Happy Ash Wednesday! Wait--can I say that? :)
I know that lots of Catholic writers are calling it quits on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and other forms of social media for Lent. I’m doing the opposite: I intend to resume regular blogging on the weekdays of Lent, in the hopes that regular blogging will translate into greater discipline as a writer. I owe some people a book or two, and giving up blogging so as to have more time to edit might have sounded good in theory; in practice, it became less time spent writing overall.
And I didn’t really plan to revisit the fasting topic, but after participating in a Facebook conversation I have to admit that it seems to me like a whole lot of Catholics out there make one specific and critical mistake about fasting. Granted, this is my opinion as a totally unqualified laywoman, but I think that too many people think that the point of fasting is for the Church to set up some Really Really Hard Rules, so that those who were capable of enduring those Really Really Hard Rules could then be reassured that whatever anybody else might be, they are real followers of Jesus.
In the viewpoint of some Catholics who seem to have that idea, the Church has cheated them by wimping out and making the current fasting rules. What--two days only? And on those days you’re allowed a meal? And not just a meal, but two smaller meals or snacks? That’s not fasting--that’s ordinary sensible eating for anybody who isn’t either a glutton or a “pansy!” (And that actual word was used in the conversation I saw--the context was that the early Christians weren’t “pansies” about things like fasting.)
To be fair, some of the people who hold this view also agree with the Church that people who have serious medical issues or other situations where fasting might be dangerous shouldn’t fast. This would include pregnant or nursing women, diabetics, people with other blood-sugar issues short of diabetes, people who would be a danger to themselves or others if they had to work a full day on little or no food (e.g. long-haul truck drivers, surgeons, firefighters and police officers, and so on) and probably more categories I haven’t even thought of. Some of these people are already exempt from the current, and lighter, fasting rules, so it seems to me that having the Church “crack down on discipline” by instituting a much more rigorous fast is only going to have the effect of having more and more exemptions spelled out in the law, granted by bishops or pastors, or otherwise extended to the not-small number of people who cannot safely go twenty-four hours without eating at all, or with a single “snack-sized” meal.
So returning to stricter rules, especially in an age of machines and technology where people are often awake and active for sixteen to eighteen hours a day (not possible for most people back when candles were the only source of illumination), would have the unintended consequence of returning to much more sweeping exemptions to those rules. And what would the people who can already (and voluntarily) keep a much stricter fast gain from it all? Bragging rights? A sense that their endurance ability makes them front-runners in the race toward Christ? The right to pen scathing indictments of the Church’s new “softness” in exempting so many people from fasting, when everybody knows that fasting automatically produces great spiritual growth in those who participate in it? Wait...
The truth is that while fasting is a time-honored custom in the Church, no custom, no devotional practice, no form of prayer or act of penitence, will produce automatic or magical spiritual growth. There have been saints who were forbidden by their lawful superiors from fasting, and their holiness is every bit as apparent in their acquiescence to such lawful orders as in their prior heroic fasting accomplishments. That is because fasting, like any other rule or law of the Church, is more a test of our obedience to Christ as present in His Church than anything else. When the saints obeyed the fasting rules, they grew closer to God; and when some of them were forbidden to fast and obeyed those orders, they grew just as close to Him (or, perhaps, if they really wished to fast but could not, even closer).
The Church has the authority to give us, in every age, what we really need. If what we really needed was an obligatory fast so physically difficult that few could actually do it, she would give us those rules. Perhaps instead she is calling those who are physically strong and capable of great feats of fasting to obey her present laws and as a joyful, voluntary, and invisible gift to go beyond them, without telling anybody about it.