Current norms for England and Wales, issued by the Bishops’ Conference in May 2011, re-introduced the expectation that all Catholics able to do so should abstain from meat on all Fridays of the year, effective Friday, September 16, 2011. So Wikipedia tells us. I don’t think that I took this in at the time – a pity because abstinence on Fridays played quite a large part in my life.

It affected me because I had never been keen on fish. In my early days abstinence on Fridays was a definite rule, rather than the pious exhortation it reads like nowadays. So I decided not to go to work on Fridays. Over several years I was effectively self employed so it was easy enough to devote Fridays to organisation and the telephone. My wife liked this because she was able to assist me with this important part of my work. And I was following my father’s example: he always reserved Fridays for writing his books at home. He also held the theory that if you happened to eat meat by mistake you were able to eat it for the rest of the day. His rationale was that we were obliged to abstain from meat on a Friday: once you had innocently taken a bite, you could no longer abstain, so the rule no longer applied. Neat! I thought.

Later in my work life I was in various executive positions. But I kept to the habit. I would put lengthy reports and difficult issues on one side, and take them home with me on a Thursday. (Nowadays I would use a laptop. Even in those days I had identical computers, Amstrads, in both places.) So Fridays became the most important day of my week: it was devoted to serious thinking and planning. So much so that when the large public relations company who looked after our interests took to telephoning me at home I simply failed to renew their contract. I don’t think they ever knew the reason. So nowadays I would maintain that many responsible jobs would be the better for a four-day week.

Ironically, now well retired, I am at home seven days a week. But I still maintain my Friday abstinence. And that’s an irony because the rule does not apply after the age of 60. From my current viewpoint, 60 is quite a young man. Indeed my children are currently moving into their own sixties.

But I would argue that penance is important. Not simply because the Church favours it but as a realisation that any suffering chosen or accepted which is offered to God is present on the Cross – and contributes to the work of the Passion. I have told the story before of how I realised, when under an angioplasty, that the pain I had was similar in form to the asphyxiation on the Cross. When I accepted that I was asked to be part of that, a strange thing happened. The extreme pain did not go away, but I did. The pain was happening in my body, but was no longer happening in me; it ceased to matter. I can think of neat psychological explanations, I’m good at that sort of thing. But I can also recognise digitus dei when it touches me.

So you know what I am going say, because it’s the New Year. Let’s share our ideas for penances for 2019. Nothing dramatic, but some regular penance which will continue to remind us that, as Christians, each of us has a place on Calvary. “I live, now not I, Christ lives in me.”

About Quentin

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23 Responses to Abstain

  1. Iona says:

    Quentin, are you sure about not being obliged to abstain from meat (on Fridays) over the age of 60? I thought abstinence was obligatory from the age of about 12, for life; whereas fasting (on Good Friday and Ash Wednesday) was obligatory only until one’s 60th birthday.
    As I like fish, abstinence from meat is no problem for me. I could do with some other form of Friday penance, one that I would actually feel as penitential.
    There are a lot of vegetarians around these days. I have a vegetarian friend who goes vegan for Lent every year.

    • Quentin says:

      Iona, yes, you are quite right. The limit at 60 only applies to fasting. In checking this out I came across the following comment. “The seriousness of the Christian obligation to do penance is such that the Church teaches that disobeying this now re-established precept is a grave matter, i.e. failure to make “substantial observance” of this law is not only a sin but is a mortal sin (Pope Paul VI, Paenitemini (1966), III.II.1).” This document, referring to these rules, says “Their substantial observance binds gravely.”
      It seems odd to me that a failure here apparently threatens hell for all eternity. A mite disproportionate I think.

      • pnyikos says:

        “It seems odd to me that a failure here apparently threatens hell for all eternity. A mite disproportionate I think.”

        To put it mildly! I believe the Catholic hierarchy was sadly lacking in prudential judgment when it made such comparatively mundane matters as Friday, Sunday and holy day obligations into such grave matters. The foundation, I suppose, is Jesus saying to Peter, “Whatever you bound on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” But it recklessly ignores so many other things Jesus said, such as his numerous “woes” to the scribes and Pharisees, e.g., “You tithe mint and dill and cumin, but you ignore the weightier matters of the law.”

