You Can’t “Fast” from Facebook – The Three Kinds of Lent Fasting

Somehow, every year around this time right before lent, I start seeing the inevitable, “I’m fasting from Facebook for lent.”

There’s usually a host of virtue signaling around it. It is a triumph of the progressives. Sadly, the best intended among us use this language. Idiots.

People have been lied to by do-gooder guitar strumming progressives of the modern church of feel good love felt banner soothsaying. Those lies have become woven into common culture. Today, it is taken for granted because even the best of Catholics have gone along with the downstream drift.

I can remember the advice I heard in my teens: “lent shouldn’t be about giving things up, but doing something more for good.” Or, translated into Catholic: “don’t do mortification, but do some good deeds.” The problem is that we are expected to do both. Prayer+Fasting+almsdeeds. St. Benedict gives the idea of doing some special mortification on top of the prescribed fasts and prayers — that’s where the “Extra” mortification comes in. Giving up chocolate, for instance.

Fasting Means Food

The Modern Catholic Dictionary by Fr. Hardon defines fasting plainly:

FASTING. A form of penance that imposes limits on the kind or quantity of food or drink.

Modern Catholic Dictionary.

Unless I’m missing something, social media, facebook, twitter, and the internet are not “food or drink.” Thus, one cannot “fast” from them.

Fasting is rooted in a means of honoring Jesus’s death on the Cross for us. Explains Fr. Hardon in the rest of the definition of fasting:

“From the first century Christians have observed fasting days of precept, notably during the season of Lent in commemoration of Christ’s passion and death. In the early Church there was less formal precept and therefore greater variety of custom, but in general fasting was much more severe than in the modern Church. In the East and West the faithful abstained on fasting days from wine as well as from flesh-meat, both being permitted only in cases of weak health. The ancient custom in the Latin Church of celebrating Mass in the evening during Lent was partly due to the fact that in many places the first meal was not taken before sunset.

Modern Catholic Dictionary

Fasting is a particular species of mortification (penance) pertaining to food and drink. Why? Because food and drink are basic human needs. Mastering these affects all other needs. Most importantly, fasting tends to sharpen and steel the will against the whims of the passions — the passions being those involuntary urges we all experience.

Three Kinds of Fasts

Fans of St. Ignatius that have read the Spiritual Exercises will be familiar with his method of laying out “Three kinds of”. Three kinds of poverty, etc. Since fasting is defined to mean limiting food or drink, there is no room to replace the lent fast with “giving up facebook” or “giving up tv.” Those may be nice mortifications to do as extra penance for lent, but you do have to pick a fast.

The First Kind of Fast

The first kind of fast is someone that doesn’t really worry about limiting food and drink. He likes fried fish and enjoys the fish fries at the parish, but if he has a burger for lunch on Friday in lent, he thinks nothing of it – other than whether it was gluten free and if the fries were salty enough. There is no concern for the amount of food, even though his doctor told him to limit sodium and he knows that the soybean oil in the mayo is GMO and likely killing him so he should not eat the mayo at fast food burger chains.

The Second Kind of Fast

The second kind of fast is someone that does the minimum. The minimum is fast and abstain on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. No meat (abstain), and only one meal those days. Additionally, no meat on the Fridays of Lent. The fast for the rest of the days of Lent may be replaced by some other kind of penance. That is, if you give up internet and TV, then you can consider that penance to replace the expectation to fast.

Fr. Hardon explains the current minimum as promulgated in 1966 by Paul VI in Paenitenimi:

With the constitution Paenitemini of Paul VI in 1966, the meaning of the law of fasting remained, but the extent of the obligation was changed. Thus “the law of fasting allows only one full meal a day, but does not prohibit taking some food in the morning and evening, while observing approved local custom as far as quantity and quality of food are concerned.” To the law of fast are bound those of the faithful who have completed their eighteenth year and up until the beginning of their sixtieth year. Prescribed days of fast and abstinence for the whole Church are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Nevertheless, as with abstinence, so with fasting or other forms of penance, “It is up to the bishops, gathered in their episcopal conferences, to establish the norms … which they consider the most opportune and efficacious” (Paenitemini, III).

Modern Catholic Dictionary. Hardon, J. quoting Paenitenimi

I would be remiss if I did not take a moment to remind everyone that I have a sneaky suspicion that the US Bishops Conference does not believe in fasting at all. In fact, I’ve written about this many times, especially on this post. But then, I’ve also commented that they seem to think being too busy for any obligation to God is OK, too. So the bar is pretty low. Good for us in many ways — it is easy to complete the second kind of fasting these days. Thank God!

