they decide that they desperately need something else (sometimes whatever I've prepared for myself). Clearly, I did not want my collation interrupted, and he quickly jumped in to assist aforementioned hungry child.

I'll just skip the intervening hours of the day and note that by dinnertime, my irritability and impatience, expressed tentatively in the lunchtime lecture, were now well-established. I was annoyed with everything - the constant mess, the constant noise, and a general dissatisfaction with you-name-it. The Good Friday service at church (stand-kneel petition-squats while holding a 30 pound toddler) and my earlier time spent meditating on the passion did little to cheer me.

So while hubby and I were in the kitchen later in the evening, I was angrily complaining about something-- maybe that you couldn't even tell I had vacuumed a mere six hours earlier-- he timidly asked me if I was planning on fasting again tomorrow.


I think it was the sound of my own raised voice that convinced me I had failed on my Good Friday fast. But it could have also been Jeff's kind reminder that "Your mortifications aren't supposed to mortify everyone else."

See, for the past maybe six years, I've been substituting the Ash Wednesday and Good Friday fast with some other non-caloric related fast on account of my being pregnant or nursing (or both). This year, however, I decided I should try despite the six-month old nurser, and apparently my relative success on Ash Wednesday made me arrogant about my fasting potential for Good Friday.

The truth is, I'm out of practice. But even more than that, I've never really been in practice, that is, I've never really developed a habit of fasting, and by that I mean, the Catholic relative fast (one full meal, two collations not equaling a full meal). So why did Jeff ask me if I was planning on continuing my fast to Holy Saturday?

Well, ironically, I'd been doing some research about the historical developments of the Lenten fast in the United States, which originally was held to the canonical regulations with total abstinence and relative fast for the entire season of Lent. Soon came the "workingman's indult" allowing for partial abstinence (meat at the principal meal, excluding Fridays) during fast days for manual laborers and their families. This was eventually extended to everyone, given the difficulty of determining who qualified for the indult. Then, during times of war (WW1 and WW2 and immediately following year), fast and abstinence rules were suspended by the pope for people in the countries at war, presumably because they had sufficiently penitential hardships in availability of food. In the early 50s, the Lenten fast ended at noon on Holy Saturday. But then the magisterium decided to change it to ending at midnight between Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. So this is why Jeff had asked me if I planned on fasting through Holy Saturday, which I actually had been considering until that moment of humility. It wasn't until 1966 that Lenten fasting was reduced to the two days of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday with the understanding that the faithful would choose some other individually selected Lenten sacrifice for the rest of the season.

Why does fasting seem so hard for us Catholics that only do it twice a year? One reason is that we only do it twice a year. Imagine that you didn't run all year long, but then on Ash Wednesday decided to compete in a 5K. It would probably be a little difficult too. But if you run three miles a day for every day of Lent, running a 5K on Good Friday would not be as challenging. Similarly, some Catholics may have the experience of their Lenten penance (e.g. giving up coffee or chocolate or whatever) not seeming so difficult by the end of Lent.

The language of virtue can be helpful here. Since the 12th century, members of the Church have spoken of the virtue of penance. Such a virtue is a habit of amending for sin, which is an injustice against God. Virtues are strengthened by repeated acts; the virtue of penance is strengthened by acts of penance, that is exterior acts that express interior contrition, which is also an act of the virtue of penance. Repeated acts of penance make it so that the virtue becomes "second nature."

If fasting remains something that Catholics in the U.S. do only twice a year, we can expect it to be hard, never really to become second nature for us. Being difficult is not really a bad thing; it even has potential to make it more meaningful as penance for us. But on the other hand, if the difficulty of fasting prevents us from being kind and charitable to others, this may actually inhibit the meaning of that penance. And that's why it could be a good idea for me, at least, to practice fasting a little bit more often. Anyone want to join me for some Ember Day fasting after Pentecost?

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