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What are you giving up for Lent?
It’s that time of year again. We all want to have the best-ever Lent, and the Catholic corners of the internet are overflowing with advice on how to do precisely that. However, mixed in with some very helpful insights for entering more deeply into this season I have noticed a predominant theme over the last several years: the advice to focus less on giving up something and instead focus on doing more of something good. While I agree with the general thrust of much this advice—Lent is about preparing our souls for Easter and ultimately Heaven, not our bodies for swimsuit season—I think the emphasis on adding something spiritual instead of giving up something physical runs the risk of throwing the penitential baby out with the proverbial bathwater.
Let’s start with the basics. The Church’s requirements for us during Lent are fairly minimal. Canon Law requires Catholics 14 years old and older to abstain from eating meat on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays of Lent. Catholics from age 18 to 59 are required to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The Church defines this obligatory fasting as one regular meal and two smaller meals which, taken together, do not exceed the size of the regular meal. People who are sick, manual laborers, pregnant or nursing women, and others whose health or wellbeing would be negatively impacted by these requirements are exempt.
A holy and fruitful Lent begins with entering whole-heartedly and joyfully into these requirements, while also prayerfully considering what more the Lord would ask of me (not my husband or my neighbor or my best friend) this year in my particular circumstances (not last year when I had more time or next year when I’ll hopefully be in better health, etc.). Lent is not a competition—with myself or with others.
With that, let’s dive into why fasting is foundational to Lent.
Three Pillars of Penance
As we approach Lent our focus is often drawn to a particular type of practice—giving up something, taking on a new spiritual discipline, praying in a particular way, etc. But as a penitential season, Lent is meant to lead us deeper into all three of the traditional forms of penance: prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.
It may be helpful to think of these three practices as the three legs of a stool. If we strive to faithfully practice all three, we will experience deeper conversion and grow in love and holiness. If we neglect one or another, our penance will be wobbly at best—if not downright ineffective.
Fasting without prayer and almsgiving is nothing more than a thinly disguised diet. But on the other hand, prayer without the practice of self-denial and generosity to others will be sterile and ineffective. In her wisdom, Mother Church offers us these three pillars of penance not for us to choose the one we like best, but because all three are necessary. We absolutely must focus on our prayer life and reaching out to others in charity during Lent—but in addition to fasting, not instead of it.
In defense of giving up chocolate for Lent
Of course, your personal Lenten fast doesn’t have to be chocolate. But this is the discipline that often gets caricatured as the childish, shallow practice that should be replaced with something more spiritual (perhaps because so many cradle Catholics grew up giving up sweets for Lent). But whether it’s dessert or snacking between meals or alcohol or soda or something else—how does fasting from food benefit us spiritually?
A human person is a union of body and soul, and “it is the whole human person that is intended to become… a temple of the Spirit” (CCC 364). As this union of body and soul it makes sense that our penance should be a union of physical and spiritual components. As St. Francis de Sales puts it, “whosoever gains the heart has won the whole man. But this heart needs to be trained in its external conduct” (An Introduction to the Devout Life, ch. 23). We train our hearts to love God more fully not only by mental and spiritual exercises such as study and prayer, but also by physical actions—such as fasting.
The good things in life can and should draw us closer to God—but there is always the temptation to love the gifts more the than the Giver. Choosing to fast from something that is good in itself becomes a profound opportunity to focus our attention on our Greatest Good—God himself. Saint Benedict writes in his Rule for monastic life: “Deny yourself so as to follow Christ, discipline the body and do not be self-indulgent; put a high value on fasting.” The Church calls us to fast at certain times and seasons not because food or our appetite for it are bad—quite the opposite! It is right to nourish our bodies with good food and it is natural to take pleasure in doing so.
Food and the pleasure we take in it are good, but they are not the highest good. When we fast from food—whether that be giving up a particular food we enjoy or by reducing the amount we eat—we are training our hearts to truly love God above all else by the concrete action of choosing to temporarily forego a lesser good. This act of fasting strengthens our will to resist every kind of temptation to sin—not just greed or gluttony, but anger, envy, sloth, lust, and pride.
This is the same principle behind fasting from any other kind of pleasure—music, TV, computer games, social media—but fasting from food can be a particularly powerful spiritual practice because food is one of our most basic needs.
“For through bodily fasting you restrain our faults,
raise up our minds,
and bestow both virtue and its rewards,
through Christ our Lord.” (Roman Missal, Preface of Lent IV)
Some practical points
With this emphasis on the value and importance of fasting from food, a disclaimer may be necessary: fasting is objectively good, but that doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone. For example, it might do more harm than good for someone who is struggling with or recovering from an eating disorder, or for someone who struggles with scrupulosity.
It’s a good thing for penance to interfere with our comfort, but it is never meant to harm our physical, emotional, or mental health. It should also not be so intense as to interfere with our ability to carry out well our responsibilities to others—at home, school, work, etc. As St. Francis de Sales cautions:
“A want of moderation in the use of fasting, discipline and austerity has made many a one useless in works of charity… Surely it were wiser to deal sensibly with [the body], and treat it according to the work and service required by each man’s state of life.” (An Introduction to the Devout Life, ch. 23)
In other words, our personal penances should be just that—penitential for us personally, but not penitential for those around us. Giving up bathing for Lent might be a great sacrifice for you, but it would undoubtedly become an even greater sacrifice for everyone else in your immediate vicinity. Or if you have a hard time functioning without your morning coffee, for the sake of your family or coworkers you should maybe find something else to give up—or consider having just one cup instead of three.
The point is to make some kind of simple, sustainable sacrifice, not to make yourself as miserable as possible for 40 days. It’s always a good idea to seek advice from a trusted source—a confessor, a spiritual director, or a good and holy friend—when considering what penitential practices to adopt.
Hungry for more? Here are some great resources to plan for your Lent:
Pope St. Paul VI’s Apostolic Constitution on Fast and Abstinence
St. Thomas Aquinas’ three reasons for fasting
Dr. Michael Barber on the scriptural logic behind almsgiving
Three Weapons for Improving your Prayer Life this Lent