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?

Dust and Ashes?

AshesMed2P1210554Today let us pause for a pastoral moment.

I want to ask a question about our proclamation about the Gospel.  But before I ask it, I want to underline that I think this is a real question.  (If I believed all the answers were obvious, I wouldn’t be maintaining this website – or my career as a seminary professor!)  I propose the following as a question to think about, not as a facile answer that everyone obviously ought to follow.


Supposedly there was a study several years back that asked American Catholics what their favorite sacrament was.  The most popular answer was, “Ash Wednesday.”

Today’s question is: what does that mean for evangelization?

Now, obviously this is something to laugh (or cry) about, since Ash Wednesday is not a sacrament, not even a day of obligation.  Obviously American Catholics are in need of serious catechesis, first, to know what the word “sacrament” even means, and second, to know that in the sacrament we encounter Christ in a unique way.  Every sacrament – especially the most blessed sacrament – contains Christ, the creator and redeemer of the world, really present to work the Gospel in our hearts, in a way that Ash Wednesday simply does not.  To say Ash Wednesday is your favorite sacrament is, on one level, to show that you have never discovered Christ.

Fine.  Point made. Ash  Wednesday should not be your favorite sacrament.


But as I received the ashes this year, in a church packed beyond the limits of the fire code, from a priest with a perpetual the-Church-is-such-a-pleasant-place dumb grin on his face, stretched even wider as he imposed the ashes, as if to say, “don’t worry! we’re happy!” I had this question about evangelization.

Every day of the year that priest grins welcomingly.  Give him the benefit of the doubt: his jokes, his pleasantness, his smile, these are all done in sincere hope that people will come back.

But they don’t.  The grins don’t bring people to church.  What brings them to church, in droves?  “Turn away from sin!”  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return!”

That’s very strange, isn’t it?  They say you attract more flies with honey than with vinegar.  But gosh, it seems like the only time the Church is truly popular is when she tells people they are sinners who are going to die.


One aspect of the popularity of Ash Wednesday is surely the sheer physicality of it – one could even say, “sacramentality”: a rich but sometimes confusing word.  Ash Wednesday lets people do stuff.  (Or at least experience stuff being done.)

Anecdotally, the main place I’ve experienced young non-Catholics asking to come to church is to light candles, to be in the gloom, to kneel in front of statues.  Very strange!  You’d think – at least, many people seem to think – that in our modern age, that stuff would be repellent.  But surely part of the popularity of Ash Wednesday is the sheer mixture of physicality and spirituality: smoke, candles, statues, kneelers, ashes!

Let me say that I think this can all be very superstitious: not necessarily a good thing.  Nonetheless, it’s strange how powerful an attraction it exerts on our contemporaries.  Maybe the tradition had a better knack for evangelization than we realize.


But at Ash Wednesday, the focus is not on candles – candles never draw people the way Ash Wednesday does.  Candles, in fact, are a lot more upbeat than Ash Wednesday.  (Aren’t they?)

Soot on your forehead.  “Repent!”  “To dust you will return!”  That’s what distinguishes Ash Wednesday – and what draws the crowds.

One of my favorite saints is Vincent Ferrer, a Dominican itinerant preacher in the fifteenth century.  This was his strategy: he went from town to town basically preaching Ash Wednesday.  With anything in history, it’s hard to know how exaggerated the numbers are – did he really draw tens of thousands to hear him tell them to fear hell? – but anyway, it’s historically undeniable that the guy was spectacularly popular.  And really . . . negative.  He preached the Gospel, to be sure.  But always a Gospel tied up with repentance and death and ashes.

Times change.  Vincent Ferrer’s time was miserable: full of war and plague and famine.  Miserable people, maybe, are more attracted to this message than are fat rich Americans.  That’s a good point: there’s plenty of room for asking what speaks to people in our time.


But the strange thing is, even today, what draws the crowds is Ash Wednesday.  Maybe, as in the time of Vincent Ferrer, instead of compelling people to go to Mass and receive communion – surely not the wisest part of our Ash Wednesday ministry – we should set up free-standing Ash Wednesday apostolates, with preaching about death and sin and repentance and opportunities to take on physical penances.  (The second most popular part of Catholicism?  Lenten penance!)

Or maybe not.

So I conclude with a serious question, a question to which I don’t know the answer:

What does the popularity of Ash Wednesday mean for your work of evangelization? 

Lent and Our Baptism

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

King David Doing Penance, Albrecht Durer

We now begin the great season of Lent. So what are we doing? Before we decide what we are doing concretely, it would be good to know what the theological point is.

Historically, Lent developed like this: first, there was Easter, the annual solemn commemoration of Christ’s Death and Resurrection.

Then there was a question of when to baptize converts. The theology of Baptism is about Easter:

“We are buried with him by baptism into death: that just as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of his death, we shall be also in the likeness of his resurrection” (Rom 6:4-5).

Baptism is a death to our old way of life – a death united to the death of Christ, and therefore a rising to new life, relying not on our own strength, but on the strength of God, which brings physical resurrection as a symbol of spiritual resurrection: new life, moral reform, and above all new spiritual life, to call God Father and live as if we believe it. Baptism is the beginning of this new life.

