An exciting new unit of study and reflection is coming in two weeks! For these next two weeks, outside of weekends and feastdays, I’m reaching into the “Prayer Team Mail Bag” to address questions that some of you have sent to me in the last few months. If you ever want to submit a question, please free to do so.
Today’s question is: Is it okay to fast from only meat during Lent?
Fasting is a tradition that pre-dates Christ. Yet there are many questions on why, when and how we are to fast. Fasting, in the strictest sense, means abstaining from all food. Think about when you go for a blood test and they tell you to fast for 12 hours prior to the test. That doesn’t mean abstain from meat, it means abstain from all food (except water). Jesus fasted for forty days before His ministry began and this was also a complete abstaining from food. Moses and the people of Israel fasted for forty days before Moses went up Mount Sinai to get the Ten Commandments and the Law.
Fasting is not about deprivation, but about discipline. We discipline our bodies to go without certain kinds of food, so that we can discipline our minds to avoid certain kinds of behavior. We are also supposed to supplement fasting with additional prayer and worship and charity. This is why during Great Lent, as an example, we have Pre-Sanctified Liturgy during the week to afford people the opportunity to receive Holy Communion to strengthen them while they are fasting. Fasting without prayer is dieting, so it is important that we supplement our fast with prayer. Going with less food should mean some excess of money that we save. This can and should result in some charitable giving.
Why are we supposed to fast from meat and dairy products? The issue has to do with blood. In fasting, we remember Christ shedding His blood for us on the cross, so we don’t co-mingle our blood with any other blood other than His. So we fast from meat, fish, and dairy product because all contain blood. We eat shellfish, because shellfish doesn’t have blood. Neither do fruits and vegetables, beans, etc. We fast from wine and oil (though we can still eat grapes and olives) because they were once stored in the skins of animals.
So to the question of is it okay to fast from only meat during Lent, here are two answers: First, if you’ve never fasted before, fasting from meat is a good place to start in terms of learning the practice of fasting. If you accompany the fasting with prayer, worship and overall discipline in your life, then fasting from only meat has benefit. If you are just going to substitute other food for meat and there is no prayer or discipline involved, then fasting from meat won’t accomplish much.
I’ve always believed that we should fast to a level that is a challenge, but not debilitating. Thus, if you’ve never fasted before don’t try doing a strict fast. But if fasting from meat is no big deal, consider adding things that you fast from.
Here is a radical (hopefully not controversial) idea. The thing that is tripping us up the most, from a discipline perspective these days, is not what we eat, but social media, that dominates our lives to a greater and greater level. So, what if instead of fasting from food, we fasted twice a week from social media. Imagine the TIME we’d save, time we could spend praying, fasting, worshiping, or helping others. Imagine the unhealthy stuff people look at on social media and their phones (politics, debate, pornography, etc.) that could be purged from their eyes and minds if we reduced/eliminated time on our phones and social media. I dare say in the world today, where we have fake chicken that tastes as good as the real thing, we should probably look at fasting again, and consider ways to fast that honor the intention of fasting—disciplining our minds and souls to focus less on the things of the flesh and more on the things of God. This is why it is important to have a relationship with a priest or spiritual father who can counsel and guide you in a way that is unique to your situation.
Lord, thank You for the gift of food, the gift of sustenance, and the gift of abundance. Help me to be grateful for what I have. Help me to be generous in helping others. Help me to have discipline in my mind and my body so that I may glorify You in my thoughts, words and deeds. Help me to fast in a way that glorifies You and gives me discipline to avoid certain kinds of behaviors, while gravitating towards others that demonstrate my love for You and for others. Amen.
Fasting is about discipline. Fasting regularly, whether from food or activities, is a spiritually beneficial exercise. We should not focus on what is the minimum or what constitutes cheating and focus instead on what helps with spiritual growth.