I’m the kind of person who loves a challenge. I’m motivated by anything with a stretch goal: weeklong hiking trips and month-long writing sprints. I’m the person who looks at the Lenten requirements for fasting and abstinence and says, “Challenge accepted.”
As Catholics from age 18-59, we are required by the Church to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
“When fasting, a person is permitted to eat one full meal, as well as two smaller meals that together are not equal to a full meal.” (usccb.org)
Of course, as a challenge-seeker, I usually want to push it further: fast longer, eat less. Objectively, that’s clearly good, but maybe it depend on your motivations.
You might push yourself in order to more fully enter into the sacrifice and get great Graces out of it. Someone else who, like me, struggles with the sins of pride or scrupulosity, might see where I’m going with this.
I finally had to confront my unconscious motivations when I was pregnant with my first child. Those USCCB guidelines defining a fast go on to give exceptions:
“Those that are excused from fast and abstinence outside the age limits include the physically or mentally ill including individuals suffering from chronic illnesses such as diabetes. Also excluded are pregnant or nursing women.” (usccb.org) At five months pregnant I was grateful for the opportunity to skip the unpleasantness of fasting, but I couldn’t shake a nagging feeling of guilt in the back of my mind. I was healthy enough to push myself, even if I wasn’t required to, so wouldn’t that be the right thing to do anyway? It felt like cheating to claim my exception.
I know I wasn’t the only one struggling over this dilemma, because my Catholic mom Facebook group was full of anxious posts from other first-time moms. They echoed the things I was feeling: superstition, scrupulosity, fear. When it came down to it: I didn’t trust the Church’s advice to skip fasting, because I was
scared. In that mom’s group, I was blessed with wiser women who gave the right advice: Don’t try to be “more Catholic than the Pope.”
The exemption in pregnancy is not for the woman’s personal comfort; it’s for the health of her baby. In my pride, and fear of “breaking the rules,” I had lost sight of that. I had to deliberately ignore the voice telling me I was taking advantage of a loophole when I didn’t fast during Lent that year.
As it turns out, I have been either pregnant or breastfeeding during every Lent since 2018. You’d think that, after six years of this, I’d have come to terms with the idea of not fasting when everyone else is. No, it’s still hard for me. I tell myself all kinds of things trying to work my way around the rules, like I’m trying to find a reason to ignore the wisdom and advice of the Church.
This year on Ash Wednesday, as I ate my third small meal of the day, not fasting was itself an act of humility: something I offered up with trust to God as its own sacrifice.
There’s an obvious struggle when you’re fighting the temptation to do something objectively bad, but the struggle is much more complicated when you’re being asked to give up an objectively good thing for a less clear greater good.
Maybe you’re in the first camp, and you think it’s silly of me to wish I didn’t have an exemption from the rules. You are absolutely right. It is silly. But maybe you’re in the latter camp, with a chronic illness, or like me, nursing an almost-toddler and wrestling with whether the Church’s advice is wisdom or weakness. I’m right there with you.
Know I’m praying for you as you join me in offering up your absence of fasting as its own penitential sacrifice this Lent.