So it made sense to celebrate Baptisms at Easter.


But how to do this right? Easter itself should be fully celebrated, treated as the awesome event it is. But we completely misunderstand Christ if we do not see the way that he transforms our entire life. His death and resurrection does something to us. Baptism, by which we are plunged into Easter, does something. It does not leave us the same.

Baptism is about conversion, newness of life. Baptism – like all the sacraments – is about Christ transforming us, changing us, filling us with the power of his Spirit.

So part of solemnizing Baptism (and Easter), part of proclaiming what it really means, is to enter more deeply into the life of conversion.


Lent is originally a pre-Baptism retreat. There are three key aspects of that retreat.

The first is prayer. Above all, Baptism is about being united to the Father, falling in love with the Father, discovering our happiness in the Father, as Christ is supremely happy in union with the Father. Baptism without prayer – joyful, adoring prayer – is meaningless. So it makes sense to prepare for Baptism by spending time in prayer.

But union with Christ, and the Father, and the Holy Spirit also unites us to all others who are united to them (the Church, in the deepest sense) and all who are called to that union (all of humanity). And so a second pillar of the pre-Baptism retreat is almsgiving: the joyful embrace of our neighbor, in all his need. Almsgiving is a nice approach: it’s not that we seek our happiness in our neighbor – we seek our happiness in the Father! – and so we focus on our neighbor’s needs, embracing him in mercy and charity.

Finally – and, really, third, though also important – we dig into this truth that nothing but God can truly make us happy. That’s the true meaning of fasting: to take a step away from the other things that we use as replacements of God. Fasting from food is a brilliant approach: because we do need to eat, so we can’t treat food as an evil. Instead, we can change it from being our end to being only a means, eating enough to keep ourselves going, but not seeking our happiness in food, and even accepting a little pain in our bellies.

Prayer, almsgiving, and fasting: experiences of what Baptismal conversion really means.

And of course, we all need to rediscover our Baptism, so the last step in the development of Lent was the rest of the Church joining the Catechumens in this Lenten practice, rediscovering our own conversion.


Interesting that it comes before Easter, before Baptism.

First, it must be said that grace is at work in us even before Baptism: it is the Holy Spirit who draws us to the font. We don’t magically begin our Christian life after we receive the sacraments. The “magic” is that Christ works in us to draw us to himself in the first place.

Second, we do receive grace in a new way in the sacraments. Part of the pre-Baptismal Lenten retreat is the experience of longing: longing to be better at fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. Yes, part of Lent is the experience that we’re not very good at this. Even for us who have been baptized, part of Lent is begging Christ to continue to transform us, begging for that baptismal grace to permeate us more deeply.

Third, our Lenten penance gives way before Easter joy. In the end, the Gospel is good news; ultimately the Christian is full of joy, not penance. Heaven won’t exactly be full of chocolate, but all our longings will be satisfied: the fast ends with a feast.

How can you think about your Baptism this 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?

Ash Wednesday: Already, Not Yet


The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

The Agony in the Garden, Sandro Botticelli

JL 2:12-18; PS 51:3-4, 5-6AB, 12-13, 14 AND 17; 2 COR 5:20-6:2; MT 6:1-6, 16-18

What is Lenten penance all about? The readings from Mass today help us understand.

The first reading, from the prophet Joel, sets the tone. “Even now,” says the LORD, “return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning.” We tend to focus on the fasting, but let’s pause to think about the “weeping and mourning.”

Weeping for our sins is an interesting place. We mourn for a good that we love but don’t possess, or for something we had but lost. On the one hand, if everything were fine, we would have nothing to be sad about. On the other hand, we wouldn’t be sad about sin unless we did in fact love God.

We live in what they call the “already, not yet.” We already love God. We do, or we wouldn’t be here: wouldn’t be at Mass, wouldn’t be listening to his Word, wouldn’t be entering into the fast of Lent. But we also recognize that we don’t “yet” love God as much as we should – don’t love the people around us as much as we should.

It’s parallel to the situation I imagine all of us parents experience. I love my children enough to wish I loved them a whole lot better. Like Jack Nicholson in “As Good As It Gets,” I say, “you make me want to be a better man.” (The title of the film is ironic: I am not as good as it gets. I wish I were. He wishes he were.)

The heart of Lent is not fasting or hurting ourselves. The heart of Lent is “weeping and mourning.” Weeping and mourning because we love enough to wish we loved more. That’s why we fast: because we love enough to want to be better.


Joel gives us another really interesting angle: “Blow the trumpet in Zion! Proclaim a fast, call an assembly.” Doesn’t that sound festive? Lent is festive. Ironically, Ash Wednesday, along with Lenten self-denial, is one of Catholicism’s most beloved customs.

Lent should be festive. It’s exciting to try to do better, just like New Year’s resolutions are exciting, and fun – even though what any resolution essentially says is that I have not been as good as I should be. Lent is a happy season, because penance is a happy thing. And penance is a happy thing because it is about love. It is about loving enough to try to love better.


