About the Required Penances

In reading and talking with assorted friends elsewhere, the details of the various lenten penances keeps coming up.  What if you’re a vegetarian, do you have to do something extra?  What if your favorite meals are meatless anyway?  What if you are forced to go to a barbeque buffet on a friday (social obligation, large gathering, no one studying your plate)?  What if your life is such absolute misery right now that though you had planned extra penances on top of the obligations, you are too sick to pull them off?

And meanwhile, here are the Orthodox, who don’t play around with their fasts.

My thought is this:  Just do what the Church says.

The church doesn’t ask the impossible.  We’re told when we fast, to eat enough to maintain strength.  There are exemptions for people with medical needs that prohibit fasting or abstinence.

The Catholic Church takes sort of an opposite tack from the Orthodox, but either approach makes sense.  Catholics are given a bare-minimum assignment, and reminded that we who can do more, should do more.  Always.  How we fill in that blank is up to the individual to discern.  The Orthodox go hard and strong as  a blanket policy, and then your priest directs you on how to modify your observance of the fast per your state in life and spiritual maturity.  Two sides of the same coin: What you can do, you should do. What you cannot, you cannot.

As Catholics, I think our Lent Lite approach helps focus us on one thing: Obedience.

Not creativity, not “spirit of the law”, not Who Can Be the Saintliest.  If you are vegetarian, it is easy to obey.  If you are at the barbeque buffet forced to eat nothing but rice and mushy greenbeans and the little protein bar you stuffed in your pocket because you knew this was going to happen, well that’s a little harder.  (The Orthodox are laughing at you, of course, as you offer up your macroni-and-cheese-eating, but never mind.  They are laughing at all of us.)

But obedience.  Simple, unfettered, unworried obedience. That seems to be message #1 the Church wants us to learn today.

Seems timely.


[And yeah, it makes people super mad when you admit to it: That you’ll change your life in some small way for no other reason than The Church Says So.  Which is kind of a perverse pleasure for us curmodgeons, thinking of who we can really shock and alarm by eating our tuna with such docility. Ha.  Lent has its upsides.]




17 thoughts on “About the Required Penances

  1. Or how about a Cursillo Ultreya on Friday night in Lent and everyone brings a meat dish. . . . (This happened the last time my parents hosted one in the 90s. My parents and the deacon were the only ones who served meatless dishes).

    My parents’ best friends lived in the Middle East for a long time and observe Lent by fasting the way the Muslims do in Ramadan.

    What I never get is: are people *that* into meat???
    I mean, I’m like deathly allergic to it, but I love pasta. I know fish is tricky to cook right, and I still haven’t even learned how to make fish sticks without them coming out wrong. . . . But I love fish. If I could afford it, and my kids would eat it, I’d get Cap’n D’s every Friday night.

    But even when people say, “I hate fish,” it’s like, “What about a cheese pizza or a vegetable pizza? Why not just eat Spaghetti with marinara sauce and no meat?” Or, like you suggested, macaroni and cheese? If I weren’t so worried about wheat and carbs, I’d eat nothing but pasta. Gosh, people are weird.

    1. Hehe. Yeah. I tried to think up a meat-laden meal for Mardi Gras, but no luck. I didn’t have anything quick and easy enough for the circumstances that also had meat in it. Sunday evening the boy was campaigning for me to stick the mac & cheese in the oven, but I told him that was for Ash Wed, cause I wanted something I didn’t have to cook.

      I appreciate that this particular penance is harder for some people than for others. But then, everything in life is like that.

  2. What does Mac and Cheese have to do with an oven?

    (Mary’s mom loves to tell the story of when she [Nana] was a little girl and had home made biscuits for the first time, at someone else’s house; she said, “These taste almost as good as biscuits from a can!” Her mother was mortified).

    1. psst . . . there are two kinds. The kind you buy in a box and mix up on the stove, and the other kind you buy in a box and stick in the oven for an hour.

      [Actually I have made a kind that didn’t come in a box, sort of — that is, you have to gather together all the right packages and follow a recipe from a book, to mix everything. But we aren’t talking about that.]

    1. Oh, you might be right. I was being a self-absorbed Latin-Rite type. We’re like the Parisians of religion, no?

      (Except that there is good evidence the world really does revolve around Paris.)

      1. Yep, but Eastern Catholics consider themselves Catholic *and* Orthodox, so that’s OK 🙂
        (Though there’s no such thing as an Eastern Rite: “Rite” refers to the liturgy. There are Eastern local churches, many of which use the Byzantine Rite, but some use the Coptic Rite and others use the Syriac Rite).

        1. See what a good job I am doing at my role? I’ll just think up some more errors to throw out about easterners . . .

          1. That was Bearing’s error, not yours 😉

            But, hey, I think I know more about the nuances of Eastern Christianity at this point than most Eastern Christians.

          2. Eh, I was right there with her.

            But re: knowledge: Yes, that seems to be the way. A certain protestant spouse of mine knew more about catholicism than most catholics.

    1. Agreed! (The context was, vegetarians wondering if they therefore had to do some other penance in place of giving up meat.)

        1. I disagree with that. I do not think there is an obligation to do some alternate penance above and beyond the ordinary abstaining from meat, in the case where you personally do not find the abstinence penitential. Any more than I’m obligated to attend an extra mass on Sunday on account of how I’d go to one anyway of my own desire, regardless of the precept.

          –> That’s not saying the christian life boils down to the bare minimum and nothing more. Only that in building on the minimums, we don’t need to make substitute obligations in the case where one obligation happens to come easily to us.

          I think it is more a case of once you master the minimums, the church leaves it to your discretion how best to proceed with your spiritual education from there. (Providing many suggestions and possible courses of study to help you choose wisely. But leaving that discernment entirely to you.)

          And I guess that’s where people are feeling the need to do some alternate penance instead. Because we do need the additional penance, if we are at that point. Our instinct is pointing us to a genuine spiritual need.

    2. Okay I looked at your linked post. Hrmph. I’ll have to just admit that I am unable to discuss rationally any idea accompanied by a photo of yummy bacon on the hoof.

      (I am unable to discuss immigration law for this exact same reason. I immediately think “restaurant” and my logical reasoning abilities go out the window.)

  3. Not eating meat is not that big a deal to me, although I do love my steak and my bacon. But it does feel like cheating to get the excellent Friday fish fry from the Orthodox church down the street. It is not a sacrifice at all. I keep thinking that although I am complying with the letter of the law, it hardly seems to be the spirit. Hence, I have decided that Fridays will also be sugar free for me. Oh man, that gets my attention.

    PS I cannot do fasting, though, as that leads to migraines, which I hope God does not want me to have even when I am trying to avoid my triggers.

    1. I think that’s a great thing to do, above and beyond the bare-minimum. We’re in about the same boat as far as tastes and preferences, though I’ll admit the meat demon makes appearances from time to time.

      (And agreed re: fasting and your health. Migraines are not trivial.)

      My poor husband has to go out for sushi tomorrow night. Business dinner, and it worked well that sushi was the specific request from the client. But I kidded him about that a bit.

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