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On Mindfulness and Meat

Friday, March 1, 2013

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On Mindfulness and Meat | Faith Permeating Life

During the season of Lent, Roman Catholics abstain from eating meat on Fridays. I'm not going to go into all the specifications of what is and isn't allowed and why (or how this compares to other denominations), but I do want to talk about my own experiences with this particular practice and how it's changed since I became a pescetarian.

I think that criticisms around not eating meat on Fridays, particularly things like complaining that fish is allowed because of historical/economic precedent or that it's not a real sacrifice when there are so many good meatless options in America, miss the point of this Lenten practice.

I mean, if you feel like not eating meat or fish on Fridays brings you closer to God, then certainly do what you need to. But the point of all this is not that you are made holier by what exactly does or does not go in your mouth. Jesus already shot that idea down in Matthew 15:11.

Think about it this way: When Catholics do eat meat on Fridays during Lent, what is usually the reason?

In my experience, it's not because they're going, "Screw you, God, I eat what I want!" just before shoving a bacon cheeseburger in their mouth. (If that were the case, I'd say there's a bigger issue there than precisely what they're eating.)

It's because they forget.

They forget it's Friday. Or they forget it's a Friday during Lent, and forget that they're not supposed to be eating meat.

Which means that when people do keep the practice and intentionally abstain from eating meat on these days, they do it out of mindfulness. It is an intentional action, a concrete display of faith, and it is connected to a reminder about one's religion, one's identity, and about Jesus's Good Friday sacrifice.

For those who regularly eat meat, intentionally abstaining from it requires that moment of reflection in which you think, "I am a Catholic, and I choose to follow this practice of my religion, so I will choose to eat something without meat."

Which brings me to being a pescetarian.

Although it was a slow process, I'm now in the habit of never eating meat. I don't have to think about it anymore. I don't forget and buy or order something with meat. I'm used to scanning menus for seafood and vegetable options.

Does the fact that I never slip up and eat meat on Fridays make me a better Catholic? I don't think so.

If anything, I'm missing out on this Lenten practice. It's not a sacrifice for me. Choosing what to eat doesn't require reflection on my faith identity. Aside from how much to eat (fasting is a separate issue), Lenten Fridays may as well be any other day for me.

I mentioned this to a friend last week, and she suggested I choose something else to abstain from eating on Fridays during Lent, which I think is a good idea. I'm not sure if it's equivalent to abstain from eating seafood, since I don't have it that often to begin with, but that's what I'm going with for the moment. Since we're on a Catholic campus, the dining hall offers more seafood and fewer meat options than usual on Fridays, so it may actually require more consideration for me than for some others to choose a meal.

My hope is that it will bring back some element of mindfulness to the food choices I make on those days. Because that, I believe, is what the practice of not eating meat is really about.

Do you abstain from eating meat or other foods during Lent and/or on Fridays? What does that mean to you?

8 comments:

  1. Giving up meat and fish for Lent 11 years ago was the one thing with the single biggest effect on my partner's and my eating habits. We have never resumed eating as much meat as we used to eat before we did that, because we found that we didn't need it and we felt a little better without it.

    Because of that, giving up meat for Lent would not make much difference to us now. We fast from different things or take on new daily tasks for Lent.

    I think you have a great point about mindfulness. That's really what it's all about.

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    1. I think fasting/abstaining from different things, or at least re-examining whether your fasts still make sense, is important. I worked with someone previously who would give up French fries every single Lent, and had been doing it for years, and it wasn't clear that it really served any purpose for her -- it was just a habit and a way to "check off" Lent.

      Even though I don't think Lenten sacrifices should be treated like New Year's resolutions, there is a benefit in striving to be "transformed" in some way at the end of it, whether in your eating habits, or spiritually, or in the way you treat others.

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  2. This is something I've thought about a lot, because although I do eat meat, it's not really that big a deal not to eat it on seven Fridays and one Wednesday a year. My reasons for abstaining from meat are mainly that it keeps me thinking about Lent, like you said. It's a small sacrifice, but it's still something, and it's not the only thing I do to observe Lent.

    I was just having a conversation with a receptionist who went to Catholic school in the 1960s, when you weren't supposed to eat meat on any Friday, not just during Lent. After telling me how awful the Catholic school nuns are (older adults tell those stories a lot, I've found!), she said that she once forgot and had a bite of a hot dog on a Friday, and that night she was afraid to go to sleep for fear she'd die and go to hell. Poor thing!

    I agree that if Catholics eat meat on Friday a lot of times it's because they forget, but I although I've been good about not eating meat in recent years, I definitely remember ordering chicken fingers in a restaurant on a Friday of Lent during college because...well, I just wanted chicken fingers. :)

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    1. That story about the receptionist is a perfect example of why we need theology in context and the spirit of the law! I want my kids to grow up understanding the greatest commandment of love, not living in fear that one wrong move will damn them to hell.

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  3. My church doesn't partake in Lent, but this year my family decided to use the season to prepare our hearts for Resurrection Sunday- to draw closer to Jesus.
    The purpose of Lent and giving up meat or whatever it may be, (my youngest daughter and I gave up TV and my wife and oldest daughter gave up chocolate- BIG sacrifices I know:))is meant to be a sacrifice that we make in order to remember the sacrifice that Jesus made for us. This is a time to intentionally cultivate our relationships with Jesus in order to prepare for a grateful and heartfelt celebration to remember the sacrifice that he made and the gift of eternal life that he offers to us.
    I told my family after my one daughter forgot and ate chocolate on the first day, that if they weren't going to commit for the entire season and take it seriously, then to not do it at all. Then I showed them an example of Jesus' sacrifice and the suffering he went through for us in the movie "The Passion of the Christ". They did not fully understand what Jesus did do for us until they saw that. Now they have a much better idea and have decided to make the sacrifice whole heartedly. I told them when it becomes difficult, and you are tempted to give in, to remember the suffering Jesus went through for us. That is, I believe, the whole point of Lent.
    We are also intentionally learning and reading about Jesus in the Bible and other books during this period. It's been fun and my youngest daughter even came to me one evening and said (after I told them that the movie "The Passion of the Christ" changed my life) that the movie changed her life too.

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  4. Cool! Thanks for writing this- I didn't know what the thinking was behind not eating meat on Fridays and what it means.

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  5. I don't eat a ton of meat, and it's not a big deal for me to not have it (though it's always funny to me how all kinds of meat comes out of the woodwork when you're trying not to eat it). So, on Fridays I probably take it a little far, but I abstain from meat, fish, and sweets. Sweets are the most difficult for me to give up, and I do my best to remember the other two. I don't think any of this necessarily brings me closer to God.

    For me, this sacrifice is a reminder of how fortunate I am that I can eat whatever I want whenever I want. It's a reminder of all the folks around the world (including in my own city) who do not have that luxury. It doesn't fix anything, but it's something to get me outside of myself and that, to me, is the bigger spiritual practice. I mumble and groan to myself on Fridays or Ash Wednesday, but ultimately, it's one day, and I get to go back to eating whatever I want the following day. I need that reminder that other people live very different lives than mine. Maybe it's a tiny bit of solidarity. A tiny bit.

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    1. I like your perspective, and that you've thought about what your particular sacrifice means to you. It bugged me in college that there seemed to be a lot of people who would give up sweets for all of Lent, as if it were the default thing to do, and then complain all through Lent about how much it sucked to not be able to eat chocolate or whatever (especially if Lent started before Valentine's Day, like this year). I think it's important that a ritual or sacrifice retain some specific meaning, even if it's not the same meaning that another person finds in doing the same thing.

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