Pauca Verba is Latin for A Few Words.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Pre-Lent and Some Thoughts On Fasting

The Temptation in the Wilderness ~  Briton Riviere 1840-1920

On the old calendar (prior to 1969) today, and the next two Sundays comprise what used to be called, Pre-Lent. Today is Septuagesima Sunday (roughly 70 days until Easter), then Sexagesima Sunday (roughly sixty days until Easter), then Quinquagesima Sunday (roughly fifty days until Easter). The three Sundays had a penitential feel to them, violet was introduced and the Lenten fast begun. I imagine they were dropped from the calendar, the liturgical reformers thinking the forty days of Lenten-fast was sufficient. 

One writer likened the three Sundays to arriving early for a dinner and before ringing the bell, hanging out on the front porch for awhile. The Pre-Lent message is: Head's up! Pay attention! Have a think on what we're setting out to do. Not a bad idea for a culture that's in high gear and arrives at everything poorly planed and out of breath. 

A young Greek monk said to me once, "The West has completely lost its ascetical dimension." He meant we've lost our sense of spiritual disciplines, especially prayer and fasting. My experience suggests he was onto something. Remember this Gospel scene:

When they reached the multitude, a man came up and knelt before him: Lord, he said, have pity on my son, who is a lunatic, and in great affliction; he will often throw himself into the fire, and often into water. I brought him here to thy disciples, but they have not been able to cure him. Jesus answered, Ah, faithless and misguided generation, how long must I be with you, how long must I bear  with you? Bring him here before me. And Jesus checked him with a word, and the devil came out of him; and from that hour the boy was cured. Afterwords, when they were alone, the disciples came to Jesus and asked, Why was it that we could not cast it out? Jesus said to them, Because you had no faith. I promise you, if you have faith, though it be but like a grain of mustard seed, you have only to say to this mountain, Remove from this place to that, and it will remove; nothing will be impossible to you. But there is no way of casting out such spirits as this except by prayer and fasting. Matthew17:14-21

Jesus is telling us that prayer and fasting are efficacious: they are restorative, powerful and effective. We'd be more successful in spiritual things if we fasted. And the Greek monk was saying that Western Christianity has essentially given up on that. 

When I was a boy the fast before receiving Holy Communion was from midnight the night before. Then in about 1958 it was changed to a three hour fast. In our own time it has been reduced to one hour, which no one ever alludes to, figuring we spend the better part of an hour in church before receiving Communion anyway. The purpose of the Eucharistic fast was to replicate the excited loss of appetite early Christians experienced when they knew they'd be receiving the Eucharist on Sunday morning. That sounds like something worth preserving.

A friend recently observed that human beings seem to have been made for fasting, that when we lived in caves there were no food-laden tables and storage pantries. We were hunters and gather-ers. If the hunt was successful and the berries and nuts in season, we ate, if not, we fasted until food was available. 

When out in the woods or fields looking for food, hunters had to be hyper-alert, totally attentive, otherwise they'd miss the food that might have been right under their noses.  It seems that while fasting may slow down our physical metabolism, in some way it helps us to become more astute, better at hearing, better at seeing. Our survival depended on it.

Many great saints were fast-ers and as a result their inner spiritual capacities were heightened and honed. St. Seraphim of Sarov was a Russian hermit who lived in the forest for decades. When he came out of his reclusion and the long solitary fasting, he was thronged with people, greeting each of them individually as, "My joy!" What did he see in them that we usually miss about newcomers and strangers? Perhaps for his fasting, he was able to see their souls, pregnant with God-presence and energy. 

When St. Maximilian Kolbe was put in the Nazi starvation bunker, he led his fellow prisoners in the singing of hymns to the Mother of God. Imagine through starvation, having the presence of mind to ward off madness and to sing to heaven. It was the Nazi guards, not Maximilian, who became mad - so crazed by the priest's enduring song that they had to finish him off with carbolic acid. 

So what's the point? I suppose just to consider these things as Lent draws near. Maybe the young Greek monk was correct in his observation of Western Christians and we can do something personal to turn that around. But whatever we do we must do it for the Lord. Religions are susceptible to minimalism, the nasty spiritual disease which insults God and makes religion look ridiculous. 

As a newly ordained deacon I was sent to a comfortable parish with a large rectory. On Ash Wednesday (a no-meat day) a huge platter of seafood came out of the kitchen for the clergy: clams, mussels, lobster, shrimp, crab, scallops. The pastor was delighted and at once told the cook, "This is delicious, make sure we have this again for Good Friday." Oh, we can do better. Let's be done with religious formalities, empty of spirit.


  1. This is a real Lenten energizer for me. Your right! In the last few years, prayer and fasting have not been well planned on my part. When I fasted, I felt God knew I was sincere about lent and I did feel so good and powerful. Grateful for this gift you have.

  2. I don't know how you do it, but you've made fasting sound enticing. All we need is some education and it all makes sense.

    1. "All we need is some education." I'm glad for the connection and for your docility - which comes from the Latin word "docere" and means "to teach". A docile person is someone who simply allows himself/herself to be taught. Bless your Lent!

  3. For the past several years, you have offered us some sort of journey through Lent in preparation for Easter and the Risen Lord. I can see that this year will be no different. I confess that by making some sacrifices and by doing serious reflection, it makes a difference in my life. There is an anticipation that comes with Lenten preparation that makes Easter Sunday more meaningful than a basket full of chocolate eggs and an obligatory trip to Church. I fee the difference and I implore more people out there to truly take advantage of the blog posts. It will change your inner self.

  4. A couple of weeks ago I had an idea to help us travel through Lent. I talked with a good friend about it and am soooooo excited about this. A real challenge for me. Stay tuned! Bless your Lent, Sarah!