The disciples of John approached Jesus and said,
"Why do we and the Pharisees fast much,but your disciples do not fast?"
One of the Protestant ministers recently said to me, "Tell me about fasting."
"It's a sad story." I said.
I certainly remember fasting before the Second Vatican Council, but I remember no explanation of it. It was just what Catholics were supposed to do during Lent and Advent. Plus, we abstained from meat on Friday.
Some people said we ate no meat on Friday to maintain the fish markets of Rome. Others explained it had to do with Jesus' dying on Calvary.
I also remember that violating the rules of fast and abstinence was considered a mortal sin. Any Catholic who did so would go to Hell unless he or she confessed the sin and did the appropriate penance -- three Hail Marys. There were no equivalent penalties for Protestants who ignored, or didn't know about, the rules. When the enlightenment of Vatican II came, the ominous threat and its ludicrous atonement made the old practices all the more ridiculous. But many people sincerely believed these rules; and when they quit believing they quit coming to Church altogether.
Every year American bishops and some priests remind their Catholic congregations we should abstain from meat on Fridays during Lent, and fast between meals Monday through Saturday. In my own Franciscan community, since most of us are well past 59 years of age and our average age is 70+, the healthy and the unhealthy alike ignore the rules.
So what could I say to my Protestant friend?
Every major religion on Earth has certain dietary restrictions. Jews eat no pork and Muslims drink no alcohol; both groups observe days of fasting. Buddhists eat no meat and Hindus avoid "meat, eggs, poultry, fish, caffeine, alcohol and very spicy foods; and strict Hindus also do not eat mushrooms, onions, leeks and garlic."
In the light of these universal practices, one could hardly call oneself religious without some attention to dietary rules.
Given the American obsession with food and positive dread of hunger, the Christian considers fast and abstinence in the light of our discipleship. We are disciplined by our obedience to the Lord. Ordinarily, that means we maintain our health so as to be more available, ready and eager to do the Lord's bidding.
Common sense would say, "No smoking!" The old rules said nothing about tobacco or excessive use of alcohol! That seems incomprehensible today.
Common sense adds: Eat in moderation. Exercise daily. Get enough sleep at night. Don't speed, text or telephone while driving. Never use any substance for recreational purposes; use painkillers reluctantly and with great caution.
Approaching the discipleship of Lent, we begin by checking off the aforementioned "rules of common sense." If they do not present a significant challenge and you have "observed these rules since my youth" I might suggest the practice of daily scripture reading, especially of the liturgical selections that I link on this website; and the Liturgy of the Hours.
The latter is available online or in your Catholic bookstore. This continual observance of "the hours" has been the joy of my youth into my senior years. And finally, of course, daily Mass.
Introibo ad altare dei: I will go up to the House of the Lord.Ad deum qui laetificat juventutem meam: To God who is the joy of my youth.