The point is, the second kind of fast is the minimum imposed by law. You are doing what Church asks, even if the bishops seem to think you don’t need to do anything. That means:

  • One meal and no meat on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
  • No meat on Fridays in Lent.
  • Do some kind of penance the rest of the days of Lent. If you can’t think of any penance, then eat one meal, and two smaller meals that together would not equal a full meal.

The Third Kind of Fast

This is for the person who wants to actually fast. He thinks of Our Lord Who went to the desert for forty days and did not eat. He wonders if his health could sustain him for forty days without food. He considers the will power of Our Lord to turn down the temptation to have the bread loaves offered in the temptation after not eating forty days. He wants to do some kind of fast for the duration of Lent.

There are several varieties of “Strict fasts.” Some speak of water only fasts. Greek monks in Byzantine times write of eating only raw food because it has a displeasurable xerography. But those are monastics. Indeed, staggering limitations of food and drink, like all things, can be extreme and done. But, for a consistent fast throughout Lent, there are norms of Mother Church that were built for lay people who must work, must commute and travel, and must do more than be in a monastery.

The third kind of fast is something greater, but not the extreme.

The Universal Fast Pre-1966 is a good example. Prior to Paenitenimi, the Church asked the lay faithful to do the following during Lent:

  • Fast meant taking only one full meal a day, along with some food for breakfast and a collation.
  • Days of fast and abstinence for the universal Church were
    • Ash Wednesday,
    • the Fridays and Saturdays of Lent,
    • Ember days, and
    • the vigils of certain feasts.
  • Days of fast only were the rest of the days of Lent, except Sundays.
  • Special indults affected different nations and were provided for by canon law.

Moreover, almsgiving, prayer, and special mortification of some personal kind were done in addition to actual fasting. In other words, give up Facebook if you want, but also fast from food. As that list is concerned, it means, fast every day of Lent (except Sundays). No meat on Ash Wednesday, Fridays and Saturdays of Lent, Ember days and the day before Annunciation.

As mentioned above, there are tougher fasts that monasteries, monks, and ascetics followed. So there is probably a “fourth kind of fast.” I’m not sure but I think the third kind of fast would appeal to those who want to be perfect. The fourth kind would be for those who want to be mystics and ascetics.

Facebook isn’t Food

Whatever else one can say about modern Lent, one should not say that fasting does not pertain to food and drink. It may be meritorious penance for some people to “give up facebook for lent” but it’s wrong to call it a fast. If you’re going to fast, pick one of the above kinds and fast.

What kind of fast would you pick?

This article, You Can’t “Fast” from Facebook – The Three Kinds of Lent Fasting is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
Do not repost the entire article without written permission. Reasonable excerpts may be reposted so long as it is linked to this page.

John B. Manos

John B. Manos, Esq. is an attorney and chemical engineer. He has a dog, Fyo, and likes photography, astronomy, and dusty old books published by Benziger Brothers. He is the President of the Bellarmine Forum.
  • […] will follow through anyways. I’ve been there. Social Media isn’t food. An excellent article at the Bellarmine Forum goes more in depth about […]

  • Christine A Lehman says:

    Since, as I’m sure you know, not everyone is physically able (or required) to fast from food/drink during Lent (like the elderly or those on certain types of medications), and a “Facebook/social media fast” may be all they’re able to do, aren’t you kind of “virtue signalling” here yourself? “Oh, God, I thank you that I’m able to fast properly, not like that publican down there who’s obviously doing it all wrong!”

    • John B. Manos says:

      Hah! Not at all. No more than any other Catholic who reads what Mother Church asks of them. Besides, I’ve said nothing about my fast plans, have I?

      On the grander scale, I just hate watching terms of our faith be semantically distorted into meaninglessness over time.

  • Fr. Jim Weldon says:

    Many of the saints speak about the fault of frivolous speech and laughter. These are vices that need to be corrected. So, is there a traditional name for the discipline of the tongue? Perhaps, modesty of speech.

    • John B. Manos says:

      Great question, Father. There is always a caution against idle words because we will be judged for all of them. Moreover, because speech has so many consequences, there is always a caution against vain speaking lest we say things with unintended consequence.

      I’ve seen modest speech mentioned but I’ve always taken that to imply a warning against speech that riles the prurient passions.

      There is also the obligation that all words spoken are true.

      Frivolity is never what is implicated in those passages I’ve seen. Rather idleness and the dangers of idle speech – particularly speaking for the sake of speaking as it were. Frivolous speech and laughter in the religious life context, where a communal life is sought has a different meaning as well. Some of those quotes have to do with life in religious community.

