I’m a Catholic making beef stew today on a Friday during Lent and I’m not going to eat it. But, Kerry, I hear you saying, didn’t you hear that your local Cardinal Sean O’Malley lifted the obligation to abstain from meat during Lent due to the coronavirus? Yes, friend, I did hear that news, but much as I love Cardinal Sean, his directive is not influencing my decision on this issue today. And it’s not the first time.
Several years ago, I got into a heated discussion with a Catholic friend about the whole ‘no meat on Fridays during Lent’ thing. As someone who rarely eats meat (maybe once or twice a week at the most), it just didn’t seem like a sacrifice. According to the rules of abstinence, I could go to my favorite restaurant on a Friday during Lent and order my very favorite meal: grilled salmon, baked potato with lots of butter, and asparagus with a Greek salad on the side AND a couple of glasses of chardonnay AND dessert, but I could not sit at home and eat chicken noodle soup out of a can. If I did the former, all glory to God, but the latter, a sin. Does this make sense?
I think it’s past time to start thinking about our faith practices and why we do them. Are they habits, or checked boxes, or are we doing these things in a way that is actually meaningful to our faith? And here, I’m not advocating for discarding any particular practice, but simply the examination of its helpfulness to our relationship with God and each other? Why do we do a thing? What is the point?
We could go into a deep dive of the origin of abstaining from meat on Fridays, the symbolism of it, the recent modern history of the practice in America, the varied application across the world, the cultural implications in largely vegetarian countries, the weird dispensation on holidays like St. Patrick’s Day so we can get our corned beef and cabbage with a clean conscience. We could examine it all, and we should, especially if we are in the mood for a series of internet rabbit holes. But at the end of the day, the primary thing we should be looking at is not whether someone told us a thing is allowable or not, but rather how a particular practice draws us closer to God.
I used to tell my kids and CCD (religious education) students that the point of fasting or abstaining from a thing was to make room in our spirit for Jesus to come in and make a home in us. Staying away from chocolate or soda or meat during Lent isn’t a diet plan, a moral challenge, or a test of will power primarily, though those can be secondary results. Rather, we make a practice of saying ‘no’ to something in order to say ‘yes’ to God. We turn away from sin, feel our emptiness, and fill it, not with a burger, but with holiness. That’s the goal. That’s the point.
So why am I, as a rare meat eater, making beef stew and choosing not to eat it today? I’m so glad you asked. I’m making it to use up ingredients before they’re past their prime, so as not to waste anything. And I’m not eating it, even though today’s cold and rainy weather makes it a perfect day to eat beef stew (and I do actually want to eat it-the smell is amazing)! I’m making this sacrifice to make a little more space inside of me for God to come in, and I’m asking Him to send whatever grace may come specifically to give strength, health, protection and peace to my nurse friends, A, C, P, C, M, C, B, R, B, and my friend S’s girls, all working on the frontlines of the coronavirus emergency.
So I’ll have a grilled cheese and no candy and a little more time in prayer, and today that’s my why. They are my why, and they’re more than worth it. What’s yours?