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.
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.
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.