Why Not Eat?

gluttonyOne of the pillars of Lenten penance, and of traditional Christian living, is fasting. We “give up” various things for Lent, but traditionally, the focus is on not eating. For almost the entirety of the Catholic tradition, you only got one real meal a day through the whole of Lent. (And although it wasn’t formally included in the 1917 Code of Canon Law, there was an older tradition of giving up another pleasure of the flesh for Lent, too.)

There’s wisdom in this practice.


Thomas Aquinas defines four central virtues of human life. There’s prudence (picking the smartest means to reach our ends), justice (giving people what they deserve from us), fortitude (doing what’s difficult), and temperance (giving up what feels good when it isn’t appropriate).

As the modern practices of “giving things up” for Lent makes clear, there are a lot of forms of temperance. Not getting distracted from your work is a kind of temperance. So is being simple. Humility, not getting angry, and gentleness are all forms of temperance.

And yet, being bodily creatures, there is a more basic kind of temperance: temperance from the pleasures of the flesh. On a biological level, the most basic temperance is about food, drink, and sex. Nowhere is temperance more vivid, more basic, more direct than in these fleshy passions. Nowhere is it more obvious that our desire for pleasure is out of control.

It must be said: temperance is the lowest of the four virtues. But fasting also requires a lot of prudence (both in picking how much to eat and in using fasting as a means to greater ends) and fortitude (because it’s tough). Justice is much higher than temperance – but the other three virtues all help us to be just. It’s hard to treat other people right when you have no self-control.


I often teach John Cassian’s Institutes, a classic piece of Egyptian-desert monastic wisdom from the early Church. Most of the Institutes is organized around what would later be called the seven cardinal sins, along with the deepest sin, pride. (Cassian’s seven are gluttony, lust, greed, wrath, self-pity, sloth, and vainglory. The later tradition would refine self-pity into envy, which is unhappiness focused on other people’s excellence.)

One of the many things I love about Cassian is the way he starts with gluttony. Gluttony is far and away the least of these sins. It is not connected to any Commandment, it doesn’t involve any grave disorder.

In fact, what makes gluttony interesting is precisely its naturalness. Of course, it’s not natural to eat too much. (Cassian adds pickiness and snacking to his description of gluttony.) And yet the desire for food is a healthy, normal desire.

You have to eat or you will die. All the other kinds of sins you can completely give up. But gluttony requires prudence. In fact, the greatest sin connected to gluttony would be hurting yourself by fighting too hard. Cassian has a lot of extreme things to say about fasting (he was an Egyptian monk) – but his closing word is “fast as if you were going to live a hundred years.” That is, fast in a healthy way.

It would be healthy to eat a lot less than we do. Many of us (especially fat Americans) would probably be healthier after forty days of one meal. Doctors even say that the biggest thing you can do to live longer is just eat less.

Fasting is not about killing yourself. It’s about learning to be prudent, learning that you don’t need nearly as much as you think you do.


After Vatican II, the rules on fasting were mitigated. Previously, fasting had been defined as one meal a day (with an allowance for two snacks); now–at least in Canon Law–there is no rule. Previously, there were three short seasons of fasting, the Wednesday-Friday-Saturday of Summer, Fall, and Winter Ember days, in addition to Lent; now they are gone. Previously, every day of Lent (except one Solemnity) was a fast day; now only Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are. The fasting rules are much easier.

This is part of a greater pattern after the Council, including, for example, the modification of many liturgical prayers. There had been a genuine heresy running through the Church, Jansenism, which saw nature itself as evil. After the Council – for good reason! – things were revised to focus on love instead of on evil. We can only understand evil when we understand love. We are in a remedial time, when the Church tries to focus on the most essential of all, and rediscover the goodness of God. There was good reason for taking the emphasis off of self-denial.

But that doesn’t mean we should forget fasting. Precisely because eating is necessary, fasting is a good way to rediscover the difference between saying food is evil and simply saying we don’t need so much. It’s a good reminder that love goes beyond the law.

What have you learned from fasting?

Should we fast on Sundays during Lent?

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

I recently saw a post in which someone argued that we should fast even on Sundays during Lent. I think he was incorrect.

His argument was that you don’t hear about people breaking the fast on Sundays until recently. It seems like Lent used to be really hard on every day.

