Lent is a penitential season, and among the features of a penitential season in the Judeo-Christian tradition are fasting and abstinence.  Fasting, of course, involves forgoing food.  Abstinence involves forgoing comforts of the body.  Think of fasting as giving up what we strictly need at a bodily level and abstinence as giving up those bodily goods that we can live without, but which make life a lot more enjoyable.

Most Roman Catholics think of abstinence in connection with the consumption of meat from warm-blooded animals because, according to current practice in the Latin Rite, that’s all the Church specifies.  But historically and in different Christian traditions, abstinence involved many other foods and even sexual intimacy with one’s spouse.  Broadly construed, fasting and abstinence involve eating less than we think we need and generally going without much of what we want.

But why do we do these things?  What makes these observances appropriate to a penitential season, like Lent?  Is Lent really just about suffering or is there a purpose to that suffering?

Penance involves a uniquely human consciousness.  Other animals can’t undertake true penance, because they can’t experience guilt and shame.  When your dog lowers his head and averts his gaze as he curls up, his back hunched and his tail down, he’s not experiencing shame.  He’s experiencing dread.  He knows that he’s transgressed your will, but he has no moral sense.  He doesn’t think he’s done evil.  He just thinks he’s angered a more dominant member of the pack.  He’s displaying a willingness to submit so being put back in his place won’t have to be so violent.

Shame is a different experience.  It involves the recognition that one has done evil.  That fact—having done evil—is what we mean by “guilt.”  Shame is the existential sense we have of being that guy.

To understand the difference between the fear–dread and guilt–shame dynamics, ask yourself the question, “What would I do if I knew no one would ever know?”  In Lord of the Rings, that, “if I knew no one would ever know,” is the real temptation symbolized by the power of invisibility.  Would you kill?  Would you steal?  Would you engage in some sordid affair?  If you would only avoid these things because you’re afraid of being found out, you’re only really on the fear–dread spectrum.  Your moral maturity is about the same as your dog’s.  But if you think about some evil that in some way appeals to you and you think, “I wouldn’t do it, even though no one would ever know,” you’re on the guilt–shame spectrum.

Congratulations!  You’re capable penance!

But if penance as a state of consciousness is something only human beings can experience, maybe it should be expressed and ratified in some concrete form of action uniquely available to human agents.  That’s where fasting and abstinence come in.

Let’s think about this for a minute.  Fasting and abstinence occur only under the following conditions:

  • I experience a natural urge toward a natural good.
  • The object toward which that good is directed is available to me.
  • Nothing impedes me from obtaining that good.
  • Yet, I choose not to obtain the object in question, but to forgo it for the sake of a higher value.

Animals can’t do that.  They don’t have “free-will.”  They always will what they want if they think they can get away with it.  That may sound like liberty to many of us, but really, if you can’t forego the satisfaction of your urges, you’re not really free.  Addicts exist in this state, and so do those who’ve given their lives over to self-indulgent dissipation.  They can’t set themselves aside and choose something beyond their own perceived immediate needs.  Like dogs, they may stay away from the steak on the table for fear of punishment, but they can’t sit down in front of a steak nobody owns and just not eat it.  It’s impossible.

Fasting and Abstinence are part of Lent because they’re uniquely human acts of self-denial.  As such, they can express in concrete terms our recognition of the fact of our guilt, which we incur when we will only what we want instead of the higher value of what God intended for us.  In the fallen world, if we don’t practice self-denial we’ll eventually sin in that way.  In this sense, we’re all guilty and we all need to repent, all the time.  Fasting and abstinence help us form the habit of self-denial and thus to concretize a posture of penance in our actions, breaking the bonds of slavery to sin.

So, go to the supermarket and look at a nice juicy steak.  Imagine cooking it over a charcoal fire and serving it up with some sautéed mushrooms, a baked potato, and some fresh asparagus.  Then walk away hungry and turn your thoughts to God.