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June 2nd, 2011

What Works: Meat-free Fridays

Reviving an abstinence tradition that never really went away


Grilled shrimp and asparagus © 2011 Phil Fox Rose

Grilled shrimp and asparagus © 2011 Phil Fox Rose

A few weeks ago, when the bishops of England and Wales decided to reestablish the practice of abstaining from meat on Fridays, I had been thinking about the issue already after seeing friends struggle with the few Fridays of Lent. I have abstained from “meat” on Fridays since becoming Catholic. (I put meat in quotes because seafood is allowed.) Since Vatican II, this practice hasn’t been required — one well-meaning friend even suggested I was being disobedient by doing it — but when I discovered during my conversion that the tradition was not eliminated but just made non-mandatory, I said to myself, “I think I’d like to do that anyway.”

Meat-free Fridays were a given from at least the ninth century, but it seems that when things were loosened in the 1960s, Catholics said a collective sigh of, “Well, glad that nuisance is over,” and started eating meat seven days a week. The Church never removed the requirement that one do something penitential every Friday (abstinence being one option), but many Catholics I talk to don’t even know this. I’d like to join with the English and Welsh bishops in suggesting a return to the tradition of meat-free Fridays.

Growing up in a non-religious formerly Protestant household, we had no dietary traditions other than the Midwestern inclination to use processed foods like Cheez Whiz, orange juice concentrate and canned cream soups whenever possible (including in unexpected ways that rivaled the adventurousness of nouvelle cuisine.) But when my family moved to New York City I found myself immersed in a culture that was equal parts Jewish and Catholic and my sister became a Seventh Day Adventist. Suddenly I was surrounded by people with faith-based dietary restrictions. Now, that mix includes Muslims and Buddhists.

Dietary laws

There are several reasons that faith practices can include dietary laws and traditions. Some proscribed unsafe foods (especially pre-refrigeration) and these physical health guidelines became codified into religious law. Others forbid intoxicants because they threaten your spiritual health by causing you to misperceive reality or not be fully present. Some forbid foods that are bad for your health out of respect for the body as a temple (1 Corinthians 6:16-17). Yet another category is tied to ethical beliefs concerning animals. For example, many Buddhists are vegetarian as a result of the centrality in that practice of causing no harm to other life.

The Church never removed the requirement that one do something penitential every Friday (abstinence being one option), but many Catholics I talk to don’t even know this. I’d like to join with the English and Welsh bishops in suggesting a return to the tradition of meat-free Fridays.

But the Catholic practice of abstaining from meat on Fridays is a different kind of dietary restriction. In part, it is tradition, ritual. We do it to remember, more like the Jewish abstention from eating leavened bread during Passover. Long ago, I thought it was beautiful when an Orthodox Jewish friend explained that one of the benefits of following the 613 mitzvot (commandments) in Jewish law was that it filled your day and all your actions with reminders that you are living in relation to God.

The British bishops echoed this idea when they said that abstaining from meat on Fridays would exist “in the lives of the faithful as a clear and distinctive mark of their own Catholic identity.” (Of course, that also hints at another result of special dietary laws which has value but can become problematic: to set you apart from others.)

Meat abstinence is also grounded in the extensive use of fasting in ancient times, still practiced by many today, as an act of asceticism and ritual purification. From Yom Kippur to Jesus’ 40 days in the desert to Lent, fasting as purification, often to begin a new phase, has always been part of the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Facing up to instant gratification

Abstinence also involves facing up to instant gratification. Our society is built on instant gratification and there are few things more toxic to spiritual fitness. It is a fascinating and educational experience to want something — something you could easily obtain — and refrain from satisfying the urge. In this way, abstinence can help teach you how driven you are by your urges, and how thoughtlessly you obey them.

On a practical health note, some suggest that fasting one day a week is good for the digestive system and disease resistance — an example of the link often present between what is good for the body and what is good for the soul. While meat abstinence is not a full fast, there is a health benefit to giving the body a little break from hard-to-digest meat. (A commenter to my Lenten column about abstaining from alcohol correctly pointed out that this kind of penitential abstinence isn’t about doing something good for you, but about giving up something you enjoy. That’s true. In this case, the health benefits are a nice side-effect.)

During my time as a Catholic, I have practiced this meat abstinence two different ways. Some of the time, I’ve been vegan on Fridays — that is, no animal products at all. It’s easy to make good hearty vegan meals, and since I already eat less meat than the average American, this is more of a sacrifice on my part than simply skipping meat one day. Most of the time, though, I’ve eaten seafood on Fridays. While less restrictive, this is for me more of an alteration of my normal diet. I don’t like fish that’s fishy, and the challenges of buying seafood super-fresh, cooking it thoroughly, and dealing with the cooking smell and the dirty cookware and dishes haven’t seemed worth it. So, for me, eating seafood on Fridays is a clearer way of saying, “Fridays are different.” I also love that I’m participating in something that billions of people have practiced for thousands of years.

