Monday, February 24, 2020

The Lent We Have Lost: Fasting

For many, Lent (about to begin this week with Ash Wednesday) remains the high point of the Church year, the season of most intense religious practice and involvement. For some that Lenten experience practically crests on Ash Wednesday, but for many Lent is still experienced as a genuinely sustained religious renewal throughout the season. In this they are assisted by a plethora of Lenten practices the Church has over the centuries mandated, encouraged, or just tolerated. Sadly so many of these have disappeared - quite quickly in recent decades. Before they are forgotten forever, however, their memory may yet be invoked to sustain and renew our contemporary Lenten experience.

The first and most obvious of those lost practices is, of course, the Lenten fast - the very thing that gave Lent its most distinctive character, that extended its observance into the ordinary world beyond the church building, into the very heart of every individual's and every family's daily routine.

There is no island, no continent, no city or nation, no distant corner of the globe, where the proclamation of Lenten Fast is not listened to. Armies on the march and travelers on the road, sailors as well as merchants, all alike hear the announcement and receive it with joy. Let no one then separate himself from the number of those fasting, in which every race of humankind, every period of life, every class of society is included.

So said Saint Basil the Great (330-379) preaching about Lent in the 4th century, at a time when the Lenten Fast was taken much more seriously than we do today. In fact, because we no longer observe the traditional fast, Lent has acquired a bit of an identity crisis. Hence our obsessive preoccupation with what to do differently, or special, or extra, or less of ("giving up") for Lent. 

It is true, of course, that fasting laws and customs have varied according to time and place. Already a century ago, the fasting laws in the Latin Church had been massively mitigated compared with earlier Western practices in and with the even now, still significantly more challenging practices in the Eastern Churches. Yet what happened 50+ years ago was less a mitigation than effectively an abolition. (Maintaining a vestigial, already much mitigated "fast" on two days of the year has only further highlighted the de facto disappearance of fasting, self-denial, and the very notion of Lent as a season of asceticism.)

This "reform" came not as a result of protest and non-compliance from the bottom up but as a mandate from the top down - a gratuitously self-inflicted wound.

Now, while I can well remember the Lenten fast, I myself never actually had to observe it. It didn't bind until age 21, and I was only 17, when Pope Saint Paul VI effectively abolished it. That said, some (perhaps even more mitigated) form of lenten fast would be an asset to each of us individually and to the wider Church as a community.

In the first place, while the external forms may vary, some dimension of self-denial seems inherent in the life of a disciple. That has always been the case and may be especially essential for us today, inextricably immersed as we all are now in this sinfully rich, consumerist, capitalist culture. 

Second, for both each individual and the community from which each individual is inseparable, it is good to do important things together. A commonly and communally observed Lenten fast could be beneficial for our life together as Church, much more so than individuals fasting on their own.

Third, discipleship requires religious practices which extend into the ordinary world beyond the church building, into the very heart of every individual's and every family's daily routine.The traditional Lenten fast did that, and a renewed form of it could do so again.

Of course, there is virtually no chance of anything like that happening again in my lifetime . So it is literally a case of "The Lent We have Lost."

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