The source to go to on things like this is the Code of Canon Law. Now, St. John XXIII called for a revision of the Code of Canon Law at the same time that he called the Second Vatican Council (and, incidentally, a diocesan synod for Rome). He thought – and I don’t see how one could seriously disagree – that times had changed sufficiently to need some adjustment of Catholic practices. We don’t live in the Middle Ages anymore, in so many ways. (Apart from medicine, I wouldn’t mind going back to the way the Church was then – but that’s irrelevant: that’s not the world we live in.)

The revision he called for gave birth to the 1983 Code of Canon Law, promulgated by St. John Paul II. It’s a great document, easily found online, where you can see what the Church really asks us to do in our time. For example, Book IV is on the Sanctifying Office of the Church; part three of that book is on Sacred Places and Times; Title II is on Sacred Times; and Chapter II is on Days of Penance.

There you can read:

Canon 1249 The divine law binds all the Christian faithful to do penance each in his or her own way. In order for all to be united among themselves by some common observance of penance, however, penitential days are prescribed on which the Christian faithful devote themselves in a special way to prayer, perform works of piety and charity, and deny themselves by fulfilling their own obligations more faithfully and especially by observing fast and abstinence, according to the norm of the following canons.

That is, that we do penance is a matter of natural (or divine) law. But then the Church sets aside some ways that we do communal penance, to draw us together. (In fact, Vatican II specifically asked for more communal penance – sadly overlooked. Strangely, the new Code drops the Ember Days, which were precisely communal days of penance.)

Canon 1250 tells us that every Friday is a day of penance, as is Lent. Canon 1251 says, “Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday.” That’s helpful. It tells us (a) we are supposed to use some sort of abstinence from food as a penance on every Friday; (b) this is contradicted only if there is a solemnity – the highest kind of feast, but not just any kind; (c) meat isn’t necessarily the way to do it.

I tell my students, once upon a time, telling people who lived by the shore that they had to eat lobster was like telling them they had to eat bugs. It was nothing fancy; it was penance. But that’s not how it works in the United States today. For many of us, fish on Friday is more like a feast; maybe better to eat vegetarian, a long monastic tradition.

Canon 1252 tells us, by the way, that abstinence from meat (or whatever) is for those ages 14 and up; fasting is for adults (perhaps 18) until 59. Good to know!

Nothing here about Sundays, of course, because now only Fridays are penitential.


But the 1983 Code is a revision of something previous, and harder to access. In 1917 a previous effort was made to codify the law for the modern world. It is called the Pio-Benedictine Code, because it came out under Benedict XV, but its main instigator was St. Pius X, himself a reformer. It’s in Latin, and not as easily available online. I forgive the blogger who failed to check it!

There we learn, in its canon 1250, that abstinence from meat did not mean you couldn’t eat eggs, dairy, and condiments made with fat. Good to know! (That’s not how the Orthodox do it.)

In 1252.3, we find that every day of Lent was a fast day. But in 1252.4, we learn that on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation, there is no fasting or abstinence from meat. That’s the Old Code, the hallowed way of the ‘50s: no fasting on Sundays!

Then comes the really exciting part: the 1917 Code has footnotes to the older laws. There was not a Code before 1917. There were lots and lots of rulings. The main ones had been gathered, in the twelfth century, by Gratian, into a book called Gratian’s Decrees. But then alongside that were tons of more recent statements. The 1917 Code tells you about these things.

Gratian is, of course, also in Latin, but a very nice edition is available online. There we learn that in the twelfth century “the fast is not to be lifted in Lent except on Sundays.” Even then. (Gratian also tells us, by the way, that Gregory the Great, in the sixth century, specifically exempted Sundays in Lent too. And he says we distinguish ourselves from some heretics who did fast on Sundays.)

According to the 1917 Code, there was no other legislation on the matter beween Gratian in the twelfth century and Pius X in the twentieth. So be at peace! Enjoy your Sundays!

How do you celebrate Sundays in Lent?

Lenten Practices: Fasting

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

Obviously fasting is key to Lent. Before Vatican II, every day of Lent (except Sundays and Solemnities – maybe this is why we have St. Patrick and St. Joseph in March!) was a fast day, and the fast was pretty rigorous: typically two to four ounces for breakfast, eight ounces for lunch, one real meal, and meat only at that meal.

Since Vatican II the Church has tended toward less universal solutions, recognizing the differences between cultures and the place for prudent decisions according to particular situations. For example, lobster on Fridays might match the old rules for abstinence, but not make much sense as penitence in our culture. Similarly, some people might do better giving up television rather than breakfast. And the Church has always recognized that fasting is not practical for every situation, for example when you are sick or have hard work to do.

