Friday, March 4, 2016

Fast on Fridays to Meatless Mondays. Bemused observations

One of the things that really sets a Catholic or an Orthodox person in the United States apart from other people is that during Lent, they fast and they abstain from mean on Fridays. The disciplines for those whose catholic faith is of the Eastern branch as opposed to the Latin branch isn't exactly the same, but that this occurs is a feature of their lives for forty days running up to Lent and always has been.

Days of abstention poster from World War One.  During the war, Monday was "meatless", and Saturday Porkless, although at least one U.S. government website states it was "wheatless Mondays, meatless Tuesdays, porkless Saturdays".  Any way you look at it, for Catholics of the period all Fridays were already meatless.

This, however, is actually a change in the United States for Roman Catholics from the old rules.  While we now abstain from meat on Fridays and on Ash Wednesday, during Lent, at one time all Roman Catholics abstained from meat every Friday throughout the year.  Indeed, in many places this is still the binding discipline.  In the US it was lifted following Vatican Two with the understanding that each Catholic was to observe some sort of penitential observance personal to them, but at least according to Jimmy Akin, who knows such things much better than I, it isn't clear that this was made a binding obligation so the widespread ignoring of this by American Catholics may not actually be an instance of their ignoring their faith.

The Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholics, it should be noted, traditionally have much more strict fasting rules in modern times.   This is apparently something that's been relaxed, in some instances in the United States, taking into account the culture here, but traditionally the Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholics observed two Lenten season during the year, one prior to Easter and another prior to Christmas, both of which have very strict rules which require the faithful to abstain not only from meat, but also ultimately from dairy and wine.

The entire discipline has always been widely misunderstood by those who aren't Catholic or Orthodox and indeed its one of the distinct things about Catholics and Orthodox that not only set them apart, but made them seem strange to Protestants (but probably not to Jews or Muslims who have their own dietary laws).  "Where in the Bible does it say you have to do that?" is a question that probably every Catholic or Orthodox is asked at one time in his life, simply for not ordering a hamburger at lunch.  Well, as well catechized Catholics or Orthodox know, the it doesn't say that you can't eat meat on Fridays in the Bible and the Bible doesn't set the Lenten periods either.  These aren't law with a Divine origin, like the Jewish dietary laws, but rather matters of discipline set by the Church, and set by the Church in very early times in recognition of the spiritual and even the temporal advantages of abstaining and fasting.

Which makes it all the more amusing for us to watch the secular world come up with this anew.  After all, both the Catholics and the Orthodox can point to the Council of Nicea establishing Lent and its practices in the year 325.

Hence, the amusing Meatless Mondays.

Meatless Mondays is one of those uniquely American movements which, I'd argue, has its roots in the Puritan foundation of the country. The Puritans are widely misunderstood, but one thing about them is that they were die-hard Calvinists who approved of work and disapproved of nearly anything about average life that was fun or enjoyable except, oddly enough, husbands and wives getting frisky with each other.  We don't think of them that latter way, but that's about the only thing I'm aware of, off hand, that they really strongly approved of outside of their own Calvinistic interpretation of the Bible.  They tended to ban just about darned near anything else that was out there, including sports and the celebration of Christmas.

Now, the Puritans were not teetotalers (the drank a fair amount of beer) and they certainly didn't have any dietary restrictions they imposed on anyone, but their way of looking at things in regards to its enjoyment or not has had a lasting impact on American culture, as well as a few others.  One strong feature of it is that Americans have developed sort of a fondness for deprivation and self suffering which stands apart from a lot of other cultures.  Indeed, Catholic (and Orthodox) southern Europe has traditionally tended to drive Americans crazy in certain respects as its attitude towards work, food, and alcohol has tended to be quite a bit different from our own, even though we're all basically Europeans.  That is, in the very cultures which retain the Old Faith, and hence the various rules discussed above, the happy people otherwise go around enjoying all the things that the latest in worrywart Americans urge everyone to give up all the time.  That is, these cultures, some of which are notoriously long lived, indulge in the things that secular American dietary theorist would require you to give up. So, oddly, that secularized focus would impose a perpetual fast on everyone.

Now all that may seem odd for a thread that starts off about the Lenten practices of Catholics and the Orthodox, the latter of which take the concept of Lenten fasting far further than Catholics do.  But I'd maintain that this is all closely tied together.

Anyhow, Meatless Mondays dates back to a World War One government backed program which was intended to help conserve food for the troops.  Every week had a meatless day (which like the Catholic and Orthodox Friday didn't mean fish, that wasn't meat), a wheatless day, and a porkless day.  I will confess I find the porkless day a bit odd, as pork is meat, but maybe the meatless day was simply beef free.

Now, while this movement was legitimately tied to the war effort, as resources were so scarce, I can't help but note a subtle Puritan element to it.  The concept has a certain suffering aspect to it, and tied in the whole culture to suffering for a cause.  Well, not the whole culture equally.  Catholics and Orthodox already had a meatless day and indeed the Orthodox had two meatless seasons.  It can't help but be noted that the Wilson Administration didn't propose making Fridays, which were already meatless for a big chunk, albeit a minority, of the population, meatless (including pork).  No, Catholics and Orthodox, if they observed Meatless Tuesday (as that was the day it was set on, not Monday) and Porkless Saturday (as that's the day that was set on) still had the added porkless and meatless Fridays.

In other words, World War One got to be extra bland for Catholics and Orthodox Americans.  It isn't as if the government couldn't have made Fridays meatless and porkless.  But they didn't.

And now we have this movement carried forward to modern times, but this time based on the concept that by taking meat out of your diet, you'll live forever.  You'll be eating bland, but you'll get to eat bland until dementia or infirmity take you down.  Interesting.

It seems as if the Puritanized American secular culture interestingly cast about for a way to reintroduce the Catholic fasts that it tossed out with the Reformation, but in doing so, it always puts on a ting of odd guilt about it that the Catholics and Orthodox largely omit.  Its interesting. And its really carried over into secular lives and not so much into modern American Protestantism, although some Protestant denominations do abstain from alcohol, and two of the American faiths do have distinct dietary laws in their own rights.  Secular American culture, however, looks for a lot of ways to suffer, and something to tie that suffering too.

It'd be an interesting cultural study, but I think there's something to be argued to the effect that the Reformation's tossing out of Catholic fasting rules had the effect, ultimately, of not only putting the Reformation cultures in the position of allowing everyone to make up their own rules, after a long period of development, but there is something really deeply missed about those rules.  The Puritan impulse to make rules really strict is strongly retained in our culture, even if the Calvinist impulse to base them on religious tenants is not.  Or maybe it is.  Many modern Americans seemingly elevate dietary beliefs to near religious status.

There are a lot of observations that could be made about all of this, but maybe one is that there's something about human beings that require periods of self sacrifice for some reason.  A person could argue this in a number of ways. If a person stated a theological argument they might be able to say that there's something ingrained in our natures by our Creator that causes us to need to engage in periodic periods of fast in order to focus us to things greater.

And that's the oddity of the Great Secular Fast that Puritanical American dietary folks would impose.  It seems largely focused on nothing.  But there's some impulse there that, if only I suffer more, or give up this or that, and reduce myself to a diet of free trade, organic, Slovenian, oatmeal, I'll be happy.  Probably not.

Alaska halibut, being fried in butter, on a Lenten Friday.

At least that doesn't seem to be the lesson learned from those Southern European cultures where the old rules apply, but when their not in effect, the people seem pretty content with their traditional diets, and they seem to live a long time.

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