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Friday, February 27, 2004

Fasting 

It's always struck me a bit odd how fasting during Lent is defined. Here's what AmericanCatholic.org has to say about the Catholic Church's official position:
Fasting as explained by the U.S. bishops means partaking of only one full meal. Some food (not equaling another full meal) is permitted at breakfast and around midday or in the evening—depending on when a person chooses to eat the main or full meal.

Abstinence forbids the use of meat, but not of eggs, milk products or condiments made of animal fat.

According to Father John Huels in The Pastoral Companion (Franciscan Herald Press), abstinence does not include meat juices and liquid foods made from meat. Thus, such foods as chicken broth, consommé, soups cooked or flavored with meat, meat gravies or sauces, as well as seasonings or condiments made from animal fat are not forbidden. So it is permissible to use margarine and lard.

Huels states that even bacon drippings which contain little bits of meat may be poured over lettuce as seasoning. And Huels notes that no one considers gelatin or Jell-O to be meat.

Huels gives a norm long used by moral theologians: If in doubt whether a particular food is considered meat, look to the common estimation of persons in the area. Custom is the best interpreter of the law.
First, as a vegetarian, the idea that abstaining from meat means that you can have meat broths, etc., is a bit odd. But it's also to see how the restrictions have changed over time from no food to one big meal at midday, from no meat at all during Lent to no meat (although fish is allowed) on Fridays. And, variation is allowed from Diocese to Diocese to accommodate local conditions and custom.

As I noted yesterday, I'm not really religious myself, but I did grow up in an area steeped in Catholic culture, which has definitely influenced me. I have almost always given something up for Lent, but a few years ago, I decided to do a water-only fast on Fridays during Lent. After skipping that obligation for the past two or three years, I decided last night that I wanted to do it again this year. That decision may have been influenced by the fact that I ate an entire chocolate-covered matzo, and missing a day's worth of calories could only help.

[ASIDE: That Manischewitz offers a line of snacks and chips branded "Noshables" makes me smile; it's a great use of a Yiddish word.]

I model my Lenten fasting after the Yom Kippur fast, starting before sunset on Thursday and breaking the fast after nightfall on Friday. I don't, however, abstain from water. (Hey, it's my fast, I can make my own rules, right?) One year, I decided to observe the Ramadhan fast and I followed fairly strict fasting guidelines that included prohibiting water (although I was allowed to rinse my mouth, just no swallowing). I kept it up for about a week.

I guess it's the ascetic in me that urges me to occasionally take up these self-denial rites. Perhaps it is like the regular fasts (upavāsa) in Hinduism, which are designed to cleanse the body and to bring one closer to God. (Upavāsa means both "to fast" and "to reside closer to God.") Fasting also gives a degree of empathy with what others are doing — Yom Kippur, Ramadhan, Lent, Ekādaśī-Upavāsa, etc. — for reasons of faith or devotion.

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