Today is Ash Wednesday – the start of the Season of Lent. The Ordo defines Lent as “a preparation for the celebration of Easter.” It also says: “Ash Wednesday is a day of penance in the universal church, a day of fasting and abstinence.”
Fasting means that one who is healthy limits ones eating to one full meal. Anything eaten beyond one meal does not equal two meals.
Abstinence means one who is healthy refrains from eating meat.
When I was a kid I remember the Church required fasting for every day of lent except Sunday. All Fridays were days of fast and abstinence. In our family, those were Church prescriptions which were observed.
That rule of the Church has been removed in favor of a much more lenient prescription today. Fridays in Lent are still days of abstinence, but the requirement of abstinence can be fulfilled in doing a good work for another.
On Ash Wednesday and on Good Friday, however, abstinence is still required of those who have reached the age of 14, and fasting is still required for those who have reached the age of 18 and who have not yet reached the age of senior citizens (sixty years of age).
It is probably not fruitful to try to enforce this as a requirement “under pain of sin.” Too frequently, people who sin habitually are numb to its pain. And people too frequently – and disastrously – are calloused to the meaning of “sin.” That is something that can be reflected on during the season of Lent.
Fasting and abstinence and similar practices can be considered in the context of our freedom or lack of freedom. There are some practices which help me become a freer person, free me from disorders in my life, or free me from “disordinate attachments.” Fasting is like that. If I habitually eat what I want to eat, or habitually capitulate to a compulsion to it, and so become unfree even in eating, the exercise of fasting, saying no to eating this or that, may exercise me in freedom.
Exercising oneself voluntarily in freedom, in a world where there is so much unfreedom, may not be a bad idea. In fact, for those who are serious about spiritual growth, which I hope all of us are, it is an imperative.
For if we do not voluntarily learn how to say no to a piece of chocolate or to a cigarette or to just one more helping of rice and adobo when I have already eaten what I require, how would I be able to say no when I am tempted to betray my integrity for the pleasures of a night of abandon or to betray my God for thirty pieces of silver?
It is for this reason that St. Ignatius was keenly sensitive to interior motions that draw us away from God – proposing things that bring us away from God as pleasurable, or things that bring us toward God as undesirable. He called these “desolation.” And he proposed that we work against – “agere contra” – desolation, that is, that we work against our unfreedoms in our relationship with our selves in our relationship with God. This is in his “Rules For the Discernment of Spirit.”
“Agere contra” is as much a principle of Ignatian Spirituality as is “magis” or “finding God in all things” or “ad majorem Dei gloriam.” It is what fasting and abstinence are all about, especially in the season of Lent.
Concretely, if you habitually postpone doing your homework because you just have to watch TV for two hours every night, “agree contra” may mean that you decide to watch TV less. If you truly dislike the person who grates against your spirit at work, “agere contra” may mean that you decide to communicate with and understand that person better. If you normally think you know everything better than others and so have the right to lecture all who approach you, “agere contra” may mean that you consciously pause and listen to what others have to say.
Lent is a season of preparation for the celebration of the Paschal Mysetery. It is a season of “spiritual exercise, ” of exercising ourselves in freedom – as an indispensible requirement of love. It is in this context that one can understand the Church’s description of this season as a joyful season.