Fasting and feasting
Fasting and feasting: which is more appealing, and which is the more difficult to do? My instinctive answer is to say that fasting is arduous and uncomfortable, while feasting is fun and indulgent, so I would prefer to do the latter.
First, let’s establish our terms: what is fasting? It is the denial of one good in order to attain another good. According to canon law, fasting is the taking of only one full meal and two smaller meals which do not equal the full meal, with no eating between meals. We fast to mortify the flesh – to discipline the body in order to focus on the spiritual. We also fast out of obedience because it has been asked of us. [Religious] fasting is not a device to help us finally follow through on our New Year’s resolutions – though that may be a happy side effect!
We know that Lent is the big ‘season of fasting’, but Catholics used to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays during ordinary time as well – Wednesday being the day Jesus was betrayed, and Friday the day He died. There were also several prescribed days of fast in addition to the season of Lent, such as on the vigils of high feast days. Some religious orders still observe some form of fasting from Advent to Easter. Sigrid Undset’s trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter vividly brings to life what old (14th Century) Catholicism was like with strict fasts, a full allotment of daily Masses and communal prayer, and penances that cost the penitent some effort to fulfill, such as a walking pilgrimage. This may sound grim and harsh, but Undset also clearly shows that the people sincerely desired holiness and were very happy in their faith (she just as clearly shows that holiness is not an easy accomplishment, and that good people, fallen into sin, can seek and accept redemption.)
Our current practice of fasting is very relaxed from what it used to be, and the thought of forgoing meat or chocolate for a time can seem unnecessarily harsh. How ironic – not to mention illogical – that people will voluntarily and happily discipline their consumption for health reasons, whether to diet, or purge and cleanse, or as part of an athletic training regimen.
People flinch at the idea of fasting, but it really is feasting that is difficult to sustain. This was brought home during our last Christmas season, when around day eight of Christmas I was beginning to be tired of fireworks, rich cakes, and silver bells, and longed for a return to the usual and ordinary. Twelve days is a very long time through which to sustain a feast in attitude, spirit, and stomach! Clearly feasting, like gratitude, and joyfulness, is a state that requires effort and must be practiced. That leads me to think this life is really preparing us to endure and maintain the eternal joy and celebration of heaven. We’ve got to do the work now in order to be able to sustain it then.
Perhaps feasting isn’t the easy option after all. Thank goodness it’s Lent!