I don’t like eating fish. Partly it’s a taste thing. Although I have had delicious pan-fried tuna once in my life, most fish dishes do not compare favorably against a delectable cheeseburger or a slice of meat-lover’s pizza. Partly this aquatic aversion is due to sentimentality: I grew up with a large number of pets, including some very friendly fish. So eating fish is a good penance for me, aiming to “bridle concupiscence,” as St. Thomas says (ST II-II, 147, 6). But if this were the only reason for eating fish (assuming one chooses fish over cheese pizza), perhaps an even better penance would be eating cauliflower, leaks, or liver and onions. Are there more reasons to eat fish on Fridays beyond its lack of palatial satisfaction? Is there a positive reason to choose fish over some other less appetizing entree? A memory from my childhood perhaps produces one.
My brother and I did a lot of fishing growing up, and while we did eat our catches a few times, we generally released the fish we caught. Although I can’t say exactly where it was, I remember fishing once on a nice summer day under an old bridge. Picturesque, really, with the sound of flowing water and that warm feeling one gets from sunlight reflected off clear water. Carp was the catch of choice here, a large and lumbering bottom-feeder that generally only bit on a piece of bread dough fastened to your hook. Carp don’t put up much of a fight, and, as one can imagine, they don’t taste all that good. But on a nice sunny day they serve just fine for fishing.
I remember one of us catching a sizable carp after a little fight. We were preparing to release it when a man approached us asking if he could have the fish. I looked around and saw a woman and two children nearby. An insight occurred: fishing was more than a sport for this man; it was a means of feeding his own family. Of course we gave him the fish, and while he cooked that freshwater “garbage truck” we went home to enjoy a tastier meal.
This memory offers a positive reason for eating fish on Fridays: solidarity with the poor. Fish is generally a food of the poor: easy to find, catch, and cook. No special skills other than patience are necessary, and no special tools are required (fishing rods can be made out of coat-hangers and string). It is a good and healthy meal, but one not generally chosen by the rich or well off as daily dinner fare. But on Fridays the Church offers us an opportunity to identify with the poor in a small way by choosing to eat what they eat, to enjoy a simple meal, and to be grateful for the abundant choices we have on other days, choices that the poorest of the poor do not have.
This positive dimension is not the only reason to eat fish on Friday (for some reasons based on medieval biology see St. Thomas’s account in ST II-II, 147, 8), but it strikes me as a good one. And it serves as a reminder that Catholic rules and regulations are less about prohibition and more about direction: the negative injunctions are always in the context of a positive vision of life aimed at virtue and happiness. Because Jesus became poor for us in this life, we too are called to identify with the poor to remind ourselves of our dependence on him. This act of eating fish on Fridays, to me at least, can serve as a tangible reminder of that identity, both with the poor among us and ultimately with the poor Christ.
Image: Michael Sowa, Man, Table, Fish