Scrupulosity and Ash Wednesday

Hi everyone!

I’m posting to ask for examples of what you consider “fasting fare.” A little background: my mother has problems with scrupulosity and a tendency to be “more Catholic than the Church.” She is petite woman who typically eats throughout the day—three small meals and lots of snacks. During Lent, however, she takes small portions to, in my opinion, extremes: a piece of bread for breakfast, a tiny bowl of soup or piece of bread for lunch, etc. This results in irritability, headaches, and fatigue.

Now I’m about the same size as my mother, but I try to have more than she does so that it’s a sacrifice, but I can still function at my job: a couple scrambled eggs for breakfast, regular size bowl of soup with roll for lunch, etc. My mother thinks that I am overeating.

So my question is this—what do you consider “small portions”?



There are no definitions of how “small” the “smaller meals” should be. I think it’s left up to each of us to decide what a sacrifice means.
A sacrifice for a petite woman should not be the same as one for a large male… they don’t eat the same number of calories on a regular basis, so sacrifices need to be proportional.

I would kindly remind your mother that, as an adult, you have the ability to make these decisions for yourself.

God bless!

Actually the situation is more that I don’t agree with my mother’s decisions on quantities because I see it interfering with her ability to function normally and I’m trying to change her perception so that she won’t put everyone through heck when she’s fasting.

Ahhh… gotcha…

Hmmm… maybe try speaking from YOUR perspective… say “I am eating less and fasting today, but I need to be able to maintain my wits. I’ve noticed if I eat too little I can’t concentrate on the spirituality of the day because of my massive headaches”…

If you say it from YOUR perspective rather than hers (ie… “Mom, you should eat more so you don’t get headaches”)… then she may not take personal offense at your comment… know what I mean???

Well, I believe, although I couldn’t prove it, that the concept of fasting by eating two small meals and one regular meal presupposes that one normally eats three regular meals and that any additional snacking is not for the purpose of meeting one’s nutritional needs. I think you could argue that grazers – people who regularly consume their* necessary* daily nutrition in four, five, or more small ‘meals’ – should be able to group some of those meals to figure out what constitutes ‘three regular meals’.

In that case, eating three times a day and consuming the standard portion for that time of would actually be fasting.

I suspect that telling your mother to lighten up in regards to herself will not be terribly productive. But you might remind her that we are not required to fast in a way that prevents manual labor. Granted, most of us don’t engage in* heavy* manual labor, but even sitting at a computer and typing requires a certain amount of alertness which we should not be denying to an employer.

For an effective fast, I would personally base it on calories. According to my understanding of things, fasting (like on Ash Wednesdays) means no meat, and one normal meal with two snacks. Snacks, if I remember correctly, consist of less than half a regular meal. So here’s what I would do, following the guidelines of “The Food Connection” by Sam Graci, an excellent book on nutrition.

  1. Determine your weight.
  2. Multiply your weight by 15.
  3. Multiply that number by 1-1.5 based on your activity level. 1 would be essentially sedentary. 1.5 would be an elite athlete. 1.2 would mean 4 hours of exercise per week.
  4. The resulting number is the number of calories you need to maintain your present weight, given your activity level.
  5. Divide that number by 3. This number is what you ought to have at your normal meal.
  6. Divide that number by 2. Any number less than this is what you ought to have for your snacks.

That is for specific fasting days given by the church. But this cannot be maintained without affecting your well-being, and St. Paul says that disciplining the body is not nearly so good as disciplining the soul - don’t kill yourself when God wants your energy for doing His will elsewhere!

If you want something you could maintain over Lent, then:

  1. Determine your weight.
  2. Multiply by 10.
  3. Multiply by your activity level as above.

This is really the minimum amount you should be taking in so that you can function adequately. You will lose weight on this level of calorie intake, but it should give you enough to function properly. Nutritionists now realize that “grazing” is actually better for you, provided you’re grazing on the foods you need. As you decrease your calories, this might become more important, as you may get hungry sooner.

However, keep in mind what Lent is all about. I made this mistake myself at one point, and so I’m passionate about others not making the same mistake. Lent is about turning back to the Lord, converting to him. Look at what the Catechism says about penance, the heart of Lent:

“[penance] does not aim first at outward works, “sackcloth and ashes,” fasting and mortification, but at the conversion of the heart, interior conversion. Without this, such penances remain sterile and false.”

So really, think of Lent as a time to turn toward God, and to do whatever will bring you closer to Him. This, as a means, includes putting to death the old man. For some personalities, the old man may consist of eating what is contrary to reason. But this is not the case for others, and overly focusing on this can exacerbate problems, not help them. Look at whatever is keeping you from doing His positive will, as described in the Catechism and the Bible, and not by some author, and focus on doing whatever positive things will help you realize that goal.

At least for myself, the moment I make the means (intense fasting, etc) the goal, I have real trouble. But when I focus on the good that I’m turning to, whatever comes as a result of that is much easier. For example, if I discover that I could write letters and help others and myself grow in the Lord, that is wonderful. I might stay up, working through dinner without noticing that I’ve not ate yet. Yet were I to say “OK, I will not eat tonight”, and make that my goal, I’d get seriously side-tracked and have trouble. Penance is about turning to God, and putting to death the old man by turning to the Man. Focus on Him, not on the means.

But do we find what we need to aim at better? You might just be helped by doing something like the myers-briggs personality test. I’ve known about it for several years, and a very orthodox priest who I know well also uses it. It’s not infallible, but it can help tell you about who you are, and point out where you might be helped most.

For example, I’m an INTP. INTPs typically excel at theoretical thought, and generally do well in academic settings. However, INTPs often have difficulty following through on initial ideas, and they can become almost oblivious to the world around them. The thing that keeps INTPs from God, often, is not their taste buds but their lack of willingness to engage the world for Him (theory is just so much more interesting sometimes!). So for Lent, the best way to turn to God, to put to death the old man, is to focus on my execution of small details, and become more consistent and reliable in my daily actions. Depending on what type you turn out as, you will have areas of your life that likely need tweaking pointed out to you.

We also have a limited amount of active will that we can apply to something. If you use all your energy abstaining from food, what will you have left to work on that part of you that needs correction so you can do His will better? Good is the enemy of best; while fasting from food may be helpful, if it’s not the most helpful use of your willpower, then do that which will turn you best to Him.

There! A rather lengthy post, but I hope that helps you out. I had great difficulty with Lent before until I figured much of this out, and so I hope this helps you in your present situation. Take care, God bless,


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