      So, depending on the quality of speech being measured, there are several categories of names. Overall, the only general prescription I’ve seen named applying to all is guardianship of the tongue (speech) or care due in speech.

      If you have a more specific idea, let me know.

  • Phil Steinacker says:

    John, with all due respect to your reliance upon modernist resources, the position you are trying to drive home here is only correct in a minimalist sense. You have correctly stated what the Church means when She imposes Her requirements for Lenten fasting and abstinence, as well as year-round Friday abstinence. The Church requires only fasting from food and drink – nothing more – and this is properly understood as the doing the minimum. In fact, like so many of the requirements and prohibitions of the Church, the definition of what the Church asks is the least one must do. Fr. Hardon’s definition stands, of course, but observing it most scrupulously will NOT gain one entry into Heaven.

    So much for a legalist adherence to “the rules.”

    I understand how cursory research of contemporary Church resources might lead you to conclude that Catholic fasting is related to food alone, but the question cannot be answered fully by an appeal to the minimum practices required.

    Unfortunately, doing so places you and all those concurring Catholic authorities (ecclesial, clerical, or lay) at odds with the saints – some who are Fathers and Doctors of the Church – who have addressed this very point. Some of the greatest holy wisdom which can be unearthed, if one knows where to look, contradicts the spirit of “fasting from Facebook.”

    The Fathers of the Church, preaching on fasting, set forth two distinguished standards:

    1.they interpreted the Holy Scriptures on fasting as a means for spiritual achievements;

    2.witnessing their profound knowledge was their own experience of fasting under many and varied circumstances related to environment.

    This is the difference, a sound and profound difference, between the Fathers of the past and the preachers of today – and, indeed, the early Church and the Church of today.

    It certainly is true of the practice and purpose of fasting. For this reason, I’ve selected only a few passages of the Fathers to bring forth the true meaning of fasting as understod by these Fathers, among them several Doctors of the Church.

    I want to note that St. John Chrysostom wrote far more extensively and in great detail (far more so than either Sts. Clement or Dorotheos, below) about the necessity to fast from much which is not food. However, I thought it of greater importance to demonstrate a range of agreement among the Fathers on this point so I opted to provide only one from Chrysostom. You should reasearch him on this point, but be prepared for more than you expect.

    It’s important to underscore that the POV you advanced is that of the modernist Church – NOT the early Church. In fact, the fasting from non-food was still preached by at least one great saint only 700 years ago:

    Let the eyes fast from curiosity.
    Let the ears fast in not heeding vain words or anything unnecessary for the soul’s salvation.
    Let the tongue fast from defamation and gossip, from vain and useless words.
    Let the hand fast from idleness and unnecessary busyness.
    Let the soul fast even more from all vices and sins, and from imposing its will and judgments.
    For without such fasting, all other fasting is rejected by God.
    ~ St. Bernard of Clairvaux († 1153)

    Fasting in respect of food is of no benefit for those who fail to fast with all their senses; for whosoever is successfully waging his battle must be temperate in all things.
    ~ St. Isidore († 636)

    …in fasting one must not only obey the rule against gluttony in regard to food, but refrain from every sin so that, while fasting, the tongue may also fast, refraining from slander, lies, evil talking, degrading one’s brother, anger and every sin committed by the tongue. One should also fast with the eyes, that is, not look at vain things…not look shamefully or fearlessly at anyone. The hands and feet should also be kept from every evil action.

    When one fasts through vanity or thinking that he is achieving something especially virtuous, he fasts foolishly and soon begins to criticize others and to consider himself something great.

    A man who fasts wisely…wins purity and comes to humility…and proves himself a skillful builder.
    ~ St. Dorotheus of Gaza, Directions on Spiritual Training († 620)

    The fast should be kept not by the mouth alone but also by the eye, the ear, the feet, the hands and all the members of the body: the eye must abstain from impure sights, the ear from malicious gossip, the hands from acts of injustice.
    ~ St. John Chrysostom († 407)

    There is both a physical and a spiritual fast. In the physical fast the body abstains from food and drink. In the spiritual fast, the faster abstains from evil intentions, words and deeds. One who truly fasts abstains from anger, rage, malice, and vengeance. One who truly fasts abstains from idle and foul talk, empty rhetoric, slander, condemnation, flattery, lying and all manner of spiteful talk. In a word, a real faster is one who withdraws from all evil.
    ~ St. Basil the Great († 379)

    Fasting is abstention from foods according to the meaning of the word, but the food does not make us either more just or more unjust. Yet, in its mystical meaning it declares that as the life of each one depends upon food, total abstention is the sign of death. Thus we ought to abstain from worldly things, for we would die as far as worldly matters are concerned, and after that, when we partake of food of divine nature, we will live in God. Above all, total abstention empties the soul of matter, and presents the soul pure and nimble to the body according to the divine words. Then, on the one hand, worldly nourishment consists of temporal life and iniquities, while divine nourishment is faith, hope, love, patience, knowledge, peace, prudence as our Lord said in Matthew: ‘Blessed are theywhich do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled’ (5:6), where truly He attributes this longing to the soul and not to the body.
    ~ St. Clement of Alexandria († 215)

    I could have added more saints (not just more by Chrysostom), but I think you get the point.

