Is it your idea of Lenten devotion to piously abstain from meat only to go nuts eating horrible junk foods instead?
Many Catholics have gotten it in their heads that the mere abstinence from meat makes for a terrific sacrifice during Lent. They sabotage the whole point of the season by filling their Sunday meals with sugary foods, huge plates of spaghetti, and the most tartar-sauced “fish sammiches” they can find. How in the world can anybody call this penitential?
So, folks get the surreptitious idea that they can loophole meatless Fridays by eating a whole host of bad foods if they fall within vegetarian parameters. Leaving aside the fact that your typical vegetarian tends to supplant meat with destructive alternatives like soy, I think we see a lot of our Catholic friends avoiding meat in favor of delicious treats.
An honest self-reflection tells us that we are doing more harm than good with this practice. Doing this leads us away from the purpose of abstaining from meat, which is to:
- Honor Christ’s sacrifice of His flesh
- Mortify our concupiscible appetites to help us meditate better on Christ’s suffering
- Demonstrate our obedience to Church precepts
- We SHOULD be doing this every Friday of the year (except solemn Octaves)
We should take our fasting and abstinence seriously because of these holy and important objectives. Failing to honor God with a half-hearted approach to penance is only going to lead to our spiritual doom. However, we need not fear. All we must do is get our heads on straight when observing the Lenten fasts. I have suggestions for how to do that.
Aim for a Caloric Deficit
One way to hasten yourself into the spirit of Lent, the honoring of Our Lord’s passionate suffering, is to eat in a way that recalls his restrained and humble life. Focus as much as possible on consuming less and make that your approach for every weekday; not just Friday.
Why? Because Our Lord took this approach on both the beginning and end of His public ministry. Do you remember what He did following the Wedding Feast at Cana? He went into the desert and fasted for 40 days.
You don’t have to starve yourself, but there is a way to do this in an organized fashion. First, figure out how much you weigh. Second, look up your “baseline caloric intake” for your height/weight (there is a calculator for that). Third, make it your goal to go about 10% below it for every day during Lent (except Sunday). This is called creating a “caloric deficit.”
Do this along with the Church’s requirements for fasting/abstinence. This will prevent you from gaming the system too much. If you keep your caloric intake at a deficit, there won’t be room for donuts and buttery popcorn during Lent. One last nugget of advice: drink copious amounts of water! Unless you’re trying a difficult water fast, hydration is an important component this. Most people are just thirsty when they think they are hungry.
Healthy Foods Can Be Cheating on the Lenten Spirit Too
Let us not be adulterous to the Lenten spirit and betray her with cheap tricks. I think we can agree that lobster is a nutritious menu item. It’s also clearly in the “fish” category, which makes it licit for consumption during Lent. However, we again elude the sacrificial element when we indulge in delicacies and luxuries like lobster (or crab cakes, grilled shrimp, or any other healthy, but delectable seafood).
YOU’RE NOT SUPPOSED TO ENJOY IT!
I may be going out on a limb here, but I’ve never seen someone eat crab/lobster, who didn’t enjoy them. That’s why they cost as much as they do. So, although these types of fish and other foods are neither unhealthy or in violation of the Lenten precepts, consuming them causes us to lose sight of suffering and its union with Christ’s passion.
You cannot tell me, with a straight face, that you’re suffering right after downing some jumbo shrimp dipped in garlic sauce.
Overwhelmed By Fasting? Don’t Forget About Sunday!
Even during Lent, the Church follows a system of ebbs and flows with regards to penance and celebration. Catholics do not fast on Sunday. You should take that seventh day, the Lord’s day, to relax your dietary penance and refuel a bit (this doesn’t mean “binge”).
You may need this on a psychological level. It’s great to fast for spiritual and dietary reasons, but even advocates of year-long fasting and keto dieting (the no-carbs approach) allow for wiggle room with a cheat day. We as Catholics know which day is our best to “cheat.” The obvious choice is Sunday, the time when we lay aside our labors, attend to more prayer/worship, but also spend time with others to “eat, drink, and be merry.” Consider that especially on the joyful Laetare Sunday (4th Sunday of Lent).
Our Lord rebuffed the Pharisees’ accusations of not fasting on the Sabbath on the grounds that one does not fast in the presence of the bridegroom. Every Sunday, when we commemorate the resurrection of Our Savior, we cease fasting and acknowledge His presence in a joyful way. This contrasts with the penance we should perform during the rest of the week. If we maintain this model of fasting and feasting, joining in with the ebbs and flows of the liturgical seasons, we will see the benefits of a much more balanced, fruitful life.
Whatever you do, don’t waste Lent (especially Holy Week) by chowing down on so many empty carbs, trans-fats, and other franken-foods. You’re deluding yourself if you believe this is the Church’s tradition. Our Lord did not take Cheetos and cupcakes out to the desert. You shouldn’t either.