Tuesday 24 November 2015

Have Yourselves a Gloomy Little Advent

Good morning! It is Traddy Tuesday,the day I rekindle the flame in the hearts of would-be converts to Catholicism who have been misled entranced by Catholic books written before 1960, only to be shocked by their local RCIA class/parish liturgy/obscenity-dropping parish priest. Oh dear, I see your astonished faces in my mind's eye: "B-b-b-b-but Chesterton!" Yeah, I know.

But despair not! There a gazillion Roman Catholics who believe as (and what) Chesterton did and thousands who do their best to worship as he did, too. Our world is considerably worse than his was, so we are much crankier than he, however. Sorry about that. I apologize on behalf of the old lady who turned around at the Extraordinary Form of Mass and snarled at your friend's noisy baby. In her defense, she either traveled two hours to get to this Mass or she sold her house to live within walking distance. Try to forgive her--and offer to take the baby out.

So today's theme is ADVENT and the challenge of keeping it a penitential season when most of the English-speaking world thinks that Christmas begins the day after American Thanksgiving (at latest) and ends at midnight on Christmas Day. If I still have any Eastern Orthodox readers or Byzantine Catholic readers, please reveal in the combox how you manage to keep your fasts when all around you are having Christmas parties.

My dear friend Calvinist Cath does not believe in Christmas at all, so avoiding the December-long celebration of Christmas is a challenge for her too. Amusingly, the challenges of not observing Christmas before Christmas could unite the Orthodox, the Greek Catholics, the Latin Catholics and, amazingly, the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland.* (This last avoids it completely , of course, but never mind that for now.)

I read somewhere that one of the reasons why the Latin Church doesn't fast like the Greek Church or the Eastern Orthodox Churches is the large number of important feast days during Advent. Just now I looked them up on the trad calendar on the front hall (from the monastery of Papa Stronsay), and the only one that leapt to the eye is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (December 8), for both the Feast of Saint Nicholas (December 6) and the Feast of Saint Lucy (December 13) fall on Sundays this year. That said, for Latins Sunday is always a Feast Day, and never a Fast Day, except for the Eucharistic fast, of course.

Feasting and fasting are hallmarks of traditional Catholicism, and B.A. and I can't have a dinner party with Catholics without B.A. leaping up to see whose feast day it is. He flips the pages in his missal looking for the right Collect (prayer of the day) while the soup gets cold. Drives me nuts. However, B.A. has the right attitude, and the solution is for me to mark the place beforehand. My church friends take feasting very seriously and are wont to chide those who refuse to partake of wine on Sundays, which I think is taking feasting a bit too far.

Rather less fun is fasting, although fasting is the good servant of feasting. As two nice Byzantine Catholic girls explained to B.A. and me recently, if you don't fast, you can't really feast. And it is certainly true that food, wine and coffee all taste amazingly better if you have done without them for a bit.

However, we are Christians, not Epicureans, so fasting is also supposed to make us feel physically uncomfortable, a discomfort we willingly embrace so as to do penance for our sins and the sins of others. Meanwhile we have to look cheerful when we do it, and not tell others we are fasting so that they will think well of us (Matt 5: 16-18).  It's supposed to be between us and God, which I remember when Toronto Greeks get too noisy about how much better they keep Lent than us rotten Roman Catholics. (Admittedly, they do.) However, I suppose "I'm sorry, it's against my religion" is okay when well-meaning people tempt us into Advent gluttony. It has the added bonus of making us socially uncomfortable, too--yay!

Occasionally I get emails from women from traditional Catholic backgrounds who have developed eating disorders from fasting. It is dreadful when this happens, and it really shouldn't. A good spiritual director will not let this happen, and in the absence of a good spiritual director, the fasting Catholic should just use her head. If you don't eat at all on Friday, you had better have a good nutritious breakfast on Saturday. If you fast on Wednesdays, don't fast on Thursdays. Meanwhile, contemporary eating is such that if you merely eschew anything made with refined sugar, that's a painstaking fast. Especially if you try to eschew refined sugar in Advent, aka secular Christmas.

I'm kidding about having a gloomy Advent. However, the fact is the Advent is a penitential season, traditionally involving fasts, abstinence, prayers, special masses and almsgiving. But, also traditionally, there are Feast Days to break it up a bit, like St. Nicholas' Day, and every Sunday.

One of the tricky things about re-establishing traditional fasting and abstinence procedures in a Roman Catholic household is that all the other healthy adults have to agree to it. If the Church doesn't impose fasting-and-abstinence, who is the lady of the house to do it, eh? (My mother didn't bring back Friday abstinence until John Paul II said he thought it a good idea. "Right," said Mum and fed us the orange sawdust fish triangles of doom ever after.) So I have consulted with my Liege Lord (i.e. B.A.) and we have come up with our own private Advent plans.

Because, really, it's not cricket to embrace all the fun things about traditional Catholicism without cheerfully taking on its disciplines, too. One helpful community penance would be to help dust and clean the church, any fellow Edinburgh traddies who are reading this (Saturday 2-4).

But to end on a celebratory note, we rejoice in the establishment of the Fraternity of the Priests of Saint Peter's first proper parish church in the United Kingdom. (The rest of us piggyback, like the Maronites who shared my childhood church.) The archdiocese of Liverpool gave the FSSP a BEAUTIFUL church first owned by the Benedictines, and you can see photographs of the inaugural Mass here.  Naturally we EF-loving Catholics are still praying for a church of our very own. I like the pretty wooden one we steal borrow share, but the choir wants one with better acoustics.

