Monday, February 16, 2015

Fasting, and other liturgical/logistical nightmares for modern Catholic mothers

The other day, someone shared on Facebook someone else’s lovely reflection about the Church and fasting and why it’s important to keep the two days of the strict fast (Ash Wednesday and Good Friday) and to think about including some of its prescriptions during the rest of Lent.

Like I said--a lovely reflection.  I’m not in any way criticizing the gentleman who wrote it, particularly when I point out that he was, in fact, a gentleman.  Not a lady, and not a married lady with children.

Why does that make a difference?

Let me put it this way: ironically and sadly enough, I spend more time thinking about food and planning food and worrying about food and considering What To Do About the Food on those two days--Ash Wednesday and Good Friday--than I do the rest of the year.  Not even Thanksgiving or Christmas can create the level of panic-stricken planning than the two obligatory fasting days do.

It was bad enough when Thad and I were the only Mannings obligated to fast.  Last year our oldest girl joined us, and this year her next youngest sister has to fast too--only our youngest girl is exempt.  And the older girls will be on their college campus on Ash Wednesday from about 9 a.m. until just after 7 p.m., so in addition to figuring out fasting generally I had to conclude (regretfully) that the Ash Wednesday Mass is impossible for us this year and also try to figure out some small portable meatless “snacks” that will allow for the “two snacks” portion of the girls’ food for Ash Wednesday without being too much food on the one hand or not enough to keep them going all day until 7 on the other, plus try to decide what to serve for the “main meal” when they arrive home given that I’ll probably be scraping them up from the floor by that time and also given that with my fish and shellfish allergy (did you know those can just show up in middle age?) fish is off the menu.  The various Catholic mommy-bloggers who post stern warnings that we really ought to be eating something bland and tasteless for the main meal on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday in order to keep fully in the sacrificial spirit of Making Sure we Hate Everything are, in my politely expressed opinion, in error; fasting is complicated enough for a family with both fasters and non-fasters in it before some mommy blogger or other pronounces personal anathemas against cheese pizza or anything else that actually tastes good.

And our family has only one non-faster this year, who is herself a teen; I know other families who have to balance the fasting of the older members of the family against the non-fasting of the ravenous youngsters plus the perpetual grazing of the toddlers.  Add in, perhaps, somebody who is on medication for something or other and can’t fast (which is not exactly unheard of in the middle of flu season) or a pregnant or nursing mom or somebody else who is momentarily exempt and you have the makings of total nuclear kitchen chaos.

Now, I’ve had conversations with people about this sort of thing before, and some Catholic gentlemen have expressed puzzlement that any of this is complicated at all.  In fact, I had a conversation with somebody about the idea to change the Eucharistic fast back to three hours, which the gentleman thought would be a terrific way to increase reverence for the Blessed Sacrament.  I’m all in favor of increasing reverence for the Blessed Sacrament, but I started to discuss with the gentleman how what he was suggesting would make some mothers’ Sunday morning jobs so incredibly complex and frustrating that instead of increasing the reverence for the Sacrament, an extended fast would likely lead some mothers to decide that the family could receive Holy Communion once a month (if that), so that on the other Sundays she didn’t have feed all or some of the communicants in her family at six a.m. or so, so that they could receive Holy Communion at the 9 a.m. Mass.  And before anybody points out that the communicants could easily go without food until 10 a.m. or later because back in the Old Days everybody went without food or even a sip of water from midnight until after Mass, let me just remind you that back in the Old Days people had to be exhorted to receive Communion at least once a year (the Easter Duty), that frequent Communion was not all that common, and that children as young as seven were not yet admitted to the Sacrament--and that’s before we point out things like 6 a.m. Low Masses within walking distance of people’s homes, etc.

And when we consider the Old Strict Rules of Fasting we also have to consider two things: one, that lots and lots of people were exempt from the strict rules, and two, that the old fasting rules were based on the way people lived and ate at the time--and we have changed a lot since then.