Reading Elizabeth Scalia’s recent column in First Things about growing up with meatless Fridays, I realize my own experience of this ritual is different. She describes the humbleness of a meal that is just sustenance without being exciting to the palate. With my meat-free meals like last Friday’s grilled shrimp and asparagus (see photo), there isn’t much asceticism or humbleness going on. But it’s still enriching to my spiritual and physical health to take part in this ancient weekly ritual of penitence, purification and self-restraint.

The Author : Phil Fox Rose
Phil Fox Rose is content manager of Busted Halo. He's a writer, editor and content lead based in New York and writes the On the Way blog at patheos.com. He is coordinator for the New York City chapter of Contemplative Outreach, helping promote centering prayer, which has been his contemplative practice for nearly 20 years. Phil has also been a political party leader, videographer, tech journalist, punk roadie, software designer, sheepherder, stockbroker and downtempo radio DJ. A common thread is the process of learning about stuff, figuring it out and then sharing that understanding with others. Follow Phil on Facebook here. Or on Twitter here. philfoxrose.com.
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  • Sam

    Steve .. buy they ARE sinning if they are placing their faith in it to obtain righteousness. Only the Cross should be the object of our faith, because it was there that Jesus paid for our sins. This is what the Book of Galatians is all about … In Galatians 3:1, Paul calls the Galatians foolish for going back into the law – the law here is understood to mean any work of the flesh, including the doing of any religious practice offered to God to establish our righteousness to Him. We cannot do anything (works) to be righteousness, it is all faith – 100%.

    So, while you are right that fasting is Scriptural, when a person places his faith in fasting as a basis of earning righteousness with God, then it is sin. Romans 14:23.

  • Steve

    Sam, the purpose of abstinence is simply the denial of a luxury. It has nothing to do with the law, which, as you correctly point out, was fulfilled by Christ. Doing so helps us realize how much we depend on God for all things and reorients ourselves to Christ. Fasting has deep Biblical roots (eg Mt 9:15, Mt 6:16-18) and those who do so certainly are not sinning.

  • Sam

    Actually, if you believe that not eating meat on Friday makes you any closer to God or more holy in any way, then you are sinning. See Acts where God told Peter that what I (God) has made pure, do not call common. Of course, he was referring to various forms of legalism including the types of meat a person could eat. Peter then went to Cornielius and preached the Gospel to him, and all of his house and his family were saved and spoke in tongues.

    So, not eating meat on Friday doesn’t make you one bit holier or closer to God than a person who only eats meat and nothing else on Friday.

  • Jenn

    Good article.
    I don’t mind the idea of not having meat on Fridays.
    But, I don’t like that people go out and eat lobster, crab, etc and spend 4 or 5 times what they regularly would on a meal.
    My understanding was that in Jesus’ time people ate fish on Friday because it was a cheap meal. The money they saved would go to the poor. So prayer, fasting, and almsgiving are related.
    I get annoyed during Lent that people go out for expensive seafood dinners and it seems to miss the point.
    When explained in your article as abstaining from something it does make sense.

  • Sam

    I all have to say is that, if righteousness comes by the law, then Christ is dead in vain. Galatians 2:21.

  • John

    No offence intended ML, but you have been in California too long. The vast majority of Americans enjoy eating meat at least 1 of not all 3 meals a day. Wether its sausage and eggs at breakfast, hot dogs at lunch, or pasta with meat sauces for dinner, we are by and large a carnivorous society.
    Abstaining from meat on fridays is a great way to deprive oneself of something you generally enjoy in order to give pennance for our sins. Also I feel the same as the author and UK bishops in that it would be a nice way to increase solidarity among Catholics.

  • ml

    If it works for you, more power to you, but I think that there are probably more Catholics now who don’t rely on meat at every meal or every day, and abstention isn’t something that is particularly penitential if you don’t much care for meat. That said, I like that there are things that we do as Catholics for the sake of doing them together, but to imply that a land-based meat free day is difficult for many is an over-generalization, I think. Or I’ve been in California too long.

  • Pat

    Nice. I like your twist of not just skipping meat, but going out of your way to shop for and prepare a “pescaterian” meal. This meshes nicely with what your friend said “reminders that you are living in relation to God”.

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