A pamphlet at my local parish caught my eye recently. It was offering innovative suggestions for Lenten resolutions. Parts of it were attributed to Pope Francis, but other parts surely were written by some well-intentioned but fundamentally daft Church person. In bold headlines, it asked, “Thinking of giving up chocolate for Lent? For a deeper Lent, think instead about. . .” And then came the list: Fast from hurting words and say kind words; Fast from anger and be filled with patience; Fast from selfishness and be compassionate to others. And so on.
But then came lines that, frankly, made me laugh out loud, one of which was “Fast from pornography.” The disconnect here from a proper Catholic understanding of fasting would be comical if it were not so tragically misleading for many poorly catechized Catholics.
We should always avoid sins, such as cruel words, unjust anger, selfishness, and, yes, pornography! These are not good things that we temporarily abstain from, and then offer up as a sacrifice to God as part of our fast. These simply are bad things that always displease Our Lord and which we should always avoid doing.
The notion of giving up sins as part of our Lenten resolution confuses the very nature or purpose of fasting, which is to deprive oneself of a good for the sake of a greater good – closeness to and ultimate union with God. You simply cannot “fast” from sin. If we have fasted from hurting words or pornography during Lent, do we then take these sins back up on Easter Monday proudly saying we will give them up again next Lent? The very notion is absurd.
It’s been clear that for some time not a few people among us have been abandoning the traditional understanding of fasting from physical goods, with many of them calling it a stale, superficial, outdated, or mindless act. Thus, people offer the “innovative suggestions” mentioned above and many others that readers can easily imagine for themselves.
What motivates the dismissal of fasting as it pertains to the body? Is it a type of visceral fear of depriving the body of luxuries or of making ourselves feel physically uncomfortable? Is it a sly type of enslavement to one’s physical addictions but disguised as a focus on an apparently higher, “spiritual” act?
This shift from bodily mortifications to spiritual offerings risks becoming a type of spiritualism, in which one believes that the spirit is wholly distinct from matter or the body. Or perhaps it is a subtle type of Gnosticism in which the body’s importance is dismissed and, therefore, the mortifications of the body are seen as unnecessary to the spirit’s growth.
A Catholic should not be deceived by these shifts from traditional practices. We shouldn’t denigrate the mortification of the flesh or dismiss it simply as “old school.” The body does not change from one age to another and is always clamoring for self-satisfaction. Even if you say nice words, reduce your carbon footprint, and recycle your plastics in the #2 container, bodily attachments remain hidden until you try and test them.
Hence, the problem with these misguided attempts at “deepening” the penitential time. Lent is not a period for either spiritual or bodily discipline. Because prayer and fasting go hand in hand. The three pillars of the Lenten penitential season are prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Taking away real food and drink as objects of the fast is like taking away real money from the practice of almsgiving. You fast from physical goods. You give actual money or material goods to the poor.
Spiritual offerings are, of course, very good and right and what all of us must do if we are to proceed further along the path of perfection. But the normal way most of us progress is to move from the natural to the supernatural order of things.
Our bodies are intimately connected to our souls. Critics may regard fasting from ice cream, chocolate, sweets, and so forth, as “lesser” or “mindless” acts because many ordinary faithful men and women have chosen that way to fast over the ages. I would humbly suggest, however, that in our overly self-indulgent culture, the very first thing a person ought to try is giving up the material goods of food and drink. To modify a famous Chesterton quotation for present purposes: Fasting has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.
Precisely because it is difficult to give up the attachments to such goods, the person who is fasting from – say – coffee, needs also to turn to prayer to aid in the fast. Once people have begun to exercise greater self-mastery over the body, they can then proceed to the next spiritual level in which not only do they STILL give up material goods their bodies enjoy, but they also deepen their spiritual dedication to our Lord. They ask for the grace to have greater faith, hope, and love; to be more chaste, temperate, diligent, patient, kind, and humble.
So for this Lent, mortify your body by giving up that morning cup of coffee or the sweetness of desserts and don’t let anyone persuade you that such bodily discipline is simplistic or passé. And, while you’re at it, repent of your sins, too.
*Image: The Fast-Day Meal (Le menu de maigre) by Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, 1731 [Musée du Louvre, Paris]