In his Physiology of Taste, Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, that philosopher of the delicious, describes Lenten fasting during his youth in 18th-century France: “Nobody breakfasted, and therefore all were more hungry than usual. All dined as well as possible, but fish and vegetables are soon gone through with. At five o’clock all were furiously hungry, looked at their watches and became enraged, though they were securing their soul’s salvation. At eight o’clock they had not a good supper, but a collation, a word derived from ‘cloister’… Neither butter, eggs, nor any thing animal was served at these collations. They had to be satisfied with salads, confitures and sweetmeats, a very unsatisfactory food to such appetites at that time. They went to bed, however, and lived in hope as long as the fast lasted.”

Even as early as the 18th century, however, the custom was under assault, leading Pope Benedict XIV to write in a manner that should give us pause today:

The observance of Lent is the very badge of Christian warfare. By it we prove ourselves not to be enemies of Christ. By it we avert the scourges of divine justice. By it we gain strength against the princes of darkness, for it shields us with heavenly help. Should men grow remiss in their observance of Lent, it would be a detriment to God’s glory, a disgrace to the Catholic religion, and a danger to Christian souls. Neither can it be doubted that such negligence would become the source of misery to the world, of public calamity, and of private woe.

This statement ranks as accurate papal prophecy – ranking up there with Paul VI’s exact prediction of the modern dating scene in Humanae Vitae.

Brillat-Savarin later speaks of the gradual decline of fasting during the Age of Reason in a manner eerily parallel to Dom Guéranger’s account in his Liturgical Year. In the end, all was swept away in the French Revolution. Although the Catholic Revival of the 19th century saw a partial re-establishment of the practice (though most notably with two collations), even this was gradually done away with, until we reached the point we are at now. It cannot be said that the current conditions in church and state – to say nothing of the individual piety and happiness of Catholics – speak well for the results of the relaxation.

So, how do we react to this as individuals? First, we have to admit that our own practice of Lent is severely deficient, and seek eventually to reach the heights of fasting attained by our forefathers. But to do so all at once is probably beyond most of us (including this writer).

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