But Vatican II did not abolish fasting; in fact, it called for more public, communal acts of penitence during Lent, and for a deeper appreciation of “the virtue of penance which leads to the detestation of sin as an offence against God” (Sacrosanctum Concilium 109-110). And though there is much room for prudence, there is also much to learn from the tradition’s insistence on fasting from food. Both Thomas Aquinas (a beefy guy doing very hard intellectual work) and, more recently, the great mid-century German Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper, insist that not only can we handle fasting, but it’s actually good for our minds and our work ethic.


That last point is perhaps the key. Fasting is not meant to be unhealthy, it is meant to be healthy. According to a doctor friend of mine, secular studies show that the single greatest thing you can do to increase your lifespan is to eat less. And of course our culture heartily agrees with the Church that eating too much is not good for you.

The Church has always condemned fasting that does damage to your body. The point is, reasonable fasting does not damage your body.

We can think about this in terms of various virtues, and our lack of them. The first one is the virtue of prudence. Prudence just means being smart, making wise decisions. Fasting is an exercise in prudence. According to the great fifth-century monastic founder John Cassian, part of what makes food such an interesting place for spiritual growth is precisely that there is no external measure, because every body is different.

No one can tell you how much fasting is healthy for you, how much or how little you can stay healthy on. Fasting is a practice of prudence, of just being awake enough to figure it out.


Fasting is a reminder, too, that we generally are not very prudent. Fasting reminds us that much of what we think we need is not needed. One of the functions of Lent is to remind us that we have a lot of growing to do. Our relationship with food is unhealthy – not because food is sinful, but because we are! – and our prudence is often falsified.

The deeper problem, of course, is the virtue of temperance. We always want more. Again, there’s nothing wrong with food. Food is not a sin. But there is something disordered when we want more food than is good for us, and insist on more than we really need. Fasting is a reminder of how little we really need.

Of course it’s not meant to say we should never enjoy ourselves. Lent is only forty days of the year, and the celebratory season of Easter is ten days longer. But again, this should make us all the more suspicious of ourselves. Really? Am I so addicted to food that I can’t live on the healthy minimum for just a month and a half (with interruptions!) of the year?


Finally, fasting is about relationships. It is, first, about solidarity. An awful lot of people don’t have the luxury to play fasting for a couple weeks out of the year. Much of the world, and much of history, is full of hungry people. Could you not watch one hour with them? Can we not, occasionally, and without actually hurting ourselves, enter into the experience of our brothers and sisters who are genuinely hungry? Fasting is connected to the more important practice of almsgiving.

And fasting is also about our relationship with God. God is our Creator, our Father, who commands us to ask for daily bread. He doesn’t want us to starve. But honestly, do I love the Giver more, or the Gift? Can I not spend a few days a year reminding myself that God is more precious to me than bacon and eggs? Fasting is connected, too, to the more important practice of prayer.


What is it like for you to be hungry? What do you learn about yourself?

Lenten Practices: Prayer

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

Lent is supposed to be marked by extra prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Over the next few weeks we will consider each of these in turn.

First, some preliminary points. Prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are the topics of the central section of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6:1-18), with the Our Father at the very center. The Sermon is really fabulous, with a few different points each laid out such that they can be pointed to as the very essence.

For example, the Sermon on the Mount begins with the Beatitudes. It is not hard to say that the Beatitudes really are the entirety of Christian teaching, in a nutshell. But then the very center of the Sermon on the Mount is the Our Father, and as we have been arguing on Mondays, the Our Father as a whole, and in fact any one line of it, can also be taken as the very essence of Christianity. All these wonderfully dense, rich lines, ripe for memorization and meditation.

So too the sections on almsgiving, prayer, and fasting can be seen as the heart of the Gospel: to love our neighbor in his need (almsgiving), and God in his richness (prayer), more than we love material comfort (fasting). Or, again, the refrain of this section of the Sermon is “Your Father who sees in secret.” Each of these practices takes us to the heart of our spiritual relationship with God. Each of them cuts us to the heart. To understand what they have to do with the heart, the “secret place,” and with knowing God as Father is, in a sense, to know everything there is to know about Christianity.


A second point. Sometimes we phrase Lent as a preparation for Good Friday, as somehow getting us ready to appreciate what Jesus did for us. That’s okay. But we might actually put it the other way around.

Lent is a time when we dig more deeply into the very central practices of our faith, the very heart of the Sermon on the Mount: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. In a sense, Good Friday and Easter are unnecessary for explaining this. We are simply working harder to be Christians, digging deeper into our faith. Perhaps it is helpful in this context to remember that Lent is not just fasting: it’s about the whole package, Christianity in its essence. Prayer, fasting, almsgiving.