  2. John Nolan says:

    I have a sneaking admiration for my Moslem colleagues; keeping Ramadan in a northern European summer cannot be easy. But it’s not meant to be. Fasting has long disappeared from the western tradition – who nowadays sits down for more than one main meal a day? – and Friday abstinence belongs to a Catholic culture which vanished two generations ago and cannot be recovered.

    I made my first Holy Communion in 1958 and so do not remember the strict Eucharistic fast (did it ever apply to seven-year-olds? Perhaps Quentin can enlighten me). Under the three hour rule one could breakfast on bacon and eggs at eight o’clock and still receive at the principal Sunday Mass at eleven. Within ten years even this modest requirement had been dropped.

    Penances for 2019? Well, I could go to Mass at a church not far away which has more liturgical irregularities (abuses?) than I can count, ceramic vessels which look like they were bought in IKEA, and a folk group churning out interminable drivel.

    That would be a ‘mortificatio carnis’ compared with which self-flagellation and a hair shirt would appear mild.

  3. Horace says:

    I agree with John Nolan “Friday abstinence belongs to a Catholic culture which vanished two generations ago”. I always thought that this happened as a result of Vatican II.
    Looking it up in the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church the only relevant entry is ‘432’ – which is unfortunately completely unhelpful!

  4. ignatius says:

    There’s a great sandwich shop across from the University where I teach. On Friday I used to look forward greatly to my ham salad and mustard lunch takeout – till about a couple of years ago when I decided to begin Friday abstinence…I no longer work there now but still abstain from meat.

    An attitude of abstinence is a very helpful practice in all sorts of life, I tend to apply it quite broadly to include, for example, critical thinking patterns, over eating, excess sweet intake…in fact over indulgence itself’ in all its forms.
    Without this kind of ‘abstinence’ I think I would be quite deeply unhappy and very unhealthy – but the process of abstaining always remains in the form of a discipline rather than a formed habit…in other words self control takes a good deal of personal graft on a daily basis.

  5. Geordie says:

    The re-introduction of abstaining from meat was just another example of how out of touch the bishops are. It would have been more appropriate to instruct the faithful that self-denial is something Our Lord taught us and we would be wise to follow His teaching. Not eating meat is hardly a penance when we have a surplus of all kinds delicious foods which are meat free.

    I remember an article in the Catholic Herald at the time the bishops tried to re-impose the abstinence law. It completely missed the point of self-denial. It told us how to avoid the pain of abstinence by taking the family to some restaurant in London. We would be able to have a delicious meal for “only” £300. For many families I know, £300 could keep the whole family well-fed for two weeks or more. The bishops aren’t the only people out of touch.

    • Martha says:

      I agree whole heartedly. And Our Lady’s messages at Fatima and Medjugorge emphasise the need for fasting and self denial. Unfortunately, siren teachings, mainly after V2, were often that we have enough penance in the course of our daily lives, and that it is better to do something positive rather than negatively giving something up, as if they would be mutually exclusive. I am afraid I was only too willing to listen to these ideas and ignore the narrow way.

  6. John Thomas says:

    We all know the business of abstenance on Fridays – but I have always wondered why NOT eating MEAT and instead eating FISH is viewed as ‘Abstinence’? I like fish, I think I prefer it to many kinds of meat – and so this practice would not be abstinence, for me.

  7. galerimo says:

    The mystical experience you describe when you were united with Jesus on the cross would not be an act of penance but an act of love.

    You expressed that love in your self-sacrifice.

    The acceptance of your suffocation and then offering it to God by uniting yourself with Jesus on the Cross was heroic love, but not penance.

    It is important not to confuse them.

    The central practice of sacrifice across all types of religions demonstrates how essential it is to the nature of religion itself.

    Also, it is often associated with the action of priests or people designated for a special role.

    Taking the essence (the heart) from something, or someone and investing that action with a new meaning by making it a transaction between the creature and the God is powerful and empowering.

    Living on bread and water for 40 days would be taking the “heart” out of good feeding but when it is consciously done for a definite reason and with motivation, it is transformed into something sacred.

    Fasting and abstinence are practices of primitive religious sacrifice. However they become transformed through Christ into acts of loving God and neighbour

    They give us the opportunity of exercising a priestly function when we invest very simple and ordinary human action with a sacred meaning – for the love of God.

    As a simple and profoundly sacred practice, fasting and abstinence are not just sourced in our primitive cultures but they also serve a deep psycho/spiritual need in our basic humanity.

