Preparing for Lent : How to fast like the Saints (Part 3)

Author: Matthew Plese

Collations Are Introduced on Fasting Days in the 8th Century

The rules on fasting remained largely the same for hundreds of years. Food was to be taken once a day after sunset. After the meal, the fast resumed and was terminated only after the sun had once again set on the horizon. But relaxations were to soon begin.

By the eighth century, the time for the daily meal was moved to the time that the monks would pray the Office of None in the Divine Office. This office takes place around 3 o’clock in the afternoon. As a consequence of moving the meal up in the day, the practice of a collation was introduced. The well-researched Father Francis Xavier Weiser summarizes this major change with fasting:

“It was not until the ninth century, however, that less rigid laws of fasting were introduced. It came about in 817 when the monks of the Benedictine order, who did much labor in the fields and on the farms, were allowed to take a little drink with a morsel of bread in the evening…Eventually the Church extended the new laws to the laity as well, and by the end of the medieval times they had become universal practice; everybody ate a little evening meal in addition to the main meal at noon.”

The Lenten Fast in the High Middle Ages

Through the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas, we can learn how Lent was practiced in his own time and attempt to willingly observe such practices in our own lives. The Lenten fast as mentioned by St. Thomas Aquinas constituted of the following:

  • Monday through Saturday were days of fasting. The meal was taken at 3 PM and a collation was allowed at night.
  • All meat or animal products were prohibited throughout Lent.
  • Abstinence from these foods remained even on Sundays of Lent, though fasting was not practiced on Sundays.
  • No food was to be eaten at all on either Ash Wednesday or Good Friday, if possible.
  • Holy Week was a more intense fast that consisted only of bread, salt, water, and herbs.

The Lenten Fast in the Renissance

By the fourteenth century, the meal had begun to move up steadily until it began to take place even at 12 o’clock. The change became so common it became part of the Church’s discipline. In one interesting but often unknown fact, because the monks would pray the liturgical hour of None before they would eat their meal, the custom of called midday by the name “noon” entered into our vocabulary as a result of the fast. With the meal moved up, the evening collation remained.

In the Middle Ages, abstinence from meat on Fridays and during Lent was not only Church law – it was civil law as well. And people gladly obeyed these laws out of respect for the teaching authority of the Church. Yet after the Protestant revolt which began in 1517 and continued through the middle of the 1600s, this was to change.

English Royalty proclamations, even after Henry VIII’s illegal separation from the Church, supporting abstinence of meat continued to occur in England in 1563, 1619, 1625, 1627, and 1631. The same likewise occurred in 1687 under King James II. After the Revolution in 1688 and the overthrow of Catholicism by William III and Mary II, the laws were no longer enforced and officially removed from the law books by the Statue Law Revision Act in 1863. Similar changes occurred throughout Europe as Protestants reviled the fast.

But changes continued even in Catholic nations. St. Epiphanius (367 – 403 AD), the bishop of Salamis at the end of the 4th century, wrote that “Wednesday and Friday are days of fasting up to the ninth hour because, as Wednesday began the Lord was arrested and on Friday he was crucified.” Wednesday abstinence persisted for centuries. In Ireland for instance the use of meat on all Wednesdays of the year was prohibited until around the middle of the 17th century. This harkened back to the vestige of those earlier times when Wednesdays were days of weekly fasting as Father Slater notes in “A Short History of Moral Theology” published in 1909:

“The obligation of fasting on all Wednesdays and Fridays ceased almost entirely about the tenth century, but the fixing of those days by ecclesiastical authority for fasting, and the desire to substitute a Christian observance at Rome for certain pagan rites celebrated in connection with the seasons of the year, seem to have given rise to our Ember Days…About the tenth century the obligation of the Friday fast was reduced to one of abstinence from flesh meat, and the Wednesday fast after being similarly mitigated gradually disappeared altogether.”

To be continued…