Easter aside, it makes good sense to have some “retreat” times, when we work harder at the essentials, so that they can flow into the rest of our life when we come home from retreat. And to really enter into prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, we need more than a couple days. We get a deeper taste by having a long time. Jesus, in fact, made his own retreat of forty days.

We could see the relationship between Good Friday and Lent not in terms of Lent preparing us for Good Friday, but of Good Friday crowning our Lent. After our forty days of struggle, after our often failed efforts to be better Christians, we look to Christ, and say, thank God, on the Cross he lived perfect prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

He infuses our very meager efforts with the fullness of his Sacred Heart. The Cross reaches out into our Lent, so that we make our efforts, not alone, but in communion with him who really was a man of the Beatitudes, who really was Son of the Father, who really prayed, and fasted, and gave to the needy. We receive alms from him, in all our Lenten efforts.


How then should we think of prayer, as the first pillar of Lent? There is an interesting irony in prayer. Prayer is time of communion with God, of reaching out to him, letting him be our sufficiency, making him the good we seek. The irony is that this is what our whole life should be. It is not entirely wrong if someone says they see no reason for prayer, because their whole life is prayer.

But it is wrong to say that because, in fact, our whole life isn’t prayer – not yet, anyway. We need explicit times of prayer to train ourselves for a life of prayer. In one sense, the Eucharist is the perfect prayer, and everything else is insufficient in comparsion. But we learn to enter into the Eucharist by taking other times of prayer in our life, by practicing what it means to love God through explicit times of prayer. Indeed, even the Eucharist is that in relation to the rest of our life: a time of explicit prayer so we can train ourselves to live prayer in every moment of our life.

That, really, is the heart of Lent: a time of practice, so that when we return to ordinary life, we can live its richness more deeply.


How are you practicing for ordinary life this Lent? How do you practice for life in your times of prayer?

Gluttony and Fear of the Lord

gluttonyI have been thinking about gluttony: the holidays have that effect on me. So much good food. So much ill health. So much cause for celebration, but so many questions about celebrating well. It would be good if I could lose some weight in the new year, also so that I could be a better father: more energetic, stronger for the things my family needs me to be stronger for. Even more, I’d like to be holier in the new year.

My wife brought up recently that we can use fasting to celebrate, too. Traditionally the day before big feasts was a fast. It wouldn’t kill us to fast now and then – in fact, it might make us healthier. And it would be nice if we had some way to mark solemnities other than adding to our girth.


The first thing to say about our relationship with food, of course, is that it’s not that big of a deal. It’s the least big deal of all the vices: unlike pride, envy, wrath, sloth, lust, and even greed, a disordered relationship with food doesn’t directly hurt other people.

The second thing is that there are serious issues of health involved. Our culture is pretty screwed up in its pursuit of a svelt body: but the truth is, I’m overweight, and it isn’t good for me, on any level.

But the third thing is that spiritual things matter more than the size of my belly. The real question is not about diet, but about gluttony: disordered desires, that affect my love of God and neighbor, continue to read more, what follows can save your life.


Maybe a helpful way to approach the question is in terms of fear of the Lord. Yes, “perfect love casts out all fear” (1 John 4:18). But on the other hand, fear of the Lord is a near-constant theme in Scripture, including in the New Testament and even the words of Jesus: “fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; rather fear him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28). Jesus goes on immediately after that to say, “fear not therefore, you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matt. 10:31). The first thing to say about fear and the spiritual life, then, must be that there are many kinds of fear: good and bad; fear of God, fear of other things; different kind, even, of fear of God.

Augustine worked out some important ideas about fear of the Lord in his commentary on that line we just saw from First John, and the tradition has really run with those ideas as very useful. In short, he says we can fear that God will get in the way of our delight, by preventing us from having fun; this is a spiritually destructive kind of fear. But we can also fear God’s punishment: and just as God’s punishment is there to help us move toward God, so too fear of that punishment can help us grow in the spiritual life. Fear of punishment is a spiritually productive thing.

But not a perfect thing. The highest, best kind of fear, says Augustine, is the fear of wounding our relationship: the delicacy of lovers, or of child and parent. I would never want to do anything to hurt the ones I love, and that makes for an entirely different kind of fear, fear that is not cast out but increased by love.


