St. Michael’s Scriptorium & Library
Bro. Ignatius Mary Collection, Founder OLSM
How to Think Properly About Fasting
by Bro. Ignatius Mary
(a Hermit of St. Michael)
The precepts on fasting described below are applicable only to the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church and to the United States. Other Rites and other Conferences of Bishops may have other or different minimum requirements for the faithful concerning days and definitions of fast and abstinence.
The subject of fasting is one that causes much confusion and even guilt which Satan can then use to beat over our heads. Offered here, therefore, are guidelines on how we should think about fasting.
The purpose of fasting is to participate in the saving mysteries of Christ, to share in His suffering, to express our commitment and devotion to God.
First, let us review the precepts of the Church concerning fasting and penance in relation to food.
There are three mandatory fasts and four mandatory acts of abstinence the Church requires.
The Church requires that we fast on:
- Ash Wednesday
- Good Friday
- days in which we receive communion—a one hour fast before receiving our Lord.
The definition of a fast under current legislation for #1 & #2 above is “one main meal and two lesser meals which together do not equal an amount of the main meal.” This requirement is for all baptized and confirmed Catholics from the day after their 18th birthday to the day after their 59th birthday.
The drinking of ordinary liquids throughout the day is permissible.
These Days of Fasting are matters of serious obligation unless one receives a dispensation for some good reason. Good reasons include special dietary requirements, requirements of medication or medical conditions, pregnant or nursing mothers, the need to maintain strength for certain types of work that must be performed on fasting days, etc.
Certainly, one should ask their physician if there is any question at all of a fast being contraindicated by one's personal health or medical condition.
When a dispensation is needed. it must come from one's pastor, confessor, or priestly spiritual director. One cannot give oneself a dispensation. Many Pastors will give a blanket dispensation for the sick or to pregnant and nursing mothers, for example, posted in the parish bulletin. When such dispensation is given, either individually or communally, some other means of doing penance must be substituted (i.e. works of charity, alms giving, prayer).
The definition of fast for #3, the Eucharistic Fast, is a TOTAL fast of all food and liquids (except water). This fast may be reduced to 15 minutes for those who are sick or who must eat before receiving the Eucharist for some good reason.
The Church requires that we Abstain from meat on:
- Ash Wednesday
- Good Friday
- All Fridays of Lent
- all other Fridays of the year (however, on Fridays other than Good Friday and Lenten Fridays, an alternate penance may be performed, such as works of charity, alms giving, or prayer).
All Catholics from the day after their 14th birthday to the end of their lives are required to observe these rules of abstinence. This is a serious obligation.
In this abstinence, the law forbids the use of meat; but fish, eggs, milk products, condiments made of animal fat are okay. Also permissible are soups flavored with meat, meat gravy, and sauces.
The obligation to abstain from meat is not in force on days celebrated as solemnities such as Christmas, Sacred Heart, etc.
Dispensations may be given under the same conditions as specified in the section above on fasts.
These are our obligations as Catholics. ALL OTHER FORMS of fasts for whatever reasons are purely voluntary. Only the above is required.
Now what about devotional fasts? What if we do feel called to perform some devotional fast?
The devotional fast called for by our Lady—the bread and water fast on Wednesdays and Fridays—is also purely voluntary in nature. If one feels called to do it, then one should do it, as long as it is remembered that this fast, and all other devotional fasts, are purely voluntary and thus is not required to be a good Catholic.
Since we in this country are not use to going without, it is also suggested that we not beat ourselves up if we canot live up to such dramatic fasts and bread and water. For those interested in the more severe fasts it is suggested that one start with a less severe fast and work their way up to the more severe forms (see the note about St. Benedict at the end of this essay).
For example, since the definition of a fast according to the Church is one full meal in the day plus, if one needs, two snacks not to equal the amount of a full meal, and no snacking in between, one could start by doing this sort of fast on Wednesday and Friday. And then work up to one meal and no snacks, then just the two snacks and no meal, then just one snack, and finally only the bread and water.
To help in fulfilling the bread and water fast, one can buy some of the tastier Italian, French or other European breads, for example, and perhaps still put butter on it at first. The water could be flavored with lemon.
Guiding points to consider when fasting:
- Devotional Fasts are VOLUNTARY and one can be a good Catholic
without doing some particular voluntary fast no matter how others
might promote them. Though a devoted Catholic should be doing
something more than the minimum requirements.
- One can work up to the full bread and water fast, or
other fasting formula, without feeling like they are cheating. God
understands. He understands that those of us not use to such
sacrifice must work into it.
- We should NEVER forget that fasting should certainly
not interfere with our health or with any medical treatment. One
would be wise to consult with one's doctor if ANY kind of medication
is taken, or if one has any sort of medical condition.
- Fasting should not cause those around us to suffer.
The rest of the family should not be affected and should be able
to enjoy full and normal meals even if the "cook" in
the family, or any other member of the family, is on a fast. If
this cannot be done, then it calls into question the prudence or
even the calling to do the fast.
- A fast must be a joyful fast. If it makes us grumpy or places us in any other form of a bad mood, then again it calls into question the prudence or the calling to do the fast. This sort of thing could also be a sign that we are being too severe on the fast. Lighten up a little and see if we still have the negative attitudes.
The point is the devotion, not a legalistic adherence to a formula of fasting. St. Benedict recognized this point, and recognized that those not use to it may have difficulties with the more server practices. In St. Benedict's Rule he specifically talks about how those who come into the monastery from a secular life of privilege will not be use to the austerity of the monastery in the way that a peasant would be who is use to hard beds, little food, and poor conditions.
St. Benedict, in his wisdom, allowed the people from privilege to work into the austerity slowly. At first he would give them more comfortable beds and an extra blanket, better food and the like. As time went on, these things would be reduced as the new monks became accustomed to monastic austerity.
To the monks who did not benefit from the extra blanket or food, St. Augustine cautioned them against jealously and reminded them that they were use to this, but these others were not; and that the process here was one of compassion towards them.
We can take our lead from the great St. Benedict on matters such as this.
If God is calling us to a regular devotional fast such as the Wednesday/Friday fast, this is wonderful and is a great spiritual discipline. But do not feel obligated to this “particular” fasting formula. Do whatever we are called to do, whatever that is.
When we do a fast, we shouldn't feel guilty because we canot do it in its fullness right away. God understands if we need to work our way into it slowly.
A final note: As consecrated and devout Catholics we should be going the extra mile or two or three. We are not the “Church of the Minimum Standards”. The precepts of the Church enumerated at the beginning of this essay are only “minimum” standards that anyone who claims to be Catholic must follow.
As devout Catholics we should be doing more. It doesn't have to be the Wednesday/Friday formula, but we should be doing something more than the Church's minimum expectation. If medical or other reasons make fasting too difficult, impossible, or imprudent then we ought tp do some other form of mortification.
The goal of our fasting, abstinence, and mortification in whatever form it takes is to participate in the saving mysteries of Christ, to share in His suffering, and to express our commitment and devotion to God.
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