Wednesday, March 4, 2009


Pope Benedict, in his message for Lent focused on fasting. He says that “it seems abundantly clear that fasting represents an important ascetical practice, a spiritual arm to do battle against every possible disordered attachment to ourselves. Freely chosen detachment from the pleasure of food and other material goods helps the disciple of Christ to control the appetites of nature, weakened by original sin, whose negative effects impact the entire human person.”

Since fasting is the focus Pope Benedict has chosen for Lent, I thought it might be good to see what St. Benedict has to say on the topic. He addresses the topic in Chapter 41 of the Holy Rule which is entitled “At What Hours the Meals Should be Taken” St Benedict says:

From Pentecost throughout the summer, unless the monks have work in the fields let them fast on Wednesdays and Fridays until the ninth hour; on the other days let them dine at the sixth hour.

From the Ides of September until the beginning of Lent let them always take their dinner at the ninth hour.

In Lent until Easter let them dine in the evening.

In this passage we have described what many religious orders observe as part of their rule. They fast begin their fasting on the Feast of the Triumph of the Holy Cross on the Ides of September and end it at Easter. There would be the lesser fast (the fast from the middle of September until Lent) and the great fast (from the beginning of Lent until Easter).

Fasting traditionally has meant only taking on meal a day, this is the kind of fast that St. Benedict is talking about in this passage from the Holy Rule. The only difference between the lesser fast and the great fast in the Holy Rule is when the meal is taken. During the times of the lesser Fast, the meal is taken at ninth hour (three in the afternoon). During the great fast the meal would be taken in the evening, yet before dark.

The first quotation also shows us that for St. Benedict, fasting is not just for Lent. He also has the monks fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays from Pentecost throughout the summer.

So what does this mean for us, and how might we apply it to our lives? I think that the first thing we can glean from this is that St. Benedict feels that fasting in necessary in that it helps us to grow in holiness through self denial. He knew that monks, like all of us, are in need of training oneself in the fine art of saying no to ourselves, something that fasting teaches us in a hurry.

We also learn that he is of the opinion that fasting should be something not just reserved for Lent, but is something that we can profit from at other times of the year as well, even though it may not be as severe.

If we are ambitious in spiritual matters, and if it is prudent, we might consider only taking one meal every day during Lent. For some of us, like myself, who are more attached to food, this might be quite a struggle, and so we might not want to take on so much. Maybe we could stick to only taking on meal in the evening on Wednesdays and Fridays.

St. Benedict is very balanced and prudent and is always clear that these sorts of things are to always done under the guidance of the Abbot, or the Father of the monastery, and that they should help us to save our souls and the souls of others. We too would be wise to discuss our penances and mortifications with someone who is wiser than us so that we don’t fall into spiritual pride or incur physical harm.


memoriadei said...

Spiritual pride...a very interesting thing to try to understand. St. Benedict, St. Bernard of Clairvaux would definitely be very careful about this. But, pride is difficult to see and even more difficult is spiritual pride. I'm wondering...when they fast until the 6th or 9th hour, did they eat a bit of bread possibly early in the day? This is such an interesting topic, I could ask too many questions! Thank you and God bless.

Melanie said...

Thank you Father!

J. Smith said...

Important lessons for all of us, Father. I often decide that I need to fast more and then let yet another year slip by with nothing put into practice. May your excellent post inspire me to follow in the example of St. Benedict!