The short reading from Second Corinthians simply tells us that Jesus is with us. He “appeals to” us, “implores” us. We hear that imploring because we do love him, we do listen to his voice. But he needs to call to us because we still don’t hear his voice enough.

He appeals to us “not to receive the grace of God in vain.” That is, we have received God’s grace. His love is in us. Stir it up into flame!

This reading, too, contains the bizarre words, some of the most bizarre in the New Testament, “he made him to be sin who did not know sin.” Christ did not sin, but he suffered the penalty of sin, he did penance for sin: he died on the Cross for sin.

Here’s another way to put it: Jesus himself has come to the festive assembly of Lent. He joins us in our efforts to be better. We pick up the cross of penance, we set off to be better – and beside us is Jesus himself. He didn’t die on the Cross to impose on us a new burden, or to make us feel bad. He died on the Cross because we still have a lot of work to do in our spiritual lives, and he wanted to be with us, to help us carry our crosses.


Finally, in the Gospel, from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explains the fundamental dynamic of penance: “they have received their reward . . . . And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.”

The question, always, is what do we live for? Do we long for applause, for human respect? Do we want to eat lots of ice cream and watch television? Fine, God will let us have that . . . though he made us too wonderful ever to be satisfied with those “rewards.”

Or do we long to know the Father: “show us the Father and we shall be satisfied.” If we seek him, he will give us what we seek.

This Lent, let us set out to know him better, to let love – of God and of neighbor – be all in all in our lives. That’s what fasting is really all about: focus.


How do you experience already loving God, but not yet fully? How does penance help you in that place?

Confession: The Repentant Life

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, Rogier van der Weyden

Seven Sacraments Altarpiece, Rogier van der Weyden

This week we consider the sacrament of Confession as a model for the Christian life.

As we walk through the sacrament, we will find several models for the Christian life.

First comes our examination of conscience. The point of examining our conscience is not to figure out how much God hates us, but to find ways in which we have failed to love God and our neighbor. The distinction between mortal and venial sin matters – but let us not make it too important. Sin is any failure to love.

This is about ambition. The point is not to wallow in our sin, the point is to get better. To say frankly to ourselves, “that’s not how I should have treated that person,” so that we can not do it in the future.

Even more, it is about God’s mercy. We can be fearless about our sin because we know that Jesus is stronger. Confession is about asking to be set free: absolution literally means “unbinding.” If we like our sin, God will let us keep it. If we bring our sin to Jesus – like all the sick people, who begged for his touch – he will unbind us.

The Christian life is marked by a frank, fearless acknowledgement of sin.


Second, in the sacrament we must confess our sin. We make our acknowledgement of sin concrete. Repentance is impossible – even on a purely psychological level – if we just walk around vaguely looking at the sky and thinking we’re bad people. That achieves nothing.

But Confession is about speaking our particular sins. This particularity takes us to a whole different idea of what “sin” even means. If we keep things general, sin seems to mean that God just sort of vaguely doesn’t like us, in general. He doesn’t like us. But by particularizing sin, we realize that it is particular acts that are a problem.

In a sense, by concretely naming our sin, we put it outside of ourselves. It is not I who am sin, it is that: that action, that choice I made. I can separate myself from that choice. And the goal is to conquer that sin, not to conquer me.

The Christian life gets concrete and particular about what sin means.


Third comes contrition. This is tied to a “firm purpose of amendment”: that is, a desire not to do it again. But again, this shows how freeing Confession is. We are not saying, “this is just the way I am, and it’s terrible.” We are saying, “it doesn’t have to be this way. My heart can love better than that.”

But in fact, contrition goes deeper, more personal, than just a “firm purpose.” (What cold words!) Contrition means sadness. There is supposed to be an emotional component to this. Because emotion expresses love. I’m not just obeying rules. I love God, and I love these people, and it makes me sad that I don’t do a better job of loving them.

Now, our contrition doesn’t have to be “perfect.” We are not as sad as we ought to be. But we should be sad. In fact – no room to spell this out in all its grandeur here – this is the real goal of Confession: to nurture a real sadness about our failure to love, so that we can love better. Did you know that it is sacrilege for a priest to absolve you if you don’t express some kind of (imperect!) sadness about your sin?

The Christian life sheds tears over sin. Not anger, tears.


Fourth, we do penance. We make reparation. What does that mean? Perhaps the key is to look to our hearts, not to the world. Sin is a problem of the heart, not a matter of consequences.

So reparation is not about fixing everything that’s ever gone wrong. It is about fixing my heart. It is about setting off in a new direction, taking a step away from sin and toward true love.

The Christian life is about change, repair, improvement. In this sense (and only in this sense!) the Christian life is penitential.


Finally, we cast our sins on Jesus. That’s the purpose of the priest: he’s just some schmo; he is a dispenser of grace only because he is sent forth as such by Jesus.

We accept our “penance” from the priest precisely to mark that the way forward is not on our own – how fearsome that would be! – but in union with Jesus. We set off beside him. He helps us shoulder the cross of repentance.

The Christian never thinks of sin apart from the merciful and saving love of Jesus, and always seeks means to be closer to that merciful love.


How do you express repentance in your life?