Dear Father Angelo
I am writing to you about a matter that is very close to my heart: I am 40 years old, married and mother of two beautiful children.
Some time ago, during summer last year, I made a “vow” (at least I think it can be defined as such) in which I “promised” to Our Lord that on Wednesday and Friday I would not have coffee (which I really like) and would eat only bread and water during the day, except for breakfast and dinner where I would eat normally (I work as a clerk in an office). I did not put any time limit… and even though I knew it would be difficult… I did it anyway, without first discussing it with my confessor…
I promised this to thank the Lord, who bestowed immense grace on me in my life… he led me through a path of deep conversion, (if I think about my adolescence and youth… !!) he lifted up my marriage, renewing it after a deep crisis, bringing me and my husband to an ever greater and more mature love, and gifted me with two beautiful children.
And I did it also to ask for an ever deeper conversion of mine and of my husband as well, for my children to always follow His path throughout life… for my parents and my birth family to convert (they do not practice).
I managed to fulfil this vow for about three months, during which I prayed and offered these (small) sacrifices also for other intentions, e.g. for the conversion of sinners who died that day.
Then I had a crisis, meaning that it was really difficult for me not to go for coffee with my colleagues while in the office… and sometimes I drank it anyway, because I thought, perhaps since I was used to it, that it would relieve my headache and let me resume work with greater energy… or sometimes on Wednesday or Friday morning I already happened to be sad or in a bad mood because I knew I could not drink coffee… basically, this made me realize I had a bit of physical or psychological addiction to coffee!!
If, on the one hand, it is true that sometimes it relieve my headache and lets me work better (and I happen to take it during such times for this reason), on the other hand how much is this “weakness” and inability to keep the commitment to be considered a temptation instead, and as such to be rejected?
I found myself asking Our Lord for forgiveness because at the time I (perhaps recklessly) made the vow, I was truly convinced of it with all my heart… but I confessed that sometimes I could not fulfil it.
I talked about all this with three parish priests… I know I overdid it… (but for me it is a serious matter and I would like to understand how I should behave now!) who advised me to make these sacrifices during the intense periods of the liturgical year, that is Advent and Lent, but not during ordinary time. I would like to understand… Did they give me a dispensation, in this way, to do this during ordinary time?
My confessor, to whom I confessed my lack of fulfilment of the vote, told me not to do this kind of sacrifices but to concentrate on patience, on charity in the family and at work, on giving up selfishness… (and in fact I have much to work on myself in these realms).
But I had promised Our Lord to always make these sacrifices, and at that moment I was really convinced to offer it with all my heart… it seems to me a failure to do what I had promised…
Can you help me shed light on this matter?
I sincerely thank you
The priest’s answer
1. the parish priests you consulted have tried to make your vote more rational.
In reality, when making a vow, it is necessary to carefully weigh all the circumstances, even those that are foreseen for the future.
So it would have been mostly appropriate to ask your confessor for advice.
In fact, to make a vow to donate your earrings to Our Lady (we commit to that action and after that everything is fulfilled) is one matter and to make a vow for life is another matter.
2. Taking coffee sometimes has a medicinal effect: it relieves headaches and gives energy.
Eating only bread and water for lunch on Wednesdays and Fridays is a fast that the Church never requires of the faithful, knowing that not everyone can bear it.
Indeed, the Church exempts young and old from fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday (taking instead a normal lunch and eating less food in the other meals), because for different reasons they need more energy.
Certainly fasting on bread and water – because of the great sacrifice it entails – is meritorious.
But in order not to run the risk of falling into difficulty because one cannot manage to fulfil the vote, it is always advisable to proceed step by step.
Instead of going immediately to the strongest restrictions (eating bread and water) one can give up things like fruit, sweets, wine, or eating between meals. Similarly, to limit oneself in the use of the Internet is also a good way to fast.
These small sacrifices are of great importance because they help to maintain an atmosphere of continuous love for the Lord and for his Gospel (the conversion of sinners).
It also becomes easier to hear the call of the Lord to make other little sacrifices or fasts at the same time.
3. Listen to what St. Catherine of Siena, Doctor of the Church, says in this regard:
“The rule to follow is this: to take away from the body the delights and delicacies of the world and the conversation with worldly men, giving it instead the conversation with the servants of God; keep it away from places of debauchery and lead it to places that induce devotion.
Discernment puts all the members of the body to order, so that they remain within modesty and temperance:
– let the eye not look where it is not good to look, but let it put itself in front of the earth and the sky;
– let the tongue shun idle and vain speech
– and let it be ready to proclaim the word of God for the salvation of the neighbor
– and to confess one’s sins;
– let the ear not stop to listen to the delightful, flattering, dissolute or detrimental words that may be spoken to it,
– and let it listen to the word of God and the needs of the neighbor, willingly stooping down to hear his needs” (Letter 213).
4. How beautiful is the advice given by St. Catherine!
Certainly it is more meritorious and sanctifying to “let the tongue shun idle and vain speech,” than it is to “let the eye not look where it is not good to look.”
Equally, it is meritorious and very sanctifying to go to confession, doing a short and sincere confession of one’s sins. In this way, we commit to celebrating the Sacrament of Penance on a regular and frequent basis (for example every Friday).
Similarly, it is meritorious and sanctifying not to seek compliments and to shun backbiting.
The last advice of St. Catherine is also interesting: “let it listen to the word of God and the needs of the neighbor.”
This is done by attending Mass on those days in the middle of the week or by reading the Sacred Scripture or religious books.
Thus fasting does not remain an empty gesture, but becomes an opportunity to be filled with God and holy desires towards everyone, especially towards those most in need in soul or body.
5. Moving on to practical advice: commit to attending Mass on Wednesdays and Fridays.
On Fridays, add confession as well. I repeat once again: let confession be brief, because in this way you avoid confessing the sins of others through personal outbursts, and you will always find the confessor ready.
All priests make themselves available if it is a matter of just two or three minutes.
6. Likewise, listening to or reading the word of God could become a steady point, especially on Wednesdays and Fridays.
One cannot describe how good it is to read something good. At that moment the Lord enters hearts, purifies them, expands them, lights them up with holy fervor and opens them to the spiritual and corporal needs of the neighbors.
7. I like to add this further advice from St. Catherine of Siena:
“I beg and command you not to fast, except for the days prescribed by the Holy Church, if it is possible for you.
Because if you feel you cannot fast on those days, do not fast” (Letter 174).
It is beautiful to consider the open-mindedness of Saint Catherine, according to which even the fasting prescribed by the Church must be omitted if it becomes too heavy and prevents one from carrying out one’s duty in an adequate way.
8. St. Catherine continues: “In other times, do not fast except on Saturday, when you feel you can do it.
After this hot season has passed, fast on Holy Mary’s feasts if you can, but not more than that.
And every day don’t just drink water. Strive to grow in the holy desire for virtue, and let other things be for now” (Letter 174).
9. If you follow the instructions I have given you, you can amend the vote by yourself.
For better safeguard, you can submit it to the charity of your confessor, so that he can direct you to some practice that is more appropriate to your soul.
In this way, from time to time you will be able to discuss this matter as well with him.
The consistency of your vow and your fasting would certainly improve because it would be designed not only to deprive you of something as a sign of love, but also to let you be filled with God’s presence and grace.
With the hope that this will be abundant and very fruitful for you and your family, I remember you in prayer and I bless you.