One day, I was chatting with two moms, one Muslim and one Mormon (this is not the beginning of a joke), outside of the neighborhood elementary school back when our eldest was enrolled there. We live in a diverse area near the Mormon Temple, so this sort of interaction between people of different faiths and backgrounds is not unusual (although, not as common as one might expect given how close to each other everyone lives). It must have been Ramadan or close to it. One of the mothers, her head wrapped in a scarf, was visibly pregnant. I asked her if she was fasting. (There’s a large Somali Muslim population in Minneapolis where we used to live and so we were aware that many of the people around us fasted from all food and water from sunrise to sunset everyday for the month of ramadan.) This woman explained that she was because, even though she was “excused” from the fast because she was pregnant, she would have to make it up later on, which would be more challenging because she would be fasting alone.
“We don’t have to make it up if we are pregnant or nursing,” the Mormon mother explained. Mormons, generally speaking, fast from food and drink for two meals the first Sunday of the month.
The Catholic fast? We’re a bunch of light-weights.
We fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday and for an hour (yes, a single hour) before receiving the Eucharist, which usually happens about 45 minutes into the mass, which means, unless you are literally eating while on your way into your church, you’re generally good to go. Our Ash Wednesday and Good Friday fast? We are supposed to eat three meals and only three meals: one regular meal and then two smaller meals which do not, together, add up to more than the one regular meal. I know. It’s more an exercise in quantity estimation and meal planning than “sacrifice.” And maybe that’s part of what makes the fast relatively easy: we’re so busy calculating what we are eating, when, how much, and what it all adds up to that we don’t notice that we are eating (slightly) less than we would on a “normal day”. We also abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent and Ash Wednesday. Thus Catholics are sometimes called “fish-eaters”, which seems like a heavy moniker given that it comes from something we do what? seven days out of a year? And even on those days, we aren’t really “required” to eat fish. Grilled cheese and tomato soup is another favorite option. But “occasional meat abstainer” doesn’t have quite the same ring.
The other thing about the Catholic fast is that we’re not really supposed to make a big deal about it. In the Ash Wednesday gospel, Matthew tells us that Jesus said, “When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you.” In other words, don’t talk about the fast and what you are doing. Don’t try to draw attention to it or any of our good deeds or sacrifices. We’re not allowed to talk endlessly about all the things we are doing; that’s why we aren’t very good at crossfit or paleo.
But what this also means is that, let’s say you’re Catholic and it’s Ash Wednesday and you are invited over to, say, your Mormon neighbor’s house for a meal. Even if you are fasting, you can’t draw attention to it. So you can’t really say, “No, thank you” again and again because eventually it will be an insult to your host and you will have to explain yourself. So, if you really want to eat meat on a Friday or on Ash Wednesday? Just get yourself invited over to a meat loving friend’s house.
Or if you’re craving meat, go ahed and eat beaver, which, apparently the church decided to “count” as an aquatic mammal sometime in the 17th century. “Fish of the land!” they called it, an entirely unnecessary rebranding because it was already so popular in North America, where it was also plentiful.
Here’s the other thing: we are also allowed liquids (although not meat-based broth). Some time ago, one of my brothers temporarily joined the Buddhist monkhood (a cultural practice done as a sort of tribute to one’s parents). At the Thai temple where he lived, the monks fasted from about mid-day until they went to bed. Like Catholics, they were permitted liquids. At least one of the monks counted ice cream as a liquid because once it melted (say, in one’s mouth or sliding down one’s gullet), it was, indeed a liquid. I opted for lots of tea during my fast this year, but perhaps later this year I will make use of the ice cream clause.