Lent in the Fast Lane

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Yesterday was Mardi Gras—that last hurrah before Lent. Traditionally Catholics are called to three practices during Lent: alms giving, prayer and fasting. The first two are generally satisfying to most people. The third not so much.

The tradition of the Lenten fast as we know it likely didn’t develop until the 4th century; there was a divergence of opinion on the nature and duration of the pre-Easter fast (as well as the very date of Easter itself) among authorities in the early Church. One locality might require fasting for all 40 days, another might call for a fast throughout the season of Lent but not on every day. Some required fasting only during Holy Week (the week before Easter), another only during Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. The number 40 could refer to either the 40 days Moses led the Hebrews in the desert, the 40 days Christ fasted in the desert, or even the tradition that Jesus spent 40 hours in the tomb.

As for the fast itself, some in the early Church abstained from all meat, others were allowed to eat fish, others wouldn’t eat eggs or certain nuts, some ate just bread the whole time.

But back to us. One of the first pitfalls you encounter when fasting is falling into a morass of legalism. To satisfy the minimum requirements of the Church, Catholics fast on Ash Wednesday (that is, today) and Good Friday, and do not eat meat on Fridays during Lent. Sundays, being the day of the Resurrection, are always feast days, no matter what part of the liturgical year. Go crazy.

The Lenten fast consists of one full meal during the day, preferably at noon (no fair breaking it into two small meals with a long break), with the allowance of a collation (small meal) in the evening. The idea of the collation began sometime in the 9th century as a way to give sustenance to those who performed physical labor during the day. Unless filling the office printer twice in one day is manual labor, I’m not sure how most of us get away with that one. Oh, you’re also allowed to have coffee or another drink in the morning and perhaps a little bit of bread or a cracker to get you going. This is beginning to sound a little less like a fast, isn’t it? It reminds me of the scene from Seinfeld where a fasting Elaine asks Jerry if he has ever had to fast. “No, but once I didn’t have dinner until, like, nine o’clock. That was pretty tough.”

For those inclined to know exactly just what is and is not permitted, right down to the crumb, the Church has made it fairly easy. But there really isn’t a one-size-fits all when it comes to Lenten fasting. After all, vegetarians who subsist on a couple of salads a day could get by well within the letter of the law without breaking stride. And if you’re a one-meal-a-day person anyway, Lent can seem like a breeze—maybe even an indulgence.

Basically, good fasting consists of walking a line between health-endangering practices on one side and mere form on the other. Perhaps the best rule is this: If you feel as if you are cheating, you probably are.

Another pitfall of fasting is to avoid the mortal sin of gluttony. At first you might think this would be easy. It doesn’t sound logical to be concerned with too much if you’re eating much less, but this is because of a misconception of what gluttony is. The Church defines it not as eating too much, but as having an inordinate preoccupation with food, and nothing causes us to think of food more than trying to avoid it. Suddenly every commercial is food-related, every meeting in the office has a box of donuts brought in by the devil. Our hearing becomes incredibly acute—we never noticed before just how many times the office microwave beeps during the average work day.

A third pitfall, and perhaps the most insidious, is the insistence of certain green-uniformed groups on selling cookies outside of Mass. Here we are torn between our command to charity, and our command to fasting. Fortunately the confessional is not far away.

As Lent approaches, I’ve become “Super Catholic." Those of us who are “reverts” (lapsed Catholics who have come back to the fold with the zeal of a convert) typically make things difficult for ourselves, probably to make up for our misspent youth. Also our misspent pocket change—I’m the type who can hit the candy machine at work three or four times a day. This year I’m taking a page from the early Church. Fasting all 40 days, no meat on Fridays. I imagine I’ll be finishing up about the time that the first steaks of summer are hitting the grills in the back yards all around my neighborhood. That’s probably like running by a mattress store on the last mile of a marathon.

—By Erik Washam, Smithsonian magazine's associate art director

Ed: For more on religious fasts and feasts, see past posts on Sukkot, Ramadan and Eid ul-Fitr.

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