The Fourth Precept
We’re almost there! So far we’ve covered 1) To attend Mass on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation, 2) To go to confession at least once a year (and any time we are aware of grave sins), and 3) To receive Holy Communion at least once during the Easter Season.
The fourth precept of the Roman Catholic Church is to observe days of fasting and abstinence.
The Church sets out certain days where we are to not eat meat (abstinence) and days when we are to fast (eat only one meal). Most notably are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday as days of fasting and all the Fridays of Lent as days of abstinence. But the Church also still instructs us that we are to abstain from meat on all Fridays of the year. If we are not able to abstain from meat, we are still supposed to offer something in substitute, say coffee, or screen time, or the like. But why?
Voluntary penance is one of the best spiritual practices there is. Taking on small sacrifices or inconveniences connects us in a real way to the suffering of Our Lord and the suffering of His people around the world, which is a sign of true compassion, which literally means “to suffer with”. Also, when we choose to offer up our meat dishes (or our meals entirely) it sends a clear message to the passions of the body that they are not in charge, but rather the will is. We are reminded that we are not mere animals driven from one passion to the next, but a unique creature made in the image and likeness of God, capable of discernment, rational thought, and sacrificial love.
What happens to us when we get what we want all the time? There may be gratitude at the beginning, but soon comes the sense of entitlement, a sense that we deserve the favorable treatment, the luxury, the comfort. But when difficulties arise, as they always do, the spoiled person cannot bear it and has no resilience. Rather than bouncing back, he crumbles. But a virtuous person recognizes that the “no” to various whims and desires is rooted deeply in some much greater “yes” and gives him the necessary perspective and interior strength to bounce back.
Fasting and abstinence work in the soul in precisely the same way. When we willingly give up what we want in the moment–that snack, that burger, that steak dinner on a Friday in Lent–we find a freedom and an openness to receive what we actually want and need the most: grace, God’s own life in us.
We’ll have a great opportunity to exercise this precept this coming Ash Wednesday, which falls on February 14, St. Valentine’s Day. Which precept will you follow, the culture telling you to feast, or the Lord’s Bride, the Church, inviting you to fast?
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!
All you holy saints of God, pray for us!
Peace in Christ,