(An excerpt from the booklet How to Keep Lent, + Imprimatur by Patrick Cardinal Hayes, February 6, 1935).
The fast of Lent is twofold. There is a spiritual fast and a corporal fast. The spiritual fast is the fast from sin and it is the first condition for the sanctification of the corporal fast. This fast is binding on every Christian, at all times and at every period of life, but special care and watchfulness are needed to keep this fast, to avoid sin in the season of Lent.
The corporal fast of Lent is that by which we limit the amount of food we eat in accordance with the instruction issued by the Church. This fast is binding upon all Christians of the age of twenty-one to fifty-nine unless a dispensation is given by the proper authorities.
For our corporal health we will submit to anything. The doctor lays down strict rules; we submit. We swallow the bitterest of medicines. We accept without complaint the knife of the surgeon when an operation is necessary. What is there a man will not undergo to preserve life? What is there that many women will not undertake in the way of a diet for the sake of vanity?
Shall we do nothing for the eternal life of the soul? God does not ask too much. For our spiritual diseases and in order that we may have eternal life, our Divine Physician recommends us, every now and then, and for a short time, to abstain from certain kinds of food and to limit ourselves to necessity in the amount taken. If the Church did not appoint a certain time and certain days for fasting the majority of Christians would, perhaps, totally neglect this important duty. Have you ever in your lifetime appointed a fasting day for yourself?
The obligation of fasting in Lent is something serious. It is not a question of inclination. It is not a matter of choice. When the Church commands us to fast in Lent we are bound by this obligation unless legitimately dispensed.
Our Divine Lord was born in poverty and died in torments. His life was a life of humiliation, self-denial, suffering and ignominy. There was no need for Him to add fasting to His sufferings, yet He prepared Himself by fasting to preach the Gospel.
He is the leader and captain of our spiritual warfare and though invulnerable, before He encountered the tempter He prepared Himself by a rigorous fast of forty days. This was for our example, to show us how to meet the assaults of the enemy. And Holy Scripture tells us that a heavenly blessing is attached to fasting: "For then the devil left Him and angels came and ministered to Him."
It is strange that while our Lord lived a life of suffering, we His disciples shrink from the least mortification. He, the Sinless One, carried His heavy Cross on shoulders lacerated by the cruel scourge; we, full of sin, refuse even to touch the Cross. Unless we imitate His self-denial we can hardly hope to be admitted into His kingdom--"He that taketh not up his cross and followeth Me, is not worthy of Me" (Matt. x. 38).
Now the Church, in her kindly spirit of interest and thought for her children, has recognized that the rigorous observance of Lent would be too severe a task for many. The aged, the sick, the hard-working people, are, therefore, excused from the strict fast.
There are, no doubt, many people who are not so excused, and who could, not indeed without difficulty and trial--for penance supposes these--but without any serious injury to themselves, observe the Lenten fast. Should you have any doubt as to the extent of your obligation in this respect, you should consult your confessor.
For the vast majority, the strict observance of Lent is not of obligation. But our Catholic instinct will tell us that if it be not within our power to observe Lent strictly, we should substitute other acts of penance that will, as far as possible, make up for the deficiency. While we cannot do all, we can do something.
Self-denial in eating and drinking is the principal form of Lenten penance prescribed by the Church. Naturally, in keeping with the Church's wish, our self-imposed acts of penance would do well to follow the same line. If we cannot keep the fast completely, can we not do so in part or on some days? If we cannot deny ourselves in the quantity of food, can we not do so in quality and variety? If we cannot forego the necessaries at table, can we not abstain from the luxuries? Each one can deny himself something. One who may be in the habit of using intoxicating drink, even though moderately, could during Lent abstain totally. Another who has a strong appetite for this or that delicacy in the line of eatables, would do well, in the spirit of penitential abstinence, to forego that delicacy completely. Or another who is accustomed to smoking could give up the practice throughout Lent.
Then there are other matters in which we can deny ourselves. For many the theater, the dance, other kinds of amusement form a strong attraction. While such things may be perfectly legitimate in themselves, the spirit of Lent would suggest we abstain from such pleasures, that the soul may be freer to devote itself to higher things.
"A man's chief care ought to be turned within himself; the renunciation of self-will is a greater thing than the raising of the dead to life." - St. Ignatius
"Prayer without mortification is like a soul without a body, just the same as mortification without prayer is a body without a soul." - St. Francis de Sales
"Whilst a single passion reigns in our hearts, though all the others have been extirpated, the soul will never enjoy tranquility. The fruits of a good heart which God waters and nourishes with His grace, are a total forgetfulness of itself, a great love of humiliation, and a universal joy and satisfaction in everybody's good." - St. Jane Frances de Chantal
"When you fast, be not, as the hypocrites, sad; for they disfigure their faces, that to men they may appear fasting. Amen I say to you they have received their reward" (Matt. vi, 16).
"But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thy head, and wash thy face" (Matt. vi, 17).
"That thou appear not fasting to men, but to thy Father, who is in secret; and thy Father who seeth in secret, will reward thee (Matt. vi, 18).