Over the years, probably the most-asked question I’ve gotten in Lent has been “Why don’t Catholics eat meat on Fridays?” The easy answer is a simple one-word response, “Tradition.” Abstinence from meat is just something that over the course of time began and then become ingrained within our church-community over time. Now it’s just so customary and familiar that we couldn’t think of anything else.
It’s helpful, of course, also to realize that in pre-modern times, before refrigeration existed, “meatless” days did not usually mean “fish-full” days. Unless you lived “on the water,” a day of abstinence from meat probably meant a vegetarian diet. And a much less protein-filled one.
This of course helps us to realize the key idea behind fasting from food (I include abstaining from meat, desserts, alcohol and any other “favorite” protein- and calorie-rich food in this). That idea is self-deprivation. It’s not a popular concept but a vitally important religious one. In our day and age, lots of people shrink from any notion that “less is better” – but I hope that Catholic Christians are smarter than that! Depriving ourselves of good things – always within reason, of course, and never to the point of masochism – is a way to enhance our lives, especially in matters spiritual.
When we go without, we sharpen our awareness of our bodily and psychological needs: real fasting makes us hungry, and that serves as a reminder of our physical human limitations. But it can also make us more sensitive to social needs as well, as our measly little hunger pangs prompt us to appreciate more the real hunger experienced by so many people around the world. And all of these realizations are ones which the Lord wants us to make!