I’ve been seeing this come up a good bit in social media lately. I think my favorite comment about it is when people say “How can it be a penance! I love seafood”. To be honest, whenever I see that I think the person has missed the point. Given how pervasive that seems to be, an explanation is in order.
I keep the Friday abstention from meat as a penance. Abstaining from meat that day is only part of it though, the other part for me is the prayer that goes on that day apologizing to God for my shortcomings in the week and the reflection on how I can do better. So why skip the meat, you can pray anytime! What difference does it make what you eat?
Let me explain further – it is not for me so much about what I eat as being always mindful the entire day of every action and forcing me to ask myself “IF” I should do something like eat a sausage McMuffin when I am dashing off early. Being mindful reminds me I should NOT do that and instead choose another menu item or go with a cup of coffee and a potato cake instead. This is important because I consider the Friday Abstention a spiritual exercise more than a discipline. I have been using it for many years to train myself to consider my faith always before acting.
I know. I know. That sounds crazy. If you think it’s an easy thing to do, then try keeping a meatless Friday yourself. About the time you think you have it made or get distracted, you will slip up. Don’t worry it happens to the best of us. This is a learning experience about self discipline and Catholic spirituality you can do yourself. It’s not nearly as easy as it sounds either. It is a penance for me in that I am repenting what I have done wrong the previous week, and stay focused on God the entire day thanks to this discipline.
The road to holiness is long, and I am not as strong as I would like to be. There is a feeling of accomplishment and joy at being able to accomplish just morning and evening prayers and make it to the following morning without having broken the fast. The purpose is not to mortify the flesh, but rather to mortify the soul and build up my mindfulness of God. In that sense it has been more successful than I had hoped and more trying than I anticipated. I do not do it because I expect some heavenly reward – but rather because the discipline brings me closer to God in a way I can feel. It can also draw you closer to the confessional when you reflect on yourself more often. Imagine if you had such mindfulness in everything you did all week long, not just in what you ate. Imagine applying it to your thoughts, speech, actions, and interactions. I’m not there yet, but I’m trying.
Please consider this before denigrating people who keep traditional practices. There is great joy and wisdom to be found in many of them, if we just stop to look.