Lent in the Rule of St Benedict III - Fasting and abstinence


According to the 1983 Code of Canon Law, all the days of Lent (ie excluding Sundays and solemnities) are, like all Fridays throughout the year, days of penance.  Traditionally, this meant that they were all days of fasting and partial or full (on Fridays) abstinence.  These days fasting and abstinence are only required on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and some other penance can be substituted on other days.

Still, fasting is the traditional discipline, so we should perhaps give it serious consideration in considering our options.  Thus, it may be helpful to look at what St Benedict envisaged his monks would do during Lent.

Food in the Rule during the year

St Benedict's monks lived a fairly tough regime by modern standards (though not by contemporary ones) when it came to food.

For much of the year, they ate only one meal a day, and although wine, fish and fowl were allowed, red meat wasn't.

Still, it wasn't as tough as it might have been - St Benedict specifies providing a choices of dishes so that everyone could eat something they like for example.

And on 'monastic fast days' what changes is the time that the meal was served (so on Wednesdays and Fridays from noon to mid-afternoon after None), not the amount served.  Fasting in the Rule is about refraining from food for a longer period of time, not changing what is eaten or how much is eaten.

 St Benedict also made it clear that there should be some flexibility, for example when more was warranted because of the demands of heavy labour.

It is important to note though, that in the Rule he distinguishes (albeit in passing, in reference to guests) between the monastic fasts, and those imposed by the Church for all.  The Rule covers off the monastic fasts, but doesn't deal with the generally applying rules at all, it just assumes that they apply.

Meals during Lent in the Rule

So the Rule makes only two provisions for fasting during Lent:
  • the one meal served is to be taken in the evening (Chapter 41); and
  • abstinence in food and drink is mentioned as one of the possible things that the monk could offer (with the abbot's approval) over above their usual ascetic practices (Chapter 49).
Presumably, though the monastery did also follow the much stricter contemporary rules about what could be eaten during Lent - which would have excluded eggs, dairy products and so forth.

Fasting rules over time

Over the history of the Church, few disciplines have changed as much as those relating to fasting!

Although its value as an ascetic practice has always been emphasized, what is actually required of both monks and laity has changed substantially, with numerous concessions to weakness granted at various times. 

Fasting for example, is now generally defined as a reduction in the amount eaten, rather than a delayed meal as in the Rule.  In the 1917 Code of Canon Law, while the Fridays of Lent required fasting and abstinence, the other days were of fasting and partial abstinence (ie one meat meal permitted).  And today of course, fasting and abstinence are only required on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, with all other Fridays (as always) days of abstinence.

So what can/should we do?

Whatever we give up has to be doable - which means a step up from whatever it is we normally do, but not an altogether radical change in our regime. 

The 1917 regime is probably within most families' reach.

Or one could adapt some of St Benedict's provisions.

St Benedict for example shifts the one meal a day from after None of the 'monastic Lent' that applies from November until Lent proper, to the evening.  So perhaps we could consider shifting our usual lunchtime to a few hours later where that is feasible, or something similar for the evening meal depending on when we normally eat it.

We could certainly consider cutting out meat (with appropriate care, particularly for women, to making sure we get enough iron etc) and alcohol.

And we could cut out food between meals, deserts and other treats...

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