Fasting and abstinence are related, but different. In general, fasting refers to limits on the quantity of the food we eat and on when we eat it, while abstinence refers to avoiding certain foods. The most common form of abstinence is the avoidance of meat, a spiritual practice that goes back to the earliest days of the Church. But sometimes people will give up other things as well. A couple of times I have abstained from coffee during lent. My family and coworkers asked me not to do that anymore, I’m not sure why.
Before Vatican II, Catholics abstained from meat every Friday, as a form of penance in honor of the death of Jesus Christ on the Cross on Good Friday. We were voluntarily giving up something we saw as good for our physical side in order to open ourselves to receive spiritual benefit. Many people, even Catholics, don’t realize that Church still urges abstinence on all Fridays of the year, not just during Lent. In fact, if we don’t abstain from meat on Fridays outside of Lent, we should substitute some other form of penance.
Here are the rules for fasting and abstinence for Roman Catholics in the United States:
Every person 14 years of age or older must abstain from meat (and items made with meat) on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and all the Fridays of Lent. Every person between the age of 18 and 60 must fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Every person 14 years of age or older must abstain from meat (and items made with meat) on all other Fridays of the year, unless he or she substitutes some other form of penance for abstinence.
But the question is, Why? Is it some useless rule from an outdated philosophy? What is the spiritual benefit that we might receive by doing these things with the right heart?
Fasting is much more than just denying oneself of food, and abstinence involves more than just denying oneself of meat. That is just the tip of the iceberg. Fasting and abstinence are a way to help us grow in charity and virtue as a result of our self-denial. Fasting and abstinence help us to grow in love towards others, especially those less fortunate than ourselves. We also can offer our obedience and humility in these actions to make amends for the times in which we have failed to love God as we should and repair the harm we have done by disobeying the will of God. The practices of fasting and abstinence can also help us to discover and root out our addictions to the sinful pleasures which are the root of the sins we commit.
Fasting and abstinence are further linked to the Church’s concern for the needy. Christ calls all to follow his example and offer assistance to those who suffer, spiritually or physically. A spiritual benefit of fasting and abstinence is that the needs of others can be brought into greater focus. Perhaps we will find something more we can do to help those in need, and by fasting and abstinence those types of revelations may become clearer. In this way charity becomes more of a spiritual exercise.
Fasting is often referred to as a simple means of developing self-control. Today, our culture tells us “not to control” many of our desires, but instead to indulge them even at the expense of others or if it undermines our own best interests. We are not supposed to save but go into debt even if we overextend ourselves in the process. Advertising is constantly pressuring us to eat and drink and party more but society continues to show more and more signs of depression and spiritual poverty. Fasting pushes back against these cultural pressures and shows that by simplifying our lives and denying ourselves of food, meat, or whatever, for a short while, we can grow closer to Christ and all who suffer.
Additionally, fasting can serve as aid in prayer. Hunger for food reminds us that we should hunger for God even more. It can remind us that the things that we usually hunger for are short-lived and help us to seek holiness and what really and truly “feeds us” for eternity.
It should be noted that some individuals, usually for health reasons, are unable to fast during Lent. This is understandable and certainly permissible. Those in that situation can find some other way to express self-denial and repentance.
The minimum requirement of fasting and abstinence for Catholics is just the beginning of their Lenten journey. Because, fasting is not about food, and abstinence is not about meat; rather, both are about spiritual conversion and renewal.
Here are a few words on fasting from Bishop Richard Malone of the Diocese of Buffalo.