Every Given Friday

How are you commemorating the end of the week?

On the Friday after Easter, did you eat a steak, ribs, or a cheeseburger? If so, you’re not alone. Many Catholics celebrated the end of Lenten abstinence from meat on Friday by eating meat.steak2

Most Catholics are aware of the practice of abstaining from meat on Friday. It’s one of the more public Lenten practices. It’s given rise to phenomena such as meatless recipes in diocesan newspapers and the popularity of Friday parish fish fries that, in some cities, have become part of the popular culture.

Abstaining from meat on Friday is a small sacrifice, a denial of our desires, a penitential practice that should put us a little more in touch with the ultimate sacrifice that Christ made for us. This practice should remind us of our sinfulness, as well as our need for conversion and salvation.

Unlike other Lenten practices, which, ideally, call us to ongoing conversion and positive changes in our lives that will persist long after Lent is over, Friday abstinence has a definite end point: Good Friday.

That’s all well and good, but did you know that, as Catholics, we are called to a penitential practice every Friday of the year?

If you didn’t know that, you’re not alone.

First, a little background. Abstaining from meat on Friday was a penitential observance that Catholics had practiced for centuries. As the United States bishops’ conference put it in a 1966 pastoral statement, Christ died for us on Friday, so “Catholic peoples from time immemorial have set apart Friday for special penitential observance by which they gladly suffer with Christ that they may one day be glorified with Him.”

Changing social and dietary customs, as well as the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, led the U.S. bishops to ease obligatory Friday abstinence in 1966. The bishops recognized that meat, which had once been a luxury, was now a common part of the diet.

While the bishops relaxed the abstinence regulations for Friday’s outside of Lent, the intent was never to eliminate penitential practices on Friday. Rather, the motivation was to “give the spirit of penance greater vitality” by expanding the options beyond abstinence.

Here’s how the bishops’ statement presents it:

Friday itself remains a special day of penitential observance throughout the year, a time when those who seek perfection will be mindful of their personal sins and the sins of mankind which they are called upon to help expiate in union with Christ Crucified…we urge all to…mak[e] of every Friday a day of self-denial and mortification in prayerful remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately, somewhere in the aftermath of Vatican II, this message got lost in translation. Be honest. When was the last time (if ever) you heard that every Friday should be a day of penance?

So if you’re really interested in improving your spiritual life (or, as the bishops put it in a phrase I really like, “seeking perfection”), consider building a penitential practice into your Friday routine.

What to do? The bishops’ initial suggestion is the most obvious, in a “back to the future” sort of way: continue to abstain from meat on Friday as a free choice rather than an obligation. Abstinence demonstrates our solidarity with generations of believers who engaged in this practice, as well as an outward sign of our inward spiritual values.

Not interested in substituting spinach for steak as a year-round penitential practice? The bishops offer several other alternatives:

It would bring great glory to God and good to souls if Fridays found our people doing volunteer work in hospitals, visiting the sick, serving the needs of the aged and the lonely, instructing the young in the Faith, participating as Christians in community affairs, and meeting our obligations to our families, our friends, our neighbors, and our community, including our parishes, with a special zeal born of the desire to add the merit of penance to the other virtues exercised in good works born of living faith.

That’s quite a list to choose from, but the bishops don’t stop there. They also recommend self-control in the use of stimulants and temperance in the use of alcohol. Abstaining from alcohol on Friday? Now, that would be sacrifice, not to mention a counter-cultural witness.

So, what are you doing this Friday?

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Prevented by the Holy Spirit

Where’s your Macedonia?

[Paul and his companions] traveled through the Phrygian and Galatian territory because they had been prevented by the Holy Spirit from preaching the message in the province of Asia. When they came to Mysia, they tried to go on into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them… During the night Paul had a vision. A Macedonian stood before him and implored him with these words, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Acts 16:6-9 Call_to_Macedonia

This curious passage from the Acts of the Apostles demonstrates a little-discussed aspect of the spiritual life: before showing us what to do, sometimes God shows us what not to do.

First, a little context. On this second missionary journey (Acts 15:36–18:22), Paul builds on the success of his first journey, visiting the Christian communities that he had established earlier in central Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) and seeking to start new communities. In the passage above, Paul, along with companions that included Timothy and Silas, attempts to go further north into Asia Minor. Instead, they are redirected to Macedonia, which would be the first place the seed of Christianity is planted on European soil.

We’re not told exactly how the Holy Spirit prevented them from preaching in the province of Asia or going into Bithynia. Was it natural (a landslide, a flood, a missed connection)? Was it supernatural (a dream, a revelation, a physical presence that kept them from proceeding)? We don’t know. What we do know is that, whatever form the prompting of the Spirit took, these disciples got the message and heeded it. Sometime later, Paul received a vision inviting them to Macedonia to evangelize in Europe.

This episode has some lessons for us, as well.

First, are we doing what God has called us to do? Have we been faithful to God’s call? Have we prayerfully discerned the path that we are on? Certainly, we’ll stumble and fall along the way, but, in general, we living a life that’s pleasing to God and that models God’s love for us?

Second, are we in a position to recognize, hear, and respond to the promptings of the Holy Spirit? There’s a lot of noise in the world today, and that noise keeps us from hearing the Spirit. Daily prayer, time set aside each day for silence, and frequent reception of the sacraments position us to perceive and understand the call of the Spirit.

Finally, when we hear the call of the Spirit, do we obey? Hearing the call of the Spirit is one thing; obeying is another. Procrastination, willful resistance, unwillingness to change can all keep us from doing what God is calling us to do. We need to ask for the grace to act on our call. Alternatively, we need to ask for the grace to be patient when our call involves waiting or flexibility when our call moves us in a different direction.

This is a much different approach from what the world teaches. Conventional business wisdom, for example, would suggest that when a boulder is in our path, we should climb over, squeeze around, dig under, or blow up the boulder so that we can continue on the path. Instead, this passage from Acts suggests that sometimes a boulder in our path is God’s way of saying we’re on the wrong path. In those instances, we should turn around and let God lead us to another path.

None of this is easy. We have to be quiet and prayerful enough to hear the call of the Holy Spirit. We have to be selfless enough to recognize that God’s in charge. No matter how much we were counting on going down this path, God has a different, and presumably better, path for us. We have to trust that God will lead us on the right path. And we need to pray for the courage and strength to take that path.

If Paul and his companions hadn’t heard and obeyed the promptings of the Holy Spirit, they never would have brought the Good News to Europe. As we contemplate the words of Paul’s vision, “Come to Macedonia and help us,” we need to ask ourselves, “Where’s my Macedonia?”