Today is Ash Wednesday, but thanks to "The Fast Diet" this is going to be the easiest Ash Wednesday Fast of my life. Collations? We don't need no steenking collations! We female Fast Dieters can keep to 500 calories per fasting day!
Plus a lot of tea and occasional leafings through cookbooks.
This is not a very spiritual way of looking at it. However, it turns out that periodic fasting is good for our health. It's humbling to think that all those people who have fasted merely to do penance for their sins and to honour God may have been strengthening their physical health, all unknowing
It is also humbling to realize how much better the Eastern Churches are than the Latin Church at penitential fasting and abstinence. The Greek Orthodox Church, for example, basically goes vegan for Lent. They allow some fish, but not others (no fish with a spine), and they heavily restrict olive oil and wine. Dairy--any products from warm-blooded animals--is right out.
East Orthodox monks fast two days a week, all year around.
I think we'd all be so much healthier, spiritually and physically, if we fasted like the Greeks.
Food and relationship food is so important to religious identity that it was a disaster for Latin Catholics in majority-Protestant countries when the Friday fast was dispensed with. Sadly, people had been SO convinced that a morsel of meat on Friday could land them in hell that they were well and truly scandalized when the Church seemed to say, "Just kidding! Chow down, little people!" If that could change, well, anything could change! And, hey! It's the SIXTIES!
That said, although the birthrate went to hell, Mass attendance in the UK didn't hit the skids until the 1980s.
Just last year, the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales finally admitted that ending Friday abstinence was a lousy idea and reimposed it. I'm not sure what the rule is in Scotland. But I don't really care because when John Paul II suggested we take up the Friday abstinence again, my mother took this as an order and imposed it on our house, and so I impose it on mine.
I think the bottom-line rule in Canada is that you're not supposed to eat meat on Fridays in Lent. (Update: Oh, dear. Not even that. No meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday is the bare minimum.) And so it creeps me out when other Catholics serve meat on Fridays in Lent. Hello, our Saviour died for us on a Friday. Do you think you might make this teeny tiny sacrifice with the rest of us in His honour? Oh great. Now Maria Papadopoulos is nudging Kyril the Russian Hottie and laughing at us.* Thanks so much. Maybe holding the Catholic Society barbeque in Lent was not such a great idea.
Traditionally the enforcers of religious fasting and abstinence are women because traditionally women prepare the food. And it strikes me that this has always been very important for religions where women are not given a sacerdotal role. People complain at great length about the feminisation of the Roman Catholic Church in the wake of the Second Vatican Council, but there is also the danger of hyper-masculinity in traditionalist communities. Thank heavens for the tea ladies in my parish, for without them, women wouldn't be able to express any sort of service on Sundays, save listening or staying at home with wailing children. I am absolutely okay with the sanctuary and the choir being man-only zones, but I am glad women provide the tea after Mass and enforce the domestic laws at home.
Domestic laws is my euphemism for "food and sex," and I get so annoyed when soi-disant trads who demand access to the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, and snipe at the poor oft-abused Ordinary Form, openly flaunt Church disciplines and doctrines around food and sex. Traditional Catholicism is not about getting all the goodies while ignoring the tough stuff.
Naturally it is hard to be chaste in eating, drinking and sexual matters; we are told again and again that this is particularly hard for men. I'm not sure if that is generally true, but at any rate there is an expectation that women are the gatekeepers in such matters and religious men think badly of us if we don't keep the gates shut, no matter what they said five minutes before.
At any rate, gate-keeping takes courage and separates the women, willing to put integrity first, from the girls, who want to be liked. ("Dear God! Please! Let them LIKE ME! If only they would LIKE ME!") I touched a teenager in a group of other teenagers on his shoulder at a Toronto church, smiled and gestured that he should take off his hat. Naturally he may have thought I was an interfering old bat. If so, too bad.
As I said, various Church disciplines and doctrines are very hard to follow. I think this especially true now when we live in a religious culture that says "God doesn't care about such little things"--which rather flies in the face of the Gospel, where forgetting to wear your best to a wedding gets you booted into the outer darkness to wail and gnash your teeth. Before nineteen sixty-three, people hid their sins and confessed them later. Nowadays it is the fashion to sin openly (venially or mortally) while proclaiming the sins not to be sins at all. I am much more sympathetic to the former practice than to the latter. Sure, hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. The tribute, not the vice, is the good part.
Meanwhile, many saints have proclaimed fasting and abstinence weapons in the war against sin, so this Lent, let's all give it a shot. (NB Unless you are pregnant or recovering from eating disorders, that is.)
Incidentally, for those Singles who are tortured year-round by "Will I ever get married?" I think a great Lenten discipline is to stop thinking about it. Give it up. Give up romantic daydreams, give up b*tch sessions about Singleness, give up browsing photos on dating websites. Pretend you're a widow who buried the love of her life ten years ago and is content with his memory. (Here's a name: Norbert. Norbert was perfection except for the ear-splitting snore and the National Geographic collection going back to 1969 that he refused to part with.) Just for Lent.
*The Orthodox spiritual advice to Maria and Kyril is a testy "Keep your eyes on your own plates!" Well, I suppose I should take that to heart, too.