From the Pastor: More on Lent and Fasting
I hope you don’t mind yet another peek into Dom Gueranger’s historical explanation of fast and abstinence during Lent, for I am still having a good time reading and writing about it. Again, let me remind you that these articles are dealing with historical Lenten practices, not current regulations. Here he describes the relationship between the “hours” (prayers of the Breviary which are prayed by clergy and religious are broken into sets of prayers which are read at set times of the day and night), the Mass, and fasting. I find it quite amusing that the hours traditionally prayed later in the day get prayed earlier and earlier so that they (the clergy and religious setting the example for the laity) could eat earlier and earlier! “It was the custom with the Jews, in the Old Law, not to take the one meal, allowed on fasting days, till sun-set. The Christian Church adopted the same custom. It was scrupulously practised, for many centuries, even in our Western countries. But, about the 9th century, some relaxation began to be introduced in the Latin Church. Thus, we have a Capitularium of Theodulph, Bishop of Orleans...protesting against the practice, which some had, of taking their repast at the hour of None, that is to say, about three o’clock in the afternoon...We meet with a sort of reclamation made as late as the 11th century, by a Council held at Rouen, which forbids the Faithful to take their repast before Vespers shall have begun to be sung in the Church, at the end of None; but this shows us, that the custom had already begun of anticipating the hour of Vespers, in order that the Faithful might take their meal earlier in the day.
“Up to within a short period before this time, it had been the custom not to celebrate Mass, on days of Fasting, until the Office of None had been sung - and, also, not to sing Vespers till sun-set. When the discipline regarding Fasting began to relax, the Church still retained the order of her Offices, which had been handed down from the earliest times. The only change she made, was to anticipate the hour for Vespers; and this entailed the celebrating Mass and None much earlier in the day;- so early, indeed, that, when custom had so prevailed as to authorise the Faithful taking their repast at mid-day, all the Offices, even the Vespers, were over before that hour.”
After a few more details such as these, he shows how inevitably the early meal led to being hungry later in the day! “But, whilst this relaxation of taking the repast so early in the day as twelve o’clock rendered fasting less difficult in one way, it made it more severe in another. The body grew exhausted by the labours of the long second half of the twenty-four hours; and the meal, that formerly closed the day, and satisfied the cravings of fatigue, had been already taken. It was found necessary to grant some refreshment for the evening, and it was called a Collation. The word was taken from the Benedictine Rule, which, for long centuries before this change in the Lenten observance, had allowed a Monastic Collation...[T]he Abbot was allowed by the Rule to grant his Religious permission to take a small measure of wine before Compline, as a refreshment after the fatigues of the afternoon. It was taken by all at one and the same time, during the evening reading, which was called Conference, (in Latin, Collatio,) because it was mostly taken from the celebrated Conferences (Collationes) of Cassian. Hence, this evening monastic refreshment got the name of Collation. We find the Assembly, or Chapter of Aix-la-Chapelle, held in 817, extending this indulgence even to the Lenten fast, on account of the great fatigue entailed by the Offices, which the Monks had to celebrate during this holy Season. But experience showed, that unless something solid were allowed to be taken together with the wine, the evening Collation would be an injury to the health of many of the Religious; accordingly, towards the close of the 14th, or the beginning of the 15th century, the usage was introduced of taking a morsel of bread with the Collation-beverage. As a matter of course, these mitigations of the ancient severity of Fasting soon found their way from the cloister into the world...But when it had become the universal practice, (as it did in the latter part of the 13th century, and still more fixedly during the whole of the 14th,) that the one meal on Fasting Days was taken at mid-day, a mere beverage was found insufficient to give support, and there was added to it bread, herbs, fruits, &c. Such was the practice, both in the world and the cloister. It was, however, clearly understood by all, that these eatables were not to be taken in such quantity as to turn the Collation into a second meal.
“Thus did the decay of piety, and the general deterioration of bodily strength among the people of the Western nations, infringe on the primitive observance of Fasting.”
Abbot Gueranger laments the laxity of Lenten fasts signs of weak faith as well as weak bodies. He remarks that it also takes away from the joy of the longed-for meal after Easter Mass, which now, much as with the first night after the wedding of an unchaste couple, has turned into just one more ho-hum, same ol’ same ol’. But perhaps reading this brief history will spark a renewed interest in greater fasting for at least a few people today. Maybe even me!
With prayers for your holiness,
Rev. Fr. Edwin Palka