    The substantive shortcomings of your position are not your fault, but the responsibility of the ecclesial leaders of our modernist Church who have been progressively separating us from the original authentic teachings and practices of the Church. And, in fact, you correctly note or imply our fasting practices today have been greatly watered down to almost nothing. Certainly this is true about fasting before reception of Holy Communion. Check out how stringent are the fasting requirements in the Orthodox Church: no food, drink, or marital relations for 12 hours prior. Even Eastern Catholic Churches have caved in and adopted the 1 hour fast.

    The tendency to seek easy ways out of difficult and challenging teachings and practices has developed over time. and come to fruition in our modernist culture which has invaded the Church. This decay is the result of Church leaders attempting to please such instincts to have our own self-pleasing ways among the faithful, and to “tickle our ears” with false justifications needed to excuse it in our eyes.

    As for fasting from Facebook… certainly this idea is not on the same lofty order of what the saints I quote had in mind. Howevr, I see this and similarly undeveloped ideas of seeking to do and be more spiritually as steps in the right direction. Yours is the second article I’ve read this week making the same false claim that the only legitimate Lenten fast (or anytime, I suppose) is from food.

    Posts such as yours and the other Catholic publication do great damage to good instincts which should be encouraged and further developed conceptually. Of course, that includes making it clear that doing more does not relieve one’s fasting and abstinence obligations. But demanding much more of our interior spiritual life needs to be avidly fostered.

    Clearly, we can see the early Fathers and Doctors not only this, but also held that failure to fast from all that separates us from God dilutes and even invalidates our fasting from food. This view held at least until the time of St.Bernard in the 12th century, and I suspect it didn’t began to disappear until after the so-called prot reformation and the age of “enlightenment.”

    • John B. Manos says:

      Wow! Phil, this is quite the comment here!

      When you use the word “modernist” in this statement “with all due respect to your reliance upon modernist resources” do you mean “modernist” in the sense that Pius X defined that word in Pascendi dominici gregis?

      If so, does that mean you consider Fr. John A. Hardon to be a modernist? As in, a subversive heretic?

      I also am quite tickled at your assumption that I made “cursory research of contemporary Church resources”. Really?

      Also, as a footnote… I learned in law school that inductive and slipshod conclusory statements are often introduced with the phrase “Clearly, we can see…” No, it is not clear at all. For one thing, many of the quotes you cherry picked are contradicted by the very same authors. Your selection of St. John Chrysostom is one of my favorites because it is clear that he is using allegory. You should do everyone the favor of explaining the rest of his homily On Fasting — in fact, you’d find what he teaches in that homily is very similar to what I’ve tried to do with this “modernist” (LOL) article. After all, just a few paragraphs later, St. John Chrysostom says, “what the Lord asks of us more than anything else. It is for this reason that he asks us to abstain from food, in order to place the flesh in subjection to the fulfillment of his commandments, whereby curbing its impetuousness”

      Gee… that sounds an awful lot like what I wrote in my article… It’s almost like I’ve taken that homily to heart and wanted to find a way to present those ideas in today’s context… but we know that cannot be the case because, as you said, I’ve only made a cursory read of modernist stuff, right?

      Since you are so well versed, so well researched in patristics, and so restrained in your rhetoric, please help me understand why EVERY canon of a council pertaining to fasting is an instruction regarding the limitation of food and/or drink? Please illuminate my dim modernist and cursory mind with at least one canon that regulates some other activity by calling that regulation a fast. I’d like to see it. All of us would like to see it.

      Meanwhile, explain to me why St. Augustine in the 5th century, in Letter 211 (his rule) wrote: “Subdue your flesh by fasting and abstinence from meat and drink, as far as the health allows.”

      He must not have gotten the memo you wrote, eh?

      Also, why does Trent define fasting in relation to food? And St. Benedict? was he a modernists, too? what about Our Lord? St. Paul?

      Phil, I’m not sure where you are coming from, but clearly your conclusions are not clear. Fasting means the limitation of food and drink… it always has.

    • Tim says:

      Thank you for taking the time to make make that informative post. God bless you.

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