By Fr. Edward McNamara, a member of the Legionary of Christ
The purpose of these laws of abstinence is to educate us in the higher spiritual law of charity and self-mastery.
This spiritual purpose can also help us to understand the reasons for excluding flesh meat on penitential days. There was a once-widespread belief that flesh meat provoked and excited the baser human passions. Renouncing these foodstuffs was considered an excellent means of conquering the wayward self and orienting one’s life toward God.
The ascetic and spiritual purpose of fasting and abstinence can also help us to understand why it has always been tied to almsgiving.
In this way, it makes little sense to give up steak so as to gorge on lobster and caviar. The idea of abstinence is to prefer a simpler, less sumptuous diet than normal.
We thus have something extra to give to those less fortunate than ourselves and also train ourselves in freedom from slavery to material pleasures. Even a Catholic vegetarian can practice abstinence by substituting a typical, yet more expensive, element of the diet for something simpler.
In the developed world the vast array of assorted foodstuffs available at the local supermarket make living the laws of abstinence relatively easy. In most cases one can forgo meat and still maintain a simple yet well balanced diet.
However, while being faithful to these laws we must always strive to penetrate the inner reasons for fast and abstinence and not just stay on the superficial plane of rules for rules’ sake.
The spiritual motives for practicing abstinence are admirably expressed by St. Augustine in his Sermon on Prayer and Fasting: Abstinence purifies the soul, elevates the mind, subordinates the flesh to the spirit, begets a humble and contrite heart, scatters the clouds of concupiscence, extinguishes the fire of lust, and enkindles the true light of chastity.
This is summarized in the IV Preface of Lent: “For through bodily fasting you restrain our faults, raise up our minds, and bestow both virtue and its rewards.”
In short, the Church mandates fast and abstinence in order to help free us from the chains of slavery to sin. Rather than an onerous obligation it is a cry of freedom from all that binds us to ourselves and to our passions.