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Co-author of ‘The Lenten Cookbook’ sheds light on history and resurgence of piety.
Biblical scholar Scott Hahn is not exactly surprised about the popularity of The Lenten Cookbook, the new, colorfully illustrated and tastefully (pun intended) written guidebook for mealtimes in Lent he co-wrote with David Geisser.
“I am seeing a spiritual awakening across America and across the world,” Hahn said, speaking about the revival of Catholic traditions, such as Lenten practices among the faithful. “There is a new generation of Catholics saying, ‘You know what, the secularization, the materialism, the hedonism, it just leaves you jaded, if not addicted.’”
On one of his recent speaking tours, crowds snapped up the unique culinary tome at three Catholic parishes, and reviews have spread the word of The Lenten Cookbook, described by publisher Sophia Institute Press as the first-ever guidebook for mealtimes in Lent.
Hahn delivers 50 pages of thought-provoking essays on the history, theology and the meaning of Lent, as well as on fasting generally; Geisser, an award-winning chef and former Vatican Swiss Guard, created an array of Lenten meatless recipes, ranging from “Octopus With Vegetable Puree” to “Eggs au Gratin With Vegetables.”
Lent’s origins are not easy to nail down, Hahn explains in the book. But this much is clear: The Council of Nicaea in 325 prescribed a 40 days’ fast in anticipation of Easter. The roots of the penitential tradition run deeper: From “the earliest days of the Church, as described in the Didache, there was a period of fasting before Baptism for everyone involved in the rite,” Hahn writes.
“For Christians through the ages, while Lent was the most notable fast of the year, fasting was a regular aspect of the spiritual life all during the year,” Hahn elaborates in The Lenten Cookbook. “The Didache, for instance, prescribes fasting two days a week, and dedicating that fasting ‘for those who persecute you.’”
For his part, Hahn sees a new springtime for Lent and, indeed, for fasting generally. For instance, some priests and parishes in America are bringing back Rogation Days, an early Church tradition associated with fasting. The highlight is a long procession and a chanting of the Litany of the Saints, traditionally through the fields at local farms. Meatless Fridays year-round are gaining popularity among some Catholics. The U.S. bishops eliminated the “no-meat rule” in 1966 for non-Lenten Fridays, but maintained that Catholics should observe some form of penance on Fridays nonetheless, which could include the free choice to abstain from meat on all Fridays. (In England and Wales, Catholics are still required to abstain from meat on Fridays.)
Hahn, a professor at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, and the author of more than 40 books, enjoys speaking about Lent. The Lenten Cookbook is arriving, he believes, at the start of a “joyful rediscovery” of the Church’s traditional disciplines.
Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for brevity and is excerpted from the Feb. 26 episode of the Dig Life Deep! podcast.
You write about the joy of fasting in The Lenten Cookbook. What inspired this idea?
A little bit of background will help: I will start off by sharing the name of Irma Rombauer, who belonged to St. Louis High Society until the 1930s. Among other wealthy women, she would host these elaborate banquets for the elite in St. Louis. Then, much to her shock, she was widowed in 1930. So she went on to write a book, The Joy of Cooking, that became the runaway best-seller of all cookbooks, selling 18 million copies in nine different languages. The book basically brought the elite style of cooking and eating to ordinary Americans, who suddenly woke up and realized it can be more than meat and potatoes. What I also discovered is that St. Benedict, in his Rule of St. Benedict, only uses the term “joy” once in the Rule — and that is when he speaks of the joy of Lent. Again, that’s a counterintuitive connection. You’d think that joy only came with Easter, after Lent. But there is a sense here that, where there is discipline, the training of the will through fasting, through prayer, through almsgiving, through spiritual discipline [brings joy]. And this is part of the Christian Tradition — it goes back to antiquity.
Centuries-old traditions of fasting and Lent seem to have changed today. Pizza instead of meat on Friday is not regarded as a hardship.
I think you’re right. A large number of Catholics have not bought into this, and a large number of older Catholics are only too happy to be out of this. [In this regard], back in the 1950s and early ’60s, there was a sort of rigid authoritarianism that could be described as legalistic — certainly it was a burden; it wasn’t a source of any joy. … So into the late 1960s [when this approach changed after Vatican II], and into the ’70s, and well beyond the ’80s and ’90s, you have had an entire generation that never internalized the values of a living tradition.
Today, I would say it is a trickle-down effect, a slow process, where a new generation of Catholics are being raised and they’re like, “Wait a minute. Why did you throw all of these traditions out and never, ever bother to explain them to us; or even give us the option of Latin, or Gregorian Chant, and of fasting during Lent?” I am seeing a spiritual awakening today.
That spiritual reawakening seems to be reflected in many different ways, including in the popularity of The Lenten Cookbook.
I see it catching on — not everywhere, not with everyone, but gradually, with more and more people. I have been shocked in the last couple of weeks since The Lenten Cookbook was released how quickly it has been selling out in lots of places. I spoke in three parishes, and it sold out. There is an excitement, an interest and a demand for the book.
Here in Steubenville, Ohio, our Bishop [Jeffrey] Monforton has asked us throughout the year to sort of recover the Friday discipline [of pre-Vatican II meatless Fridays], a sort of “mini Lent” on Friday.
You mentioned in this podcast, “following in the footsteps of Christ,” how instruction on such matters as Lenten practices traditionally came from the top down of the Church but that today sometimes such leadership is lacking.
[That said] it gives us the opportunity to do things in the Church from the ground up, from below, with individuals, with marriage, with family, neighborhoods and parishes. I meant that [statement] generally. These bishops, these priests, they’ve all heard my confession. They know I have my faults and failings, so I am in no place to point my finger. … I do think that Church leadership has become so bureaucratic, so administrative.
I have six children, and our fourth, Jeremiah, was ordained for the Diocese of Steubenville last year. I see in him that joy that comes with the sacrifice of consecrated celibacy and all of the other things. But I also recognize that throughout the country you are dealing with [Church] leadership that is mostly administrative, bureaucratic, that is not real spiritual fatherhood. What gives our son [Father Jeremiah] the deepest satisfaction is that feeling like he’s a father in his own parish. And I think more and more priests are also discovering this kind of sacramental fatherhood. This is what we need from the ground up, with those younger men who might be under 50. But I wouldn’t mind seeing it more among our bishops, who are the “fathers of the fathers.” [Let me add:] We are blessed to have a good bishop in our diocese, and I thank God for him.
Given the confusion about and general abandonment of the traditional Catholic penitential practices of fast and abstinence, one scholar, C.J. Doyle, wonders if it might be simpler and clearer for the Church to just restore year-round Friday abstinence.
That’s what Bishop [Monforton] has done, and I think more and more people are waking up to [that idea]. And I would certainly endorse that, though that’s not what my book is primarily about.
David Geisser presents an amazing collection of Lenten recipes beautifully illustrated in The Lenten Cookbook. Do you have any favorites?
I’ll be honest, I have a weakness for quiche and … flatbread. So I have three or four pages with [related] recipes dog-eared for my wife, Kimberly. I leave most of the cooking to her, and she leaves most of the theology to me!
John Aidan Byrne John Aidan Byrne is an award-winning Irish-born journalist and U.S. citizen living in his beloved America. Byrne is a writer, reporter, book editor, Broadway alumnus and host of the popular podcast “Dig Life Deep.” His work is also published in the “New York Post,” “The Wall Street Journal,” “Institutional Investor” and many other outlets.
“In denying ourselves the satisfaction of our bodily appetites,” writes Hahn, “we become more aware of, and closer to, the spiritual reality of God.”
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