While at Mass this past Sunday there were certain prayers that jumped out at me, particularly those that speak of the bodily fast. This prompted me to put my thoughts down in writing, if only to get them in some sort of order. I will be dividing this into two posts.
After my return to the Church, almost every single Lent (and Advent), I have heard repeated time and time again, be it from laymen be it from clergy, that bodily fasts are not important; that what matters, what God “really wants”, are spiritual fasts; those who propose this view generally tend to waive bodily fasts completely.
Whence this emphasis on the inner over the outer? It seems that lately we are suffering the effects of an exacerbated Cartesian dualism. In secular society one hears such insane claims as that one can decide one’s own sex; that biology plays no influence; that one’s sex is what one believes it to be at any given point, and that it is independent of the physical sex (“sex” having now been relegated to designating an act, being substituted for “gender”, a grammatical term/concept. Another way of implying that “gender is a social construct”?). In an age of rampant materialism, should it come as a surprise that there should appear this insane kind of dualism? Are we reaping the fruits of bad philosophy, of philosophy divorced from theology, divorced from Revelation? This mindset seems to have even spilt over into the Church, where one finds a somewhat subtler divide between body and soul, of one having no influence on the other (at least not the body on the soul).
I admit that in the beginning I held a similar view, that what mattered most was the inner. Yet the more I studied, the more I immersed myself in the Church’s perennial tradition, the more I came to understand that this is not what the Church teaches. The Church may have become lax, almost to the point of dismissing them completely, but she does not teach that bodily fasts are negligible; to the contrary, one need only look at her Liturgy to see how important bodily fasting is.
Being a Roman Catholic I will focus solely on the Latin Liturgy; I am sure non-Roman Catholics, which still practice fasting to a greater degree than Latins do, are able to point to instances where their liturgies speak of fasting.
The Church’s teaching on fasting reveals its anthropology.
The liturgical texts which speak to us most about fasting are those of Great Lent. I will cite a few, from the vetus ordo, to show the importance that the Church places on bodily fasting, how bodily fasting is the main concern of the Lenten ascetical praxis, even if it is not the goal . Let’s start off with the Preface of Lent (emphasis mine):
It is truly meet and just, right and for our salvation, that we should at all times, and in all places, give thanks unto Thee, O holy Lord, Father almighty, everlasting God; Who by this bodily fast, dost curb our vices, dost lift up our minds and bestow on us strength and rewards; through Christ our Lord. Through whom the Angels praise Thy Majesty, the Dominations worship it, the Powers stand in awe. The Heavens and the heavenly hosts together with the blessed Seraphim in triumphant chorus unite to celebrate it. Together with these we entreat Thee that Thou mayest bid our voices also to be admitted while we say with lowly praise:
Here we have repeated in every single Mass during the Lenten season (apart from certain feast days that may arise: e.g., the Annunciation) what the fast is about. It is a privation of food which aims at: conquering the lower appetites; restraining vices; focusing one’s mind on prayer; fortifying one’s will; receiving God’s mercy. And that it not be ascribed to personal merit, we are reminded that if the fast effects these things in us, it is by the Father, through the Son.
The Collect and Secret of the 1st Sunday of Lent have this to say:
O God, You Who purify Your Church by the yearly Lenten observance, grant to Your household that what they strive to obtain from You by abstinence, they may achieve by good works. (Collect)
We offer these sacrificial gifts at the beginning of Lent, praying You, O Lord, that while we practice restraint in the use of bodily food, we may also refrain from harmful pleasures. (Secret)
Both of these prayers speak of the relation between the external – abstaining from eating – and the internal – doing good works (ordered will) and keeping from what is internally harmful (disordered will).
The Church, in her repetitious pedagogy, prays this theme over and over all throughout Lent. So as not to make this post too tedious, I will just cite a few more prayers which I think highlight the point:
May these sacrificial gifts, we beseech You, O Lord, be the more effective unto our salvation since they have been aided by wholesome fasting. (Secret, Thurs. after 1st Sunday)
Sanctify our fasts by the sacrificial gifts here present, we beseech You, O Lord, that what our observance outwardly professes may be inwardly accomplished. (Secret, Sat. after 1st Sunday)
Grant, we beseech You, almighty God, that Your servants who discipline the body by fasting from food, may strive after righteousness by abstaining from sin.(Collect, Mon. after 2nd Sunday)
Look mercifully upon Your people, we beseech You, O Lord, and grant that they whom You command to abstain from food, may also refrain from harmful vices. (Collect, Wed. after 2nd Sunday)
May the fasting dedicated to Your Name, O Lord, make us holy for the present sacrifice, that what our Lenten observance outwardly shows, it may work within us.(Secret, Thurs. after 2nd Sunday)
Grant that our fasting may be beneficial to us, we beseech You, O Lord, so that by chastising our flesh we may obtain strength for our souls.(Collect, Sat. after 2nd Sunday)
Grant, we beseech You, O Lord, that, improved by wholesome fasting, and thus abstaining from harmful sin, we may the more readily receive Your mercy.(Collect, Wed. after 3rd Sunday)
Grant, we beseech You, almighty God, that we who chastise our flesh by abstaining from food, may fast from sin by striving after righteousness.(Collect, Sat. after 3rd Sunday)
Grant, we beseech You, almighty God, that we who are chastising the flesh by fasting, may rejoice in this holy practice, and thus, with earthly passions subdued, we may the more readily direct our thoughts to heavenly things. (Collect, Wed. after 4th Sunday)