Fasting, penance, abstinence, and other such practices seem archaic to the modern mind. And yet, the Catholic Church, in her great wisdom, has passed them down for centuries! Many people actually don’t realize that these are still part of the Church, so let’s dive in and see where we can find them.
First of all, why would anyone in their right mind choose to fast or practice any form of mortification? The roots of such practices reach far beyond the time of Christ. In fact, if you browse through the Old Testament, many examples of personal mortification can be found; journeying through the desert, not eating certain foods, etc. Mortifications are not for our glory, but rather for the glory of God.
How can my decision to avoid chocolate for the 40 days of Lent give glory to God? It all comes down to disposition. If I, let’s say, give up chocolate, but whine and complain each day, I am not glorifying God. I may, actually, be horrifying my neighbor, who might start to see a choc-a-holic. If I am to praise God through this act (or any act of self-mortification), I need to have the right intention: to do it solely out of love of God and neighbor. I often choose an intention to go along with my little sacrifices, which helps me to stay focused in times of weakness or temptation.
But why should I give up something perfectly good? The Church does not suddenly (during Lent) say that this or that is a bad thing. Trust me…no form of chocolate, coffee or wine is ever bad in and of itself. It all depends on what we do with it. We can eat or drink to excess, and many of us have sadly seen the effects of such un-tempered indulgence. The point of giving up a good, is so that it may be offered to the Lord as a pleasing offering. Think back to Cain and Able (Genesis). One offered the best of what he had, while the other offered half-baked goods, so to speak. The Lord showed a preference for the better goods, since they were offered with the right intention: give God the best of what we have, all the while recognizing that it is still a far cry from what God is worthy of.
Is it true, then, that Lent is all about giving up foods we think are good? No, not really, as this would confine our spiritual exercises to a merely physical expression. There are many other goods which we can refrain from, or goods we can try to practice more (so that they become virtues). Here is a suggested list of “unusual” sacrifices that can be sustained for 40 days in Lent:
- Limiting or giving up Facebook
- Refraining from complaining about this or that
- Finding one good thing to say to whomever God puts in our path
- Calling someone instead of sending an email/text message
- Giving up the need to always be right (did you just disagree with me on this one? Caught you!)
- Taking up a tradition of the Church (e.g. Stations of the Cross, women’s head covering/veiling, Eucharistic adoration, etc)
Many other practices can be suggested, but it truly comes down to this: what is the Lord asking you to do or not do? He knows each of us better that we know ourselves, and it is often a hidden fault or weakness that He wants to bring to our attention.
Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, and it is a day of fasting and abstinence. Many Catholics do not understand the obligation to fast and abstain on this day, so I am providing the USCCB link here: http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/liturgical-resources/lent/catholic-information-on-lenten-fast-and-abstinence.cfm . Furthermore, each Friday is a day of abstinence from meat in the Catholic Church (Roman Rite). Did you know that? After the new Code of Canon Law came into force (1983), many of the faithful somehow failed to see that this practice is still in effect. Yes, there were some changes (e.g. we can now eat animal products such as eggs during Lent), but elements were retained, and are not optional for Catholics (except for those who fall under the prescribed exceptions because of age, health, etc.). Here is the direct quote from the current Code of Canon Law:
Canon 1250 The days and times of penance for the universal Church are each Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent.
Canon 1251 Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
And so, with Lent starting in just a few days, I have a question that I pose before you, as well as before myself: how will you grow in holiness this Lent? What is the Lord leading you to, so that He can make of you a wonderful saint? Sacramental confession is a great way to start your discernment, as a pure heart is more attuned to the whispers of the Lord. May your Lenten preparations lead you closer to the holiness you are called to .