Fasting: A Common Sense Approach


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Three years ago during Friday evening Lenten Mass, I was called upon to use my nursing skills in an emergency situation.  Just as the cantor began the Gospel Acclamation, an elderly woman in the pew in front of my family suddenly collapsed to the floor.  My nursing instinct kicked in as I climbed over the back of the pew to get to her.  As Father began proclaiming the Gospel, I performed a quick assessment of the frail woman and whispered to my husband to call 911.  Conscious but extremely weak, she admitted to me that she had just returned from a 12-hour flight halfway across the world.  Since it was a Friday in Lent, she had not eaten anything all day and felt that she should attend Mass.  I asked the seminarian intern to get some orange juice which provided her with much needed fluids and carbohydrates.  Given her age and the circumstances leading to her collapse, the paramedics and I convinced her that the most prudent course of action was to be examined at the hospital.

In the years I worked as a staff nurse on an acute care floor, I would sometimes come across patients who wanted to fast on Fridays in Lent.  Given a whole list of factors, going without food was a very bad idea.  Most of the time, nurses were successful in convincing them to eat but the thought that anyone sick enough to be in hospital would even consider fasting was beyond my understanding.

Tomorrow is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten season.  Once again, devout Christians the world over will be participating in the discipline of fasting.  The graces obtained by this practice, which the Church considers to be the greatest form of penance, are abundant.  The discomfort felt from a reduced food intake is nothing compared with the many blessings obtained.

The prescribed rules for fasting are reasonable for most people:

  • Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are the two required fasting days
  • adults in good health between the ages of 18 – 59
  • abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays in Lent
  • one full but not excessive meal and a little bit of food not equaling a full meal at other meal times

Many Christians choose to fast on all Fridays in Lent and for most people, this is do-able and safe.  The concern I have with the discipline is when fervent observers get the notion that if some is good then more is better – fasting taken to the extreme.  Those who choose to ignore the exemptions for age and health can risk their well-being, just like the woman at Mass.

In the fifteen years that I was either pregnant or breastfeeding my eight children, I didn’t fast during Lent.  Pregnant and breastfeeding moms are exempt.  So is anyone who has a chronic medical condition such as diabetes.  Those who are undergoing medical treatment or recovering from an illness or surgery are also excused from fasting.

According to St. Francis de Sales, “besides the ordinary effect of fasting in raising the mind, subduing the flesh, confirming goodness, and obtaining a heavenly reward, it is also a great matter to be able to control greediness, and to keep the sensual appetites and the whole body subject to the law of the Spirit.” (Introduction To The Devout Life)  However, he further states that he “disapprove[s] of long and immoderate fasting” since it “has made many a one useless in works of charity.”  He gives the example of St. Bernard who “repented of his excessive austerity.” In other words, St. Francis is cautioning us to be careful.

Please continue reading at Catholic Insight…….

Deo Gratias

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10 Responses to Fasting: A Common Sense Approach

  1. SaintlySages says:

    Dark chocolate really tests my will-power. Happy Pancake Day! 🙂

  2. Marie says:

    “one full but not excessive meal and a little bit of food not equaling a full meal at other meal times” might be the best description of the ‘fasting rule’ I’ve ever heard. It makes perfect sense to me. Growing up, I wasn’t bound by the fast and then suddenly I was and didn’t know what it was to begin with! So… thank for you that. 🙂

  3. Well put Terry! In my 8 years of breastfeeding and pregnancy (as I am currently nursing little Eowyn) I haven’t been able to fast and I think that, because I was forced to find some other means of doing penance, it actually enriched my Lenten experience. On the other hand, my father, who follows the rules of the Church to the letter, fasted throughout all of Lent, every year from the first Lent he was 18 until the year he turned 59. I believe the most important thing is to live our Christian lives to the fullest, embracing whatever stage we are in and knowing that Holy Mother Church has our best interests at heart.

  4. As someone who was pregnant and nursing for 18 years ( as you probably were)-I could not agree more- Moderate fasting is humbling, while trying to be heroically austere CAN lead to pride.

  5. Me says:

    Thanks for your fasting explanation. I plan to show this to my husband later today as he and I were in disagreement on it.

    I first learned of fasting being exempt for pregnant women when I was pregnant with our youngest. I walked into the RCIA class I baked for and asked our oldest’s godmother if pregnancy was a medical condition exempt from fasting. It was an interesting way to announce my condition and I was glad she was able to answer my question.

    I had no idea that nursing women were exempt too! This year, I will cut back on visiting BabyCenter. I have even deleted the app off of my phone. The site has proved to be full of more drama than support. My time is better spent in prayer than wading through the muck.

  6. The important thing to remember is that we’re human beings, not robots. We need deep, loving, understanding relationships with other members if the Body of Christ. The things that are written down (the Bible, the Catechism, papal encyclicals even posts from Catholic bloggers) are a tremendous blessing, but they’re no substitute for a spiritually enriching relationship with a mature disciple.

    God wants you to know Him, and an essential part of knowing God is doing what He wants. The things you read will get you closer to an understanding of God’s will for you — but don’t forget that God’s blessings come through the agency of the Church and the Church is composed of flawed and imperfect human beings like you and me.


  7. lpatangan says:

    I also appreciate the clear definition of fasting you shared. I am a grazer — I like to snack all day so even having the discipline of one full meal with 2 lesser ones will be a huge challenge to my handful of this and that.

  8. momn3boys says:

    It took me a few years after becoming Catholic to find a way to fast without being famished and grumpy by the end of the day. By putting off breakfast and having a light snack in mid-morning and having a regular-sized lunch in the afternoon, I can get through the rest of the day without snacking and without thinking too much about food. Then I can enjoy the evening meal with my family (even though I’m only eating a little bit). This year my work schedule might make it harder to follow this routine, so we’ll see what happens today. 🙂

  9. Love this post. We should not be like the Pharisees.

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