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.”