This is a helpful way to think about gluttony. On the one hand, yes, it’s true, God doesn’t “care” if I have another Christmas cookie: anyway, there’s no law against this cookie. On the other hand, I want to grow ever more sensitive, ever more delicate about my relationship with God. I want to think about him more, not less. It is not good for our spiritual life – indeed, it is one of the worst things of all – to spend life naming what God doesn’t care about, what doesn’t matter. The Psalms often repeat, “the wicked . . . has said in his heart, God has forgotten; God hides his face; God will never see it” (e.g. Ps. 11:11).

The struggle with gluttony is not about absolute right and wrong. It is about spiritual sensitivity, fear of the Lord, trying to live ever more in the presence of God. We should never think, “God hates this cookie.” But we should fight strenuously against the thought, “God doesn’t care.” God does care: he cares about our relationship. Let us use the struggle with gluttony to struggle to do what is best: what celebrates best, what best serves the people around us, what can best unite us to God, what can best serve our long-term interests. And never say God doesn’t care.


Do you find yourself approaching food with an attitude of mediocrity: it doesn’t matter, God doesn’t care? How could you grow in your relationship with God through food?

Ember Days

This Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, the Church (in theory) celebrates the Fall Ember Days. Their official name in Latin is Quatuor Tempora, the four annual times of fast and abstinence.

Ember Days are a very old tradition. I recently listened to Pope Leo the Great’s sermons on the Fall fast; by his time (440-461), he believed it was something that began with the apostles, though we do not know. (Leo’s sermons, by the way, are available for free download at Librivox; they are easy to follow and full of spiritual riches.) The Ember Days were fast days set against the ancient Roman harvest ceremonies, one of many examples of taking a pagan practice and finding a way to turn it to Christ.

They take place on the Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday after the Triumph of the Cross (Sept. 14), St. Lucy (December 13), Ash Wednesday, and Pentecost, thus linking them both to the turning of the seasons and to the bigger liturgical calendar.

The Triumph of the Cross, echoing the Jewish high holy days, sees an image of the Cross in the end of summer and approach of winter – and also in the harvest. The feast of the third-century virgin martyr St. Lucy – whose name means light; who saw with the light of faith, so that she would consecrate her virginity to God, give all her possessions to the poor, and be willing to die for Christ; and who had her physical eyes gouged out as a punishment for her faith – is a fine introduction to the darkness of winter and the Christian’s way of seeing through it to the light of Christ. Lent is a way of sowing our own spiritual harvest and finding rebirth in total consecration to Christ. And Pentecost symbolizes the true bounty of summer.

At each of these times, the Church pauses to fast. It is a nice little spiritual discipline, an opportunity to consecrate the coming season to Christ, to ask his blessings, and to sprinkle fasting throughout the year. As is so often the case in the traditions of the Church, it is prudently measured: three fast days, with a break on Thursday, is hard, but not too hard; four times a year is enough to make fasting part of life, but not too much.

Though we are not farmers, my family finds that there really are distinct seasons in life. “Ember” is from an Old English word for “cycle”: it is nice to mark the turning of the seasons with a quiet time of fasting.


In the liturgical reform after Vatican II, local churches were given the option of rethinking how exactly Ember Days would be celebrated. This flexibility makes good sense. For example, the post-Vatican II 1983 Code of Canon Law, says, “Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday” (can. 1251).

In different places, different things make sense. In the United States, having lobster on Friday, for example, is not a very good way of making Friday a penitential day – whereas in places where meat is rarely part of the diet anyway, perhaps a different form of abstinence would make better sense. We are still called to give something up every Friday, but different places might want to celebrate that penance in different ways.

In the case of Ember Days, the post-Vatican II norms (the Normae Universales de anno liturgico et de calendario) state, “In order to adapt the rogation and ember days to various regions and the different needs of the people, the conferences of bishops should arrange the time and plan of their celebration. Consequently, the competent authority should lay down norms, in view of local conditions, on extending such celebrations over one or several days and on repeating them during the year. On each day of these celebrations the Mass should be one of the votive Masses for various needs and occasions that is best suited to the intentions of the petitioners.”

In other words, Vatican II did not abolish Ember Days. It just gave national bishops’ conferences the option to think through how best to celebrate them in each country. Unfortunately, as has too often happened, the bishops decided to do absolutely nothing, and so most Catholics are ignorant of this wonderful tradition – and norm of the post-Vatican II liturgy.

But there is no reason we cannot embrace these traditions ourselves, and make them the nourishment of our own spiritual lives and rebirth of a Catholic culture.