Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 6, 2000
What are fasting, abstinence?
By SR. LOUISE ZDUNICH, NDC
Lent is coming soon and two words used often confuse me. They are fasting and abstinence. What is the difference?
I can understand how confusion can come about as we almost always say these two words in the same breath even though they are different disciplines. Abstinence refers to refraining from certain things, specifically food such as meat in Lent. It could mean abstaining or not doing any other type of activity.
Fasting, on the other hand, refers to the quantity of food one eats. Fasting has always been a well-respected religious practice and is often associated with prayer and almsgiving. These three were traditionally recommended to all Christians, especially during Lent.
Fasting may be for different reasons. By depriving ourselves of food, we can relate to and help those who don't have enough to eat. Fasting can help us be open to God in our lives, thus helping us in prayer. Fasting promotes self-discipline and helps us overcome our sinful and selfish ways.
Therefore, some form of fasting is essential to a Christian life. Many early Christians fled to the desert to fast and pray when they perceived that many Christians were becoming lukewarm once they were allowed freedom of worship by the Roman Empire.
Fasting and abstinence during Lent began as voluntary practices. Gradually strict rules were enforced by the Church. From about the 400s to the 800s, only one meal a day was permitted but without meat and in some places without milk and eggs. Usually, this meal was taken in the evenings, thus going without food all day. About the 10th century, it began to be taken at noon.
Although the prohibition against milk and eggs was lifted, it continued to be practised by Christians from some parts of Europe until relatively recent times (and it may be still by Orthodox Christians).
Until 1966, a rather severe form of fasting and abstinence was still in force. One full meal with meat was permitted for those between 21 and 59, along with two other meatless meals, together not equalling another full meal. Abstinence from meat and gravies or soups made with meat fat or drippings were forbidden on Fridays, on Ash Wednesday and on Good Friday.
Depriving oneself from meat on Fridays all year around in memory of the suffering and death of Jesus on a Friday was a distinguishing mark of Catholics. In addition, other forms of penance were practised such as deprivation of luxuries, dancing or other forms of entertainment.
For us today, during Lent, fasting means a reduction in the quantity of food and abstinence means no meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Of course, anyone may fast and abstain much more rigorously, if they so choose.
Other forms of penance are also recommended, as no one is exempt from penitential practices. Some of these include depriving oneself of excess material goods and entertainment. In addition, fasting from angry words and deeds, being pleasant to those with whom we live and work, caring for those in need, are all excellent forms of penance whose effects will help improve our lives.
Reading and reflecting on Scripture, as well as making prayer an integral part of our lives are essential ingredients for a Lenten fast.