Fasting Through Lent, From Robert Farrar Capon

Supposedly, We’re Saved on the Basis of Grace and Forgiveness, not Merit. What’s the Good of Encouraging Ourselves to Think We Can Pile up a Whole lot of Brownie Points by Fasting?

Mockingbird / 2.18.21

Excerpted from Robert Farrar Capon’s book, Light Theology & Heavy Cream, the first volume of the culinary adventures of Pietro and Madeleine. Volume Two, More Theology & Less Heavy Cream was published by Mbird in 2015.

“I hate Lent!” Madeleine fumed. “Who ever dreamed up the dumb idea of having people make themselves miserable for forty days? I can’t stand one more minute of it.”

Pietro had to deal with the same complaint every year. He decided to try firmness this time. “Let me point out that the amount of Lent on which that childish outburst was based should be an embarrassment to you. This is only Ash Wednesday and you are not even halfway through the altogether delicious tomato soup I made you for supper.”

You should be embarrassed! This soup is half heavy cream, at least. You call that fasting? I call it hypocrisy — and high in calories besides. Now if I were going to fast …”

He cut her off. “That is perhaps the shabbiest argument in the world. It’s the old, village-atheist cheap shot: ‘I wouldn’t be caught dead doing what you’re doing; but if I did it, I’d do it all the way.’ People who disapprove of an entire discipline have no business offering to improve other people’s exercise of it. Furthermore, you misunderstand the point of the Lenten fast.”

“It’s the Lenten fast that’s a misunderstanding. Supposedly, we’re saved on the basis of grace and forgiveness, not merit. What’s the good of encouraging ourselves to think we can pile up a whole lot of brownie points by fasting?”

“As I was saying,” Pietro continued blandly, “the fast is not a matter of getting merit badges for strenuous exertion. It is, to begin with, a corporate observance. Just as the faithful join one another in feasting to celebrate the mighty acts they’re saved by, so they join in fasting to remind themselves of the more depressing stuff they’re saved from.”

“Who needs to fast for that? They could watch the eleven o’clock news.”

“Let me finish. Therefore, just as it is not central to the Easter feast, say, for any particular group of the faithful to sound like the Metropolitan Opera chorus or cook on par with Lutece, so it is unnecessary, in the case of the Lenten fast, for them to end up with distended bellies or sunken cheeks. God has arranged for salvation on the basis of no contests at all: not in singing, not in cooking, not in starving — not even, I might add, in deportment. He simply encourages a bit of togetherness when we commemorate the cancellation of such eternal gong shows.”

“It’s still ridiculous. We make a rule not to have meat on Ash Wednesday, right? So then, instead of eating up the half-pound of old chopped beef in the fridge, we have lobster bisque in honor of the world’s miseries. That’s okay, huh?”

“Your arguments strike home with all the precision of a cart full of custard pies pushed over a cliff. To begin with, you are eating plain tomato soup, not lobster bisque. I would be flattered if I believed you actually thought it was lobster; but in fact, I suspect this is only another of your red herrings.”

“Humph!”

Pietro pressed his advantage. “Next, as to your question. Yes, it is okay. The fast, from the point of view of the individual, is primarily an act of obedience done for the sake of identification with the corporate observance. Therefore any food may be taken that meets the bare requirements of the fast. It need not be nasty, mean, brutish — or even in short supply. It can, in fact, be as delicious as you please and still constitute a fasting meal.”

“But lobster?”

“Yes, lobster. Of course, lobster. Buy why are you so fascinated with this bête rouge you keeping dragging into the discussion? You challenge me to match the sum totality of the world’s miseries with a fast, but then you complain that I fall short because I have eaten lobster instead of beetles or something. Why, I could starve myself stone cold to death and still fall short. To use your very own argument, the world’s miseries are tractable only to God’s grace, not my merits. A lobster, obediently ingested, can remind me of that as well as anything else, eaten or not eaten, on the same principle.”

Madeleine looked at him intently. “Anything?”

“Absolutely.”

“Desserts?”

“Of course.”

“Popcorn with TV?”

Pietro hesitated. “I suppose.”

“Chocolates?”

“What happened to the hypocrisy of calories?”

“I was just testing you. Can we have wine with dinner?”

“Yes.”

“Martinis before? Drambuie after?”

“Yes. Yes.”

“All right then, I’ll give the fast another try.”

Pietro sighed. “But no lobster, right?”

“Of course not. I hate lobster too. What do you think this is, Lent or something?”