The Second Precept of the Church commands all Catholics to “observe fasting and abstinence from flesh-meats at the prescribed times.”
Lent is such a prescribed time, and fasting is known the world over as a powerful spiritual practice. This means it a good time to review what Fasting and Abstinence actually entails. The rules given here are those in force prior to 1966, as these rules are still in use by Traditional Roman Catholics today.
After we discuss the traditional rules, we’ll give a brief consideration to the new rules, the exceptions, and when/to whom the rules apply.
WHY DO WE FAST:
Before discussing the “what,” it might help to discuss the “why.” We fast and/or abstain in order to clean out our bodies and as an exercise in purification. On the one hand, it’s the giving up of a legitimate pleasure in order to make up for the illegitimate pleasures we’ve had. On the other hand, it’s done with the intent of strengthening our reserve, developing our self-discipline, and bringing us into closer conversation with the Godhead.
While these practices can be pursued for health reasons, one may note that fasting is known to all major spiritualities around the world and its practice is no small part of the grimoire process. Meaning that the magician and the ascetic alike have something to gain from this. In fact the magician should be an ascetic anyway, as the meaning of ascesis is “spiritual training.”
Fasting refers to restricting one’s quantity of food. In practice, this means restricting food intake to one main meal a day. Two smaller meals (“light collations”) may also be eaten, but their quantity must add up to less than that of the main meal. Between-meal snacks are a no-no, but liquid of any kind may be taken.
Abstinence, or “abstinence from flesh-meats” refers to not eating meat, soups, stews, or gravies prepared from meat. The definition of “flesh-meat” is somewhat based in medieval zoology, meaning many moderns may find it schizophenic: one may still eat fish, eggs, and dairy.
WHEN DO THESE APPLY:
The following rules are those observed in the United States before 1966.
The Law of Abstinence obliges for all Fridays throughout the Year, unless that Friday falls on a Holy Day of Obligation outside of Lent.
The Law of Fasting applies on Ember Days, the Vigil of Pentecost, and during Lent (excluding Sundays), from Ash Wednesday until Holy Saturday.
The exact time for ending the fast on Holy Saturday is debateable, as some sources will say the fast ends at midnight while others say the fast ends after the Easter Vigil (which took place in the morning prior to the “reforms” of the Mass). The rule of thumb is to observe the local custom of the diocese or country.
Complete fasting is also required for three hours before attending Mass. Exceptions are made for water and necessary medications.
On a day of fasting but not of abstinence, one may eat flesh-meats during the main meal (this is called “partial abstinence”). On a day of both fasting and abstinence, flesh-meat is forbidden.
Days of both Fasting and Abstinence are all Fridays in Lent and Ember Fridays.
It’s also said that in the 1950s, Pope Pius XII gave an indult to the American bishops allowing them to dispense with abstinence the Friday after Thanksgiving. Unfortunately, though, I’ve looked for a source on this indult but in vain. Most commentators seem content to say “Yes it existed, but the 1966 change in rules makes it irrelevant now.”
TO WHOM DO THESE RULES APPLY:
According to Canon 1254 of the 1917 Code of Canon Law, fasting applies to all Catholics who have completed their 21st birthday until midnight of their 59th birthday, while abstinence binds all Catholics over the age of 7.
EXCEPTIONS TO THE RULE:
Those with medical necessity may be excepted from the Law of Fasting and Abstinence. Though this is only my pastoral opinion, this exception could be extended to apply to economic necessity. (Real-life example: I once had a parishioner who was flat broke on a Friday and the only thing in his house was a pack of hot dogs. He was freaking out, so I told him to go ahead and eat them.)
THE NEWER RULES:
In 1966 Pope Paul VI promulgated the encyclical Paenitemini, wherein he modified the rules of fasting and abstinence. These rules can be found in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, 1249-1253.
In the new rules, the law of abstinence only applies to those more than 14 years old, as opposed to 7 under the previous rules. The new law of fasting still applies to all Catholics “from the age of majority” to age 60.
Fasting days have been severely restricted, namely to Ash Wednesday and good Friday (which are also days of abstinence).
Abstinence is still prescribed for “all Fridays of the year” except Solemnities, though the local conference of bishops could modify this. In the United States, abstinence only applies on Fridays during Lent, and has been interpreted to mean alligator and other cold-blooded animals may be eaten.
I leave you to your own opinions. One thing for certain though, is that while fasting and abstinence are powerful helps to our spiritual life, they’re completely useless without right intent and prayer.
For this the pattern given in the Abramelin Method is a good template, i.e. praying extempore in the morning and the evening at sunrise and sunset (I would say pray as close to those times as your schedule will allow). You may also work from any other set of prayers so long as it does the job for you, and the prayers from Daily Magical Devotions have worked for me as well.
But which way, Old Rules or New Rules? While my belief is that the new laws are mere shadows of an effective spiritual practice, I’m long done with being the guy who tells people what to think and what to do. Your life, your spirituality, your path. You decide what to do from hereon out, and let me know how it works for you!