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Catholic Life | Tag Archive | Penance
Tag Archives: Penance

Fasting and Fertility

First of all, yes this is serious, and no, this isn’t about abstaining from sex, it is about fasting from food. And I’m not talking about fertility signs that one must chart in order recognize, though obviously those are great to consider too, if you’re the charting sort. Secondly, part of me thinks that no one will respond, but do remember that anonymous comments are fine. You can even call yourself things like NotASAint to make up for publicly admitting to penitential practice, okay?

Please talk to me about fasting and fertility.

It only recently occurred to me that it makes sense for fasting to impact a woman’s fertility cycle. Obviously if one is experiencing a shock of not eating meat and dairy and/or dramatically reducing calories, one’s body is likely to respond in many ways, among them going into starvation mode and delaying ovulation.

I don’t think that I shock my body enough or reduce calories enough to have fasting impact my fertility directly (at least not these days, and I didn’t pay such close attention back in the day when I fasted more). But one way that it might impact me is stress. Required fasting is incredibly stressful for me. I continually have to figure out what is appropriate in order to both be penitential and still do all of the things that I need to, and I am not yet adept at balancing different needs for food and fasting in one kitchen.

Fasting is so much easier for me outside of Lent, because there are basically no rules. Even though there are times when I eat far less than what is allowed/suggested for Lenten days, it is easier. At times it can be stressful to try to figure out what is most appropriate for me on any given day, it is at least less stressful than having the whole YOUMUSTFASTTODAYORELSEYOUAREINDANGEROFMORTALSIN thing hanging over my head. Seriously, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday fill my heart with dread and my mind with stress.

And my body shuts down. Then I am somehow shocked by the fact that it magically starts back up again once we return to feasting and leave our fasting far, far behind.

Of course that is just my best recent guess of how things play out in my body. I don’t actually know which factors of fasting impact fertility, and whether it is that direct. But there does seem to be something there, and I am really very interested in what others have noticed in this area.

I don’t care if you’re male or female and speaking from personal experience or random abstract hypothesizing. Just tell me what you know about fasting and fertility!

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Sex and Fasting: They Call it Abstinence for a Reason

This post is serious, and not sarcastic except for a few hopefully obvious lines.

My parents told us kids a lot about fasting from food and not-a-lot about married people abstaining from sex. This makes sense given the fact that their sexual relationship was none of our business and we didn’t really have any need to think about religious sexual abstinence in our own lives. But we did know that the main reason the Bible addresses married abstinence is for prayer (not avoiding babies, lest the overly-zealous NFP-pushers confuse you).

So while I didn’t actually learn about the Christian tradition of married sexual abstinence until I was in college, I did not feel like I was learning anything. It simply does not make sense to have sex on a day of penance as sex is happy and penitential days are sad. This was intuitive knowledge. It was less obvious to me why there had been so many restrictions on conjugal intercourse on feast days, but the rest of it required no thought on my part. It was simply obviously true, and while I learned various facts from an academic perspective, my faith required no molding.

A few months before I got married my mother made comments about me possibly being a mother within a year. I knew that Josh’s family was likely similarly speculative, and so I told him that if they started asking questions that I didn’t feel like dealing with, I would solemnly tell them that we were so desirous of children that we’d been fasting and praying for them continually from the beginning. This was to be amusing because everybody knows that the implication is that we’d been trying to get a baby from God while never engaging in the act through which God typically grants children. Everyone knows that if you’re fasting you’re not having sex.

I did not learn the truth until I read infertility blogs. Women who thought of themselves as pious Catholics posted publicly about having sex during HOLY WEEK! There was no “we felt called to try to conceive a child during this holy time of penance” or anything else, just a complete lack of concern for anything other than having a baby.

After much denial, I gradually I came to understand that American Catholics really *are* as liturgically clueless as we are so often accused.

When I jokingly mentioned having sex on a Friday I did not think of it as personal. It was a joke and while I don’t ever directly address what I do or don’t do sexually, it doesn’t seem any more intimate to joke about penitential sexual abstinence than it does to Tweet vegetarian recipes with the #FridayFood tag. They may or may not be penitential for me, and I may or may not be fasting in some form or other, but as someone who Tweets random Catholic things it makes sense for me to say things that fit into a context of Christian tradition of penance, right?

While I don’t go around trying to bring back Ember Days or get Western Christians to give up olive oil, I don’t see why anyone would think of sexual abstinence as somehow randomly disconnected from other penance post-Vatican II or whatever. Yes, maybe our catechesis stinks so much that people really think it is fitting to give no thought to the crucifixion on Fridays and Lent is all about giving up chocolate and skipping lunch on Good Friday. But is it possible that our society is really so sexually dysfunctional that we no longer feel the natural connection between penitential days and sexual abstinence?

I don’t care who does what in the bedroom. I am aware of many good reasons for modifying penitential practices to fit into the reality of family life. I just do not understand why people think of standard Christian practice as peculiar or uber-holy or demanding. You don’t have to study Medieval canon law to just know that it isn’t normal to fast from food while indulging in sex. Or do you? Have our norms changed so much that one really must grow up in an extreme-Christian (or at least Eastern Christian) family in order to find abstinence more meaningful than merely skipping meat seven days a year?

These are questions that I don’t really want answered right now. It has been long enough that I’m no longer scandalized by what is apparently the real norm for American Latin Rite Catholics. But not quite enough time has passed for me to accept the Eastern bashing which insists that Westerners are, well, not exactly Christian, when it comes to penance.