    The fact that we have fewer rules and regulations around fasting and abstaining is a good thing as there is always the danger of the letter of the law choking the spirit.

    (Nevertheless there must be some irony in the fact that at a time when the dieting industry was burgeoning from the 60’s on, the Catholic Church simplified its rules on fasting by reducing them to a bare minimum).

    It is not penance and should never be confused with it. Penance is about punishment. Nothing could be more antithetical to the deeply personal religious practice of self- sacrifice in fasting and abstinence and the like than self imposed punishment, in some futile effort at atonement for sin.

    So no “penance” to share here, in answer to you request for 2019.

    Just as a person’s purpose is known to God alone, so too ought their own practice of self-sacrificing fasting and abstaining that is done in God’s name.

    I will abstain from disclosing mine!

  8. ignatius says:

    PENANCE :Definition
    The virtue or disposition of heart by which one repents of one’s own sins and is converted to God. Also the punishment by which one atones for sins committed, either by oneself or by others. And finally the sacrament of penance, where confessed sins committed after baptism are absolved by a priest in the name of God.


    “..Fasting and abstinence are practices of primitive religious sacrifice. However they become transformed through Christ into acts of loving God and neighbour..”

    Perhaps you might unpack the above statement a little? I read it as saying that Because of Christs thing and presence we need no longer fast or engage in abstinence…. If that is your intended meaning then I would wholeheartedly disagree since my own perception of penance involves the repenting of sin as a means of fuller conversion of the heart to God.

    It is my own experience that there is in fact a certain roughness towards the self that is required if one is to turn and follow wholeheartedly and with persistence, along the narrow way. Perhaps you had a different emphasis in mind?

    • galerimo says:

      Thank you Ignatius – I am referring to the perennial, ancient practice of sacrifice as something manifested in our “fasting and abstinence” but transformed by Jesus in the way that the blog describes it – “as a realisation that any suffering chosen or accepted which is offered to God is present on the Cross – and contributes to (sic) the work of the Passion” Quentin says “contributes to” which could suggest “adding to”, I would go with “shares in”.

      That’s my unpacking of the statement.

      • galerimo says:

        I find it difficult to see penance as a virtue or even a (healthy!) disposition, as you offer here. The word suggests penalty to me and something we drag with long trails from our medieval atonement/appeasement theology of salvation.

        It one of the less desirable, of the otherwise positive Celtic influence on the Roman Church.

        Jesus either forgives or he doesn’t. We easily mistake him for his cousin.

        And urging people not to sin again is not telling them to do penance. He never stops forgiving because we never stop needing His forgiveness.

        So yes I do have a different emphasis

  9. ignatius says:

    oopps should read “Christ’s teaching and presence” sorry.
    one more thing:
    “..Just as a person’s purpose is known to God alone, so too ought their own practice of self-sacrificing fasting and abstaining that is done in God’s name…..”

    This is an issue for those who teach and instruct within the Church. For myself I remember that there i nothing hidden which will not be brought to light and so I am happy to share my own experience when appropriate. On the one hand you are right but on the other there is a great need for teaching and discipling by example and from experience. The example Jesus gave to his friends was pretty much one of open demonstration I think. These thing are of course, down to the individual perception.

  10. galerimo says:

    Comment: I don’t see Jesus as an example of anything – other than being open to the Spirit when he was a young man. Letting himself be led.

    And I don’t think Jesus sees himself as an example of anything. He is totally focused on the Father and the opening up of God’s Kingdom for us within the arena of our world.

    It is the Spirit that brings about Jesus’ “living in me”. Not my efforts at following his example.

    • John Nolan says:


      ‘The Spirit’? Are you referring to the Holy Ghost, the third Person of the Trinity, or to some dubious modernist construct which I, as a Catholic, do not recognize as being orthodox? Are you yourself Catholic? I find it hard to believe you are.

      • G.D says:

        As galerimo said ” …. It is the Spirit that brings about Jesus’ “living in me”. ….” would have thought it was obvious what Spirit was meant. But then, fundamental prejudiced judgements always do produce blindness.

