What's all this "fast and abstinence" business?

This post is an Intro to Fast and Abstinence 101. Some of this information particularly applies to TODAY, Ash Wednesday (near the end of the post).

Isn't this all just a lot of rules?
Like many rules, those below are rather detailed in their wording and that’s at least in part to answer ahead of time the many questions that such rules often occasion. More important than the details of rules, however, is the spirit with which we comply with them. Most of us have some familiarity with dietary restrictions that are part of the religious life of peoples of other faiths and we admire the fidelity that keeps them loyal to their traditions.  Their practice can teach us how such such customs make the observance of holy days and seasons more personally concrete.

So, what's the "spirit" that should stand behind fasting?
Well, here's what the Lord has to say about fasting, through the words of the prophet Isaiah, Chapter 58:
Is this the manner of fasting I wish,
of keeping a day of penance:
That a man bow his head like a reed,
and lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?
This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:
releasing those bound unjustly,
untying the thongs of the yoke;
setting free the oppressed,
breaking every yoke;
sharing your bread with the hungry,
sheltering the oppressed and the homeless;
clothing the naked when you see them,
and not turning your back on your own...
If you remove from your midst oppression,
false accusation and malicious speech;
If you bestow your bread on the hungry
and satisfy the afflicted...

Then light shall rise for you in the darkness,

and the gloom shall become for you like midday;
Then the LORD will guide you always
and give you plenty even on the parched land.
He will renew your strength,
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring whose water never fails.
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In the same spirit, the following advice is convincing and compelling as we begin the season of Lent...

Lent is a season that calls us:

to fast from discontent and to feast on gratitude;
to fast from anger and to feast on patience;
to fast from bitterness and to feast on forgiveness;
to fast from self-concern and to feast on compassion;
to fast from discouragement and to feast on hope;
to fast from laziness and to feast on commitment;
to fast from complaining and to feast on acceptance;
to fast from lust and to feast on respect;
to fast from prejudice and to feast on understanding;
to fast from resentment and to feast on reconciliation;
to fast from lies and to feast on the truth;
to fast from wasted time and to feast on honest work;
to fast from grimness and to feast on joy;
to fast from suspicion and to feast on trust;
to fast from idle talk and to feast on prayer and silence;
to fast from guilt and to feast on the mercy of God.

 (Based on a version often attributed to William Arthur Ward)
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 Still not convinced? Spiritual writer Thomas Merton fillets some of our standard Lenten practices with a very sharp blade:
Such exercises as fasting cannot have their proper effect unless our motives for practicing them spring from personal meditation. We have to think of what we are doing, and the reasons for our actions must spring from the depths of our freedom and be enlivened by the transforming power of Christian love. Otherwise, our self-imposed sacrifices are likely to be pretenses, symbolic gestures without real interior meaning. Sacrifices made in this formalistic spirit tend to be mere acts of external routine performed in order to exorcise interior anxiety and not for the sake of love. In that case, however, our attention will tend to fix itself upon the insignificant suffering which we have piously elected to undergo, and to exaggerate it in one way or another, either to make it seem unbearable or else to make it seem more heroic than it actually is. Sacrifices made in this fashion would be better left unmade. It would be more sincere as well as more religious to eat a full dinner in a spirit of gratitude than to make some minor sacrifice a part of it, with the feeling that one is suffering martyrdom.

-Thomas Merton in The Climate of Monastic Prayer
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As you can see, the fasting we do and our abstaining from particular foods is meant to be an encouragement of and a sign of what's happening in our hearts.  In fact, the spirit of fasting suggested above is much more demanding than the dietary laws for the season of Lent.  You might be personally "fasting and abstaining" from particular things during Lent, the following is what's expected of all Catholics during this season.

are days of FAST and ABSTINENCE 

What does that mean?

On Ash Wednesday and Good Friday,
Catholics over 14 years of age
are expected to abstain from eating meat on this day.
Catholics 18 years of age
and up to the beginning of their 60th year
are expected to fast on these days:
taking only one full meal and two other light meals,
eating nothing between meals.
(liquids between meals, however, are allowed).

All the FRIDAYS of Lent are days of ABSTINENCE 

What does that mean?

Catholics over 14 years of age
are expected to abstain from eating meat
on the Fridays of Lent. 

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Health concerns and “doctor’s orders”
should always take precedence over the practices of fast and abstinence.
Fast and abstinence should never jeopardize one’s physical health. 

Pastors often receive requests from parishioners asking to be “dispensed” from fast and abstinence for particular social occasions. Of course, it is precisely on such occasions that the self-denial of fast and abstinence might be most meaningful. Such a “dispensation” is not a pastor’s to give. The Church tells us that in this matter individuals have freedom to excuse themselves but that, “no Catholic will lightly hold himself/herself excused from so hallowed an obligation as this penitential practice.”

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