So this is the closest I’ll get to a concession for now, and comments are closed.

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Wounded and Healthy

O night that guides my flight!
O night that was more loving htan the sun!
O night that would unite
the Lover and loved one,
beloved changed to Lover–unison!

Upon my blossoming breast–
I guarded it for only him, no less–
there he remained at rest,
I gave him my caress,
our love the fanning cedars’ breeze would bless.

The breeze blew from the tower,
my fingers now began to part his hair,
with his hand’s gentle power
he wounded my neck where
my senses, stricken, faded unaware.

I lost, forgot my being,
my face reclined upon my Lover there;
all ceased, my spirit freeing,
and leaving all my care
behind, forgotten, midst the lilies fair.


A few days ago I sat in the crypt church at the national shrine and read from Loren G. Smith’s translations of poems by Saint John of the Cross. I sat rather than knelt because if I knelt the physical pain would have prevented me from thinking. Pain calls my thoughts back to God, but when it becomes too much there are no thoughts at all.

So I sat, and I thought about John’s pain. What are we to think of this Lover who wounds? It is at once true and problematic. This Lover who both heals and wounds matches with reality, but at the same time there is such a danger of using religion to mask profound psychological problems.

Not long ago I spoke with a friend whose spiritual director sent her for psychiatric care. She was doing her best to work with the secular model for mental health, but pointed out to me that there seemed no right path since all of the Saints seem to have had psychiatric issues.

I agreed with her, but I tried to offer the “you’re doing the right thing in getting help, take care of yourself, indulge your body a bit more, don’t stress about serving others and finding God in all things so much” support of a healthy friend. I secretly wondered whether her spiritual director was simply sending her for psychiatric help because that is what he must do in any case at this point. Even if he thought that she was struggling with the problems of a Saint on earth he would have to see whether secular psychiatric help could remove the incessant desire to be like Christ in all things.

While I knew that my friend needed to find moderation, I wondered whether I was not, in some way, avoiding my God in my quest for “balance.” How is one supposed to both be healthy, and have God?

For now I choose less God and more health. I do not have a spiritual director to moderate my excess, and it is not fair to place such a burden on my husband. So I avoid extremes, even when that appears to mean looking my savior in the eye and saying “not yet.”

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Vegetarian Fridays

Christ Died for Our Salvation on Friday.

Gratefully remembering this, Catholic peoples from time immemorial have set apart Friday for special penitentialobservance by which they gladly suffer with Christ that theymay one day be glorified with Him. This is the heart of thetradition of abstinence from meat on Friday where thattradition has been observed in the holy Catholic Church.

Sometimes the US bishops are quite a pain. In much of the world Catholic vegetarians do not have to think about Fridays as any different than the rest of the week. They know that meat is forbidden on Fridays, and they don’t meat any day, so there is nothing to think about.

But years before I was even born the pesky US bishops had to make such a point of emphasizing Fridays as a day of penance that they downgraded abstinence from meat from a hard and fast command to just a really, really strong suggestion. And in doing so they made it very clear that Fridays are still days for profound penitential conversion.

I cannot be satisfied with the fact that I never eat meat. Instead Fridays should find me

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.

I know all of this, but somehow I constantly fail to keep Friday as a special day of penance. Oh I’ll try to skip some food sometimes if I remember, and I may toss in a few extra prayers or refrain from taking painkiller for a mild headache. But often I do next to nothing, and what I do do is of little service to others.

If I weren’t a vegetarian I would follow the bishops’ instructions to give first place to abstaining from meat on Fridays, and not stress too much about what else I was able to add to that. But as it is I struggle to find a penitential practice which works every Friday. I need something which is so fitting that I can do it every single Friday and form a habit which will protect against the Saturday morning effort to figure out whether I can justify calling what I did or did not do “penance.”

The best thing that I can figure out for right now is to pray the complete liturgy of the hours on Fridays. But I also know that I personally need to do something of more direct service to others. And I have no idea what that should be.

I suspect that most of my readers do not find abstinence from meat to be the most meaningful way to follow Christ on Fridays. So, will you please share your penitential practices for Fridays? It’s not bragging, it is giving me a chance to copy you! And if you really can’t get over your fear of what others might think, then fake names are always allowed.

Note: I realize that this is something which simply is not a part of the religious lives of many Catholics today. If you don’t currently keep Friday as a day of penance, why not start by giving up meat for a meal or two? I suspect that you will soon find that it is fairly easy to give up meat for Fridays.

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Happy Mardi Gras!

I have to admit that I do not really “get” Mardi Gras. Is the idea to party so hard that you are asleep for all of Lent (or at least Ash Wednesday)? I used to think of Mardi Gras as Saint Patrick’s Day for French people. But businesses, libraries, and schools stay open in Boston on Saint Patrick’s Day, and I am not aware of people skipping Mass on the Sunday before Saint Patrick’s Day due to parties.

Hopefully I will understand Mardi Gras eventually, but in the meantime I am admitting that I am probably more English than French and going for more of a Shrove Tuesday approach. Does any else ever feel that “English” tends to mean understated and boring?

Also, I do not know anyone else who actually gives up dairy products for Lent, so how does the whole pancakes and doughnuts thing would work in reality? In any case, I think that I will be partying it up tonight with strawberries on our pancakes. Yum, right?

How are you celebrating this day before Ash Wednesday?

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