*Leaving aside the age-old Dec 25/Jan 6 issue, naturally.

Update: Note the complete lack of women in the sanctuary, o-the-humanity #weeping #wailing. There's some in the choir. Presumably they made up at least a third of the congregation.


  1. It looked to be standing room only from the pictures I saw.
    And one of the things I like about being single (oddly enough) is it's my decision whether to keep the Friday abstinence/ember days, etc.

  2. Yes, there's a lot more self-determination when you're Single, that's for sure.

    Standing room only meant there were over 600 or over 700 people there!

  3. I really hope it was that many!

  4. My department at work is taking us out for a fancy meal in December. I plan to order the lobster (fasting-friendly!) rather than the steak.

    Yes, fasting during the Christmas season is so, so hard.


  5. I guess lobster counts as shell-fish? What are Orthodox fasting foods based on? Stuff plentiful around Greece? (Whenever I write about fasting for a Catholic newspaper, someone always goes on about how meat is a penance for them whereas fish is a luxury, and how hypocritical those Catholics who eat delicious lobster on Fridays, etc., etc. It drives me insane, and I think "So go vegan on Fridays, arrrrrgh!)

    1. I've heard doing penance that is imposed on us through obedience or duty (ie putting up patiently with the idiosyncrasies of our family members that you have to put up with anyway, offering up annoying daily tasks--such as scraping ice off the car, ugh) is more meritorious than making up your own penances, because you are not only embracing discomfort but you are more importantly submitting to the will of God. So not eating meat on Friday because the Church suggests it is meritorious because you are making of a sacrifice of your own will, of your own preference in the matter. Regardless of our dislike for meat or love for fish, the point is to practice letting God choose for us. If He chooses to give us delicious lobster, well, that's Providence for you.

  6. I would assume that fasting rules are at least partially based upon things peasants could easily eat in Greece (that are not animal-based).

    This is a good guide on Orthodox fasting practices: https://oca.org/questions/dailylife/orthodox-fasting

    By the way, married people are not supposed to have relations on fasting days...

  7. "please reveal in the combox how you manage to keep your fasts when all around you are having Christmas parties."

    I guess I never really answered this. My personal response is not to sweat it too much. Fasting is a discipline. When we fall, we get up again, not beat ourselves up for not following everything to the letter. Where would there be room for God's grace?

  8. Well, I was thinking more in terms of how you politely demur when someone comes up to you at with a box of sugary cookies and says, "Have a cookie! Made with real butter!" For me the worry would not be about resisting temptation but about being rude to kindly people who want you to eat their treats and love them.

  9. You eat the butter cookies.

  10. Butter cookies made especially for you? Take one, savor it, and be grateful. Let the baker see how much you appreciate their thoughtfulness. Butter cookies made for the whole office? "Ooh, those look good! Thank you for the offer, but no, thank you." If pressed, then have one, saying a little prayer of thanks for the kind intention of your friend. It's better to eat a little butter out of love than hurt someone's feelings.

    When receiving hospitality (invited to someone's home, etc.), I eat what is offered, with gratitude. The discipline really comes in, for me, in not letting that one meal's exception weaken my resolve when I'm on my own. When offering hospitality, I make the tastiest fasting foods I can think of, or provide non-fasting foods on the side, so my guests may enjoy them without my breaking the fast. For example, pasta and tomato sauce with meatballs on the side.

    My family isn't Orthodox, but they are Christians, so Western Easter usually falls in the midst of Great Lent. I celebrate Easter with them, including the ham and cheesy potato casserole. My first priest, when I approached him with a question about how to maintain the fast while celebrating with my family, looked at me like I'd grown an extra head. "It's a feast of love! They're celebrating the Resurrection! Of course you should eat with them. Just don't take any leftovers home."

  11. Thanks! That sounds very sensible!

    It's the same with us keeping traddy Latin Catholic Fridays: if we're offered meat at a friend's house, we eat the meat. Except Good Friday. On Good Friday I wouldn't go to a house where meat might be served. Just no. Just cannot eat meat on Good Friday for any reason.

    By the way, favourite cookbooks? I'm thinking ahead to Lent.

    1. This is particularly much easier in Canada - the only days of actual abstinence are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. So if you end up somewhere on Friday that's serving meat, it's less troubling to accept it (as long you remember to do some other penance).
      No cookbooks - I used to make crepes as my go-to lunch on Fridays in Lent; now I pretty much survive on cheese - I'm am grateful I'm not Eastern, I'd never make it.

    2. I like "When You Fast...Recipes for Lenten Seasons" by Catherine Mandell. The recipes are simple and straightforward. The split pea soup recipe is delicious. I prefer it to the version with ham. It also has scripture and quotes from saints about fasting. It helped me through my first Great Lent.

      I also use the recipes from www.budgetbytes.com. Beth has a whole section on vegetarian and vegan recipes. She tends to use quite a bit of heat in her cooking, so if you don't enjoy spicy foods, cut down or eliminate the cayenne pepper she calls for.

  12. There's a story about one of the desert fathers who had a great reputation for fasting. Some of the brothers used to visit him, and always he gave them a fine meal, with beans, bread and olive oil. At last, they denounced him saying, "So much for the famous ascetic - you always give us a feast." "Of course," said the old man, "hospitality is more meritorious than fasting."

    So, err, yeah: eat the butter cookies.

  13. Those butter cookies are definitely doomed!


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