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March 1, 2009

Liturgical eating: Tips for adding the Lord to your diet

By Emily Stimpson


This Lent, stop dieting and start eating like a Catholic. That’s right — eating like a Catholic. There really is such a thing. Think of it as liturgical eating.

You see, God has this thing about his children needing to sanctify every aspect of their lives. It’s not enough to just show up on Sunday for Mass and call it good. He wants everything — every thought, every word, every action — made holy. And that includes how we eat.

So, how exactly do we practice liturgical eating?

Watch the calendar — the liturgical calendar that is. Fast when the church fasts, feast when the church feasts.

The good news is there are a lot more feast days than fast days — holy days of obligation, solemnities, saints’ feasts, and every single Sunday all count as occasions for indulging in the riches of God’s creation. There are also 50 days in the Easter season. Blessed time that one.

To balance all the feasting, there’s Lent. And Advent. And Fridays. Not just Good Friday, but all Fridays. Unless a feast falls on Friday, the church asks us to make it a day of abstinence, refraining from eating meat or some other goody as an alternate penance.

If you want more fasting still, try Wednesdays. In the early church, strict fasts were observed on Wednesdays and Fridays every week. Subsisting solely on bread and water may not be your thing, but giving up your morning Starbucks run will do almost as well if done with the right spirit.

Cultivate the virtue of temperance. Or, as your mother used to say, “Moderation in all things, dear.”

In ordinary time, when we’re neither fasting nor feasting, temperance helps us eat when we’re hungry and stop when we’re full. At all times, temperance tells us to take no more than we need. It guides our food choices, keeping our diet balanced and nutritious. It prevents us from using food as a narcotic and drowning our sorrows in excessive amounts of chocolate. And it acts as a check against gluttony, reminding us that satisfying our stomachs isn’t the goal of existence.

Temperance puts us, not the food, in control, which means we can forgo calorie counting and tasteless fat-free substitutes: When eating like a Catholic, appetite, tastebuds and common sense control what we eat, not numbers on a label.

Eat real food. Food is meant to nourish our bodies, not harm them. But almost without exception, the more processed the food, the less nutritious it is. That’s why it’s best to eat less factory-manufactured food and more God-manufactured food.

God, in many ways, is the ultimate nutritionist. He gave us a world teeming with the vitamins, minerals and proteins we need to thrive. He’s also quite a chef, creating fruits, vegetables, grains and critters that make eating a joy. The more we eat what he makes, and the less we eat what a factory in Detroit makes, the stronger, slimmer and happier we’re likely to be.

Fortunately, eating real food doesn’t mean sticking solely to raw carrots. It just means passing up Cheetoes and snacking on roasted almonds instead. It also means making your own sauces without the help of Chef Boyardee. And it means doing something really wild, like growing some of your own food, even if it’s only a little container garden of herbs.

Don’t eat alone. At least, not when you can avoid it. Eating like a Catholic means recognizing that eating isn’t just about consuming fuel: It’s about building relationships.

Gathering with others for a meal makes us stop rushing from urgent task to urgent task and focus on the people we love. It also gives us the chance to bless others by preparing a meal for them or to gratefully receive a blessing given. Even the simplest meal, when shared by people who love each other, becomes a feast.

If soccer practice, late nights at the office or the evening news are increasingly interfering with that feast, use Lent to reclaim dinnertime. Make it a point to sit down regularly as a family for a meal or invite friends over for a bowl of soup.

Also save indulging in the richest treats for the times when others are there to join you, making your meal together a real occasion for celebration.

Practice eucharistic eating. Literally. The word “Eucharist” comes from the Greek eucharistia, meaning “to give thanks.” So when you eat, give thanks. Give thanks for God’s provision, for God’s goodness, and for God’s love.

Also be mindful. Be mindful that what you’re eating is a gift from God and be mindful of that to which the gift ultimately points.

Food, as God intended it to be, is a symbol of love and comfort, celebration and sacrifice, grace and gift. But most of all, it is a symbol of nourishment and life. It was and is the foreshadowing truth to the Eucharist.

In the Eucharist, Christ becomes food. Food becomes Christ. Every natural truth about food points to and is actualized at the Lord’s Table. Love and comfort, celebration and sacrifice, grace and gift, nourishment and life all have their place in the Supper of the Lamb.

The more we eat as we should, the more we can understand what God gives us in the Eucharist— his strength, his grace, his love, his life. And the more we understand the Eucharist, the more we’re able to eat as we should — with joy, with temperance, with others, with gratitude.

The rewards of that kind of eating are legion. Spiritual enlightenment tops the list. But there’s also better health, stronger relationships, and a lot less guilt. Not to mention way yummier food.