  11. ignatius says:

    Hi Galerimo,
    On the other hand jesus did compellingly teach and preach on behaviour. He also spoke clearly that judgement rests on deeds and he spoke of us seeing in him the Father. Furthermore most of the thrust of the New testament letters concerns the practice of the presence of God by self discipline.
    The books of Hebrews, Corinthians, Ephesians for example demonstrate both the fullness of grace and our personal responsibility towards the standard of holiness. It seems to me very clear that the Holy spirit does not force himself upon us and that we are to make of ourselves a welcome temple for his courteous presence. Knowing we are fallen and in need of correction is an essential part of christian discipleship and does not keep us from appreciating the magnificent kindness of God.
    Most certainly our hearts may be full of marvel and gratitude at the unearned and voluntary presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives but the corollary of this is the awareness of the need for striving which includes sorrowful penance when appropriate. I think it is very hard to escape the plain reality of this human condition written as it is throughout scripture and attested to in the works of most of the saints and Doctors of the church, St Peter wept bitterly over his own shortcomings before he was reinstated and reminded of the reality of his own love for the Lord.

    To enter more fully into the lovely place where God dwells within the human heart and soul is a blessing offered freely to all who would walk that way, which is the way of homecoming..but the path is neither straightforward nor easy, demanding as it does, a rigorous and continuing renunciation of self.
    Speaking personally I find this process one of both tears and great happiness, tears for the person I sometimes find myself still to be yet overwhelming happiness in the person, through Gods grace, I find myself joyfully becoming.

  12. Alasdair says:

    The Scots Catholic Blog lists five precepts of the Catholic Church that we are obliged to observe.
    No 4 is. “To observe the prescribed days of fasting and abstinence (we are required to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and to abstain from meat on the Fridays during Lent. On all other Fridays through the year we may undertake an act of penance e.g. a charitable act instead of abstaining from eating meat)”.

  13. Alasdair says:

    Although it doesn’t say so in so many words, statements like “other Fridays through the year we may undertake an act of penance e.g. a charitable act instead of abstaining from eating meat” (quoting from the Scots Catholic Blog) could lead to the notion that we can be redeemed (“saved”, whatever) by our actions (“works”) rather than by God’s grace.
    Remember “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”. “All” includes all who have faithfully followed the precepts of the church.

  14. John Nolan says:


    Kindly leave off your cant about ‘fundamental prejudiced judgements’ and consider, for a moment, what the Church teaches concerning the Trinity. When someone writes that Jesus as a young man was open to ‘the Spirit’ and ‘let himself be led’, this would lead me to question whether the writer accepts that Jesus was the Son of God. Since the Holy Ghost, the Paraclete, proceeds from the Father and the Son, how can he lead the Son? Or is ‘the Spirit’ a separate entity, and if so how do you define it/him?

    The more I read your and Galerimo’s comments, the clearer it is to me that both of you have formulated a personal religion outside of Catholic doctrine.

    In your case, this is exacerbated by the fact that anyone who actually believes what the Church has always taught is regarded by you as a blind fundamentalist.

    • G.D says:

      ‘fundamental prejudiced judgements’ seem to be rife when a person considers the homeostatic union of The Christ & Jesus NOT being ‘led’ by the Spirit. And i would question the veracity of that judgement.
      Did The Second Person of the Trinity (Christ) take human form (Jesus) at a specific time in history or not? Did that human form come fully aware/conscious of it’s union with the Father at birth? Did that person (Jesus) ‘let himself be led’ (as in grow/become aware of) to knowledge & acceptance of his union with the Father?

      Your question, in this context, “Or is ‘the Spirit’ a separate entity, and if so how do you define it/him?” is a typical case of fundamental prejudiced nonsense.

      Yes, of course, the Spirit is an entity in it’s own right, as is the Father & the Son. All in perfect eternal relationship with each other. All completely separate Entities, perfectly united as One.

      Three Persons one God as the church expresses it.

      I can accept both sides of that paradox – three persons (‘entities’ as you rightly put it) that are in complete union.

      To deny either would seem to bring into question the ‘Catholicity’ of one’s religion; such a denial being other than the teachings of Catholicism.
      But i wouldn’t assume they ‘have formulated a personal religion’. I leave that to the ‘fundamental prejudiced judgements’ of them who assume only they are right.

  15. John Nolan says:

    I thought that you might have mentioned the Gospel for the first Sunday in Lent: ‘Ductus est Jesus in desertum a Spiritu, ut tentaretur a diabolo.’

    This is usually translated as ‘Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness …’ But Matthew was writing before the dogmatic definition of the Trinity. And the union is not ‘homeostatic’ but ‘hypostatic’. the former has a physiological and not a theological meaning.

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