That “one full meal and some food at two other times” rule?  Nearly everybody ate three good-sized meals a day most of the year.  For most people, these meals were breakfast, dinner (the main meal, served sometime between noon and 2 p.m.) and supper or “tea.”  This historical website lists some interesting sample menus for those meals, a couple of which I’ll share here:
Breakfast - Corn bread, cold bread, stew, boiled eggs.
Dinner - Soup, cold joint, calves' head, vegetables.
Dessert - Puddings, &c.
Tea. Cold bread, milk toast, stewed fruit.
Breakfast - Hot cakes, cold bread, sausages, fried potatoes.
Dinner - Soup, roast turkey, cranberry sauce, boiled ham, vegetables.
Dessert - Pie &c.
Tea. Corn bread, cold bread, stewed oysters.
Breakfast - Hot bread, cold bread, chops, omelet.
Dinner - Boiled mutton, stewed liver, vegetables.
Dessert - Pudding, &c.
Tea. Hot light bread, cold bread, fish, stewed fruit.

You can see the rest here; these were taken from a cookbook aimed at the American middle class and published in 1853.

My point is that our present fasting rules, covering only two days out of the year (and thus not being extremely difficult in most cases) are still based on a meal structure most of us have never experienced.  We (some of us) may twist ourselves in knots with anxious questions like, “If I normally drink a 12 oz. fruit and yogurt smoothie for breakfast, do I need to cut it to 6 ounces on Ash Wednesday so it doesn’t count for my full meal??  And if I eat half of my normal lunch does that, added to the six ounce smoothie, equal my full meal so that I really have to skip food the rest of the day???" without realizing that when the fasting rules were written many people breakfasted on, as the Tuesday menu above lists, pancakes, bread, sausages and fried potatoes, or as the Wednesday one lists, both hot and cold bread (which I’m curious about), chops, and an omelet!  And that’s before we look at the dinner menu which seems to contain as much food as many of us fix for a holiday meal, not an ordinary weeknight.

Honestly, we don’t eat like that anymore, but the fasting rules sort of seem to assume that we do. That’s why I appreciate so much Jimmy Akin’s various posts about fasting, particularly this one which points out that nowhere in the applicable laws does the Church say anything about what our two smaller meals (or two snacks) have to add up to before they’ve exceeded the full meal (which itself is not defined in terms of quantity or calories or anything of the kind).  

So if you (or your teenaged daughter who is over 18 and thus bound to fast) worry about the size of that breakfast smoothie, perhaps the way to look at it is that the people who wrote the laws on fasting would already consider a breakfast smoothie to be a snack and not a full meal at all (though I’ll leave it to learned moral theologians as to whether the smoothie is a food or a beverage, because that sort of quibbling makes my head hurt).  And if you (or the homeschool bulletin board you belong to) are fretting about How Much Is Too Much and Too Good for dinner, bear in mind that nowhere in the law is the full meal defined in detail and nobody says it has to taste bad (though it’s probably within reason to say that the full meal should be comparable to a normal dinner if those still exist at your house, rather than comparable to Thanksgiving, or at least Thanksgiving at a vegan relative’s house).  And if you are a mom for whom these considerations involve so much planning and logistics that you’re tempted to think the Eastern Orthodox have it easier--well, I hear you.


Charlotte (WaltzingM) said...

Have you ever considered making the lunch meal your main meal? That's what I have to do for your brother who is prone to passing out when he fasts.

Red Cardigan said...

Charlotte, we have actually done this in the past, especially in years when Thad could be home part of the day on Ash Wednesday--it definitely made Ash Wednesday Mass easier.

But part of the problem for the girls is their actual class schedule on Monday/Wednesday this year, and another part would be actually packing them a “main meal” (their backpacks are already stuffed, microwaves are iffy on campus, no lockers etc.). They’re planning to do the “One snack each at breakfast and lunch” and make it through on beverages until they get home.

Thad would rather wait until he’s home too if he does have to be at work, because depending on meetings etc. he may not have time to eat until 2-3 or so anyway just on a typical day. Anyway, that’s the plan for this year--who knows what next year will be like!

LarryD said...

Stewed liver seems to be a penance in and of itself.