Spirit of Penitence

April 19 2021 | by

FOR EASTER brunch, Italians traditionally enjoy Easter Pizza, also known as Apizza Gaina (Torta Pasqualina), Pizza Rustica, Pizza Ripiena, or Pizza Chiena. Some Italian-American families call this Easter Pie. Pie is more accurate as this is not a flat bread topped with tomato sauce and cheese. Rather, Easter Pizza is a filled dough crust, baked like a pie in a pie or cake pan, and loaded with eggs, milk, cheese, sausage, cured meats and fresh salami. Eaten cold or warm, this indulgent dish was created during the 1600s in the Kingdom of Naples. Easter Pizza was an ingenuous way to break the Lenten Fast which forbad the use of eggs, dairy products, and meat. The recipe inventor mixed all the avoided foods, put them into a covered crust, and baked them. The result? Something like a crust covered hearty quiche.


Ancient practice


Fasting predates Scripture. By studying ancient cultures, historians concluded that fasting has permeated all cultures. For various periods of time from antiquity, individuals and groups have fasted and abstained for various lengths of time.

While people commonly equate fasting and abstinence, they are not the same. Fasting means eating less food. Abstinence means avoiding certain foods.

In the Catholic faith, Good Friday and Ash Wednesday are days of fast and abstinence. Modern fast days mean eating one full meal and two smaller meals which, together do not equal the full meal. In addition, no solid food is eaten between meals. The result? The individual is eating a smaller amount of food than usual.

Abstinence does not involve how much a person eats. Abstinence involves what is not eaten. In the modern Church, meat and meat products are not eaten on abstinence days.

People can fast and not abstain. Or they can abstain and not fast. Vegetarians continually abstain from eating meat. Dieters are continually fasting from food.

However, neither vegetarianism nor dieting are pious practices in themselves. Fasting and abstinence become religious disciplines only when undertaken as a bodily prayer and sacrifice to atone for sin. Traditionally, additional vocal, mental, or contemplative prayer accompanies fasting and abstinence. Prayer and fasting combined draw individuals closer to God.


Strict discipline


Lay penitents who lived the Rule of 1221 during Saint Anthony’s lifetime practiced fasting and abstinence throughout the year. Abstinence then meant no meat, dairy, or eggs. Fasting meant smaller quantities of food.

Unless exempted, penitents ate meat year-round only on Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays. The other weekdays were abstinence days. Penitents were actually fasting daily, because they followed the simple directive in section 6 of their Rule: “Let them be content with dinner and supper.”

Unless that day was a Solemnity, penitents fasted every Friday. At certain seasons, they also fasted on Wednesday. Both during the Lenten fast and the pre-Christmas fast, which began on November 12, penitents fasted every day.

Lest prayer be forgotten, penitents were to pray at every meal. Section 7 of the Rule reads: “Before their dinner and supper let them say the Lord’s Prayer once, likewise after their meal, and let them give thanks to God. Otherwise let them say three Our Fathers.” The Confraternity of Penitents, whose forty some members are living a modern adaptation of this Rule, interpret this to mean that, if penitents forget these prayers, they are to pray three Our Fathers when they remember.


Right spirit


Saint Anthony was preaching to lay penitents of his time. His Sermon Notes for his fellow friars have several sections which specifically address penitents. Anthony’s advice centered, not on how to fast, which was common knowledge, but on the spirit that should accompany fasting and abstinence.

Anthony acknowledges that fasting is difficult. “The belly… asks a man, ‘Why are you fasting? Why do you afflict yourself? You will make yourself ill. You will grow so weak that you cannot help yourself or others.” (Sermons for Sundays and Festivals IV, p.130; translated by Paul Spilsbury; Edizioni Messaggero Padova) The penitent needs to be sorry for these temptations, confess them, repent of them, and thus destroy them.

Anthony was familiar with the writings of Saint Bernard: “There are many things it [the body] would like which are not good for it, and these we must deny it. There are many things which are good for it, but which it does not like – but we must insist on them. We should treat our body as something not really belonging to us, but to him by whom we are bought with a great price, that we might glorify him in our body.’… We should love our bodies… not as something for whose sake we live, but as something without which we cannot live.” (Sermons II, p. 14)

Anthony reminds the penitents that “a greedy appetite… left to itself… brings shame… either devouring what belongs to another, or wasting one’s own substance in prodigal living, or failing to observe due measure as to time and manner even in legitimate foods.” (Sermons II, p. 10) The penitent is not to eat “for pleasure, only for necessity.” (Sermons I, p. 26)

Fasting, Anthony notes, lends strength to purity. Jesus said that a certain kind of demon “(uncleanness of heart and lust of the flesh) cannot be cast out except by prayer and fasting. [cf. Mt 17:20]. By prayer we cleanse the heart from impure thoughts; by fasting we restrain the wantonness of the flesh.” (Sermons I, p. 27) When fasting shackles our worldly appetites, our hearts focus less on satisfaction and more on God Who satisfies us.


Uncharitable penitence


Penitents should be unlike “a certain rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day” [Lk. 16.19]. He paid no attention to Lazarus, the sore covered, starving beggar at the gate. “This ‘certain man’ represents every worldly man, enslaved to the flesh and to sin.” (Sermons II, p. 6) The penitent is to be unlike this man “who did not go out to bestow on him [Lazarus] the blessing of food.” Instead, the penitent should be like Job who welcomed strangers and fed them. (Sermons II, p. 11) Anthony therefore reminds penitents to share with the poor the food from which they fasted.

Updated on April 19 2021