Editor’s note: for most Traditional Catholics, this week marks the September Embertide, which is a week which includes fasting and penance on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Read more about this custom here.
By Nathaniel Richards
Three Words to Keep in Mind
If we are squeamish about fasting, it is because it is a sacrificial behavior, which means something gets killed. Our attachment to earthly goods goes to the chopping block and dies. We do not play that video game or eat that extra cookie, or maybe we give up a day of scrolling through our Twitter feed. But what do we gain in addition to stronger spiritual muscles? Maybe weight loss. Maybe we are spared a headache and irritableness from not having stared at a screen for hours on end. Maybe we get extra time with our spouses or children that we would not have otherwise. Whatever the added benefit, it is important to not treat our ascetic decision as mere fad; something that flashes in a pan and is here today, gone tomorrow. Conversely, we cannot grow comfortable or lax in our penances or do the bare minimum the Church asks of us — especially considering how little the Church asks of us today. We must go beyond the modern “disciplines” such as giving up chocolate, or eating a fish sandwich. We need to do more — holiness demands it. We must adopt habitual mortification and penances, and continue certain disciplines outside of Lent. If we’re not doing our due diligence in this area, whatever we’re doing is pretty much worthless.
If you want to develop a true habit of fasting, I propose to the reader three words: Gradualism, Humility, and Perseverance.
First off, gradualism. Whatever you do, you’re going to have to build up to your goal in gradually, especially if you’ve done nothing or haven’t tried to fast before. While you may want to stop eating altogether on a Friday, you will find yourself tempted to eat more and more if you stop eating cold turkey. No pun on eating cold poultry intended, but perhaps you could start by abstinence from meat on Fridays instead. Start eating meatless meals on Fridays for at least a month or two, and then perhaps have one Friday a month where you eat much less. If it works out, maybe try two Fridays in a month. Or maybe you can take a cue from Apostolic precedent, starting to practice abstinence from meat on both Wednesdays and Fridays as a norm. Always take your individualized health concerns to mind as you begin to implement something habitual, and don’t overdo it — you want stepping stones, not a wobbly jump across the creek that risks you wiping out downstream.
Furthermore, we must consider the virtue of humility. Sometimes when we are inspired to do something more for the Lord, we bite off more than we can chew. If you neglect the principle of gradualism, you will attempt too much. But you cannot start wearing hair shirts if you cannot refrain from BBQing brats on a Friday night. It wouldn’t be prudent nor would it really be effective as you have no penitential foundation. When you take on harder penances or even think of taking a vow for a specific discipline, you need to talk to a spiritual director — preferably a priest, and one that is also your pastor and confessor. However, be forewarned: any progress you make or success you have will not be instant.
In addition we must develop a spirit of perseverance. I say this because you will most likely fail in some of your efforts. That is, you will find it a rule that whenever you settle upon something to give to the Lord via penance/fasting, the Enemy will throw various obstacles of temptation in your path. You will cave at various points and make exceptions and excuses. The candy bar will be in front of you and suddenly you will go from a determination of “I will not eat any sweets today” to “I will have a small nibble, but no more,” to “Well, I will only have one candy bar today.” We fallen creatures normally work this way in trying to rationalize our deviations from discipline. Do not lose heart, If you fall, allow the Lord to pick you back up again. Divergence from a discipline that was a goal of yours is only a momentary setback. Be resourceful by frequenting the Sacrament of Confession to give you the needed graces of resolution. Then full steam ahead. Charge. It is a battle, after all—you must not be a deserter.
Nathaniel Richards is a Catholic husband and father who lives in the Ozarks. He enjoys collecting Catholic books and promises that one day he will read most of them—eventually, maybe. Starting a Catholic bookstore that sells books rather than gifts is a dream of his. He converted from Oneness Pentecostalism to Anglicanism and eventually made his way to Catholicism in 2015.