I have a friend who will be sitting the bar exam on Ash Wednesday. She’s young and healthy, but still: What a high-pressure situation!
She needs to be as mentally sharp as possible, and she has to have the stamina to make it though the day’s exam without flagging. A poor performance means, at best, another round of studying and exams; in a worst case it could completely derail her legal career.
It is not the kind of day when you’d say to yourself: How about I just don’t eat?
So what do you do in that situation, or one like it, if you’re a Catholic obliged to observe a fast day?
Because canon law leaves the details of obligatory fast days to the local bishops’ conferences, I’m going to look at just the the situation in the US; if your locality’s bishops have a much stricter set of mandates, then use this as perspective in deciding whether to ask your pastor for a dispensation (if needed).
Here are three resources from the USCCB worth knowing about:
- US Bishops’ Pastoral Statement on Penance and Abstinence;.
- Lenten resources links page;
- the USCCB’s infographic that elaborates on what the two major Lenten fasts entail.
These are authoritative in the sense that if you are obedient to these guidelines, you are doing what the Church requires on the mandatory fasting dates. So what do we learn?
First of all, the limits on food intake still allow a full meal plus two additional snacks that together make up less than a meal. So, in getting through a challenging work day, most people can probably do with 1.95 meals, divided out into no more than three sittings.
Furthermore, while the fast prior to Communion (one hour, currently, with some exceptions) requires abstaining from drinks other than water, the Lenten fasting guidelines only restrict food intake. You’re free to have a glass of milk or juice between meals, for example.
So: For most Catholics required to fast, you can manage to eat and drink what you need to get through your day, even if it is a very demanding day.
What if I Really Need to Eat Extra Today?
The USCCB is not your doctor and doesn’t pretend to be. You set your meal size according to what you actually need to eat. If Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, or some other day of penance happens to be a day when you need to eat more than usual (such as if you have an unusually strenuous task that day), so be it. Your three food breaks will be scaled up as truly needed.*
Furthermore, this isn’t a calorie-counting test. You’re not being asked to calculate to the gram your exact energy expenditures. Just make your best estimate.
What you don’t get is a pass to knowingly eat more than you know that you need (beyond what is formally permitted), just because you want to.
*Note here: Many of us do just fine living off our stored energy reserves for the day, and frankly don’t need to eat anything at all — we may even feel more alert and energetic while fasting. That’s great! But not everyone has that capacity, and hence this post.
What if I Have a Medical Condition?
The guidelines set forth by the USCCB specifically exempt those who have a physical or mental illness, as well as those pregnant or breastfeeding.
Illnesses would include:
- Anorexia nervosa and other eating disorders;
- OCD (scrupulosity is often a form of OCD) that makes you overwhelmingly fearful of breaking the fast;
- Low bodyweight or difficulty maintaining bodyweight;
- Digestive or blood sugar problems that require taking small, frequent meals rather than two or three large meals;
- Needing to take medicine outside meal times but which has to be taken with food.
So let’s put this differently: If you find that in order to get through your obligations for the day you just really, truly do need to eat more than that 1.95 meals in no more than three sittings? Something is wrong with how your body works, and the USCCB has specifically said that you are excused from the obligation to fast.
If you haven’t already talked to a doctor about your situation, maybe this is Jesus prompting you to do so.
That doesn’t mean you are forbidden to fast if you are able to do so, just because you have a “qualifying condition,” though I think it does signal that you should prioritize stewardship of your health over proving just how amazing you are at self-denial.
Fasting is Important!
I say all this as a person who put an entire chapter on fasting into my book on evangelization. I consider fasting to be a non-negotiable. Without fasting (or other penance if you are someone who should not physically fast at this time), the Christian life is sterile and powerless.
Fasting is crucial. You should fast in some way that is consistent with your state in life, and you should be fasting more frequently than just those two days a year.
HOWEVER: This does not mean that you have a magical ability to change the lot in life God gave you this particular Lent. An integral part of the life of penance is accepting the divinely-ordered will of God, even when His Most Holy Will involves you being unable to safely fast from food on an official day of penance.
Related: Lenten Obedience or “What if actually fasting according to the USCCB’s guidelines is no big deal and not a penance for me at all?”
Photo: Glass of Water by Greg Riegler, CC 2.0