First in a series for Lent.
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The first of the Lenten sermons of St. Francis de Sales treats of a fairly typical Ash Wednesday topic: fasting isn't virtuous in and of itself, but to be salutary must be done in a particular way.
Here's the structure:
Introduction: Fasting profits some and not others, because some do it well and some don't. Jesus instructed his disciples on how to fast fruitfully.
Three principal conditions (among many) for fasting well:
I. Fast with our whole heart, all our senses, and our understanding, memory, and will.
II. Never to fast through vanity but always through humility and charity, not in one's own way but in the ways prescribed and recommended, neither more nor less.
III. Do everything to please God alone, for his reasons, not trying to rationalize the reasons for them nor to improve on the prescriptions by substituting one's own.
Summary and conclusion in the name of the Blessed Trinity.
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I'm just going to pull out some quotes.
"The first condition is that we must fast with our whole heart, that is to say, willingly, whole-heartedly, universally and entirely."
[St. Bernard] says that fasting was instituted by Our Lord as a remedy for our mouth... Since sin entered the world through the mouth, the mouth must do penance by being deprived of foods prohibited and forbidden by the Church...
But [he] adds that, as it is not our mouth alone which has sinned, but also all our other senses, our fast must be general and entire, that is, all the members of our body must fast. For if we have offended God through the eyes, through the ears, through the tongue, and through our other senses, why should we not make them fast as well? And not only must we make the bodily senses fast, but also the soul's powers and passions -- yes, even the understanding, the memory, and the will, since we have sinned through both body and spirit.
This seems fitting. We know that in the description from Genesis of the first sin, the act of eating is an outward and efficacious sign. It is the concrete act that enacts a deeper reality, a total interior act of self-will, rationalization, and disobedience, a suicide of the spirit. Because of the mythical language of the type of inspired story of Genesis, we can also take the small, singular act as a representation
The mere act of eating even a forbidden fruit in the absence of certain interior dispositions (such as knowledge of its forbiddenness, or total freedom to choose) would not enact such a reality.
And so it is for us: The act of fasting is an outward and efficacious sign of a kind of interior fasting, if and only if we have the appropriate interior dispositions. And it's all looking forward to a different act of eating that is itself an outward and efficacious sign -- the anti-apple, so to speak.
How to fast "universally and entirely?"
How many sins have entered into the soul through the eyes...? That is why they must fast by keeping them lowered and not permitting them to look upon frivolous and unlawful objects;
the ears, by depriving them of listening to vain talk...
the tongue, in not speaking idle words and those which savor of the world...
We ought also to cut off useless thoughts,
as well as vain memories
and superfluous appetites
and desires of our will.
...In this way interior fasting accompanies exterior fasting.
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"The second condition to be met is never to fast through vanity but always through humility."
A. To fast in charity is to fast in humility.
St. Francis first turns to the famous discourse on love ("charity") from 1 Corinthians 13 as a set of criteria here.
(I wish I would remember more often to run my actions and intentions through 1 Cor. 13 as a check on them. They are truly generally applicable, and so St. Francis freely asserts that they apply to Lenten fasting.)
St. Paul in the epistle that he wrote to the Corinthians... declared the conditions necessary for disposing ourselves to fast well during Lent. He says this to us: Lent is approaching. Prepare yourselves to fast with charity, for if your fast is performed without it, it will be vain and useless, since fasting, like all other good works, is not pleasing to God unless it is done in charity and through charity.
When you discipline yourself, when you say long prayers, if you have not charity, all that is nothing. Even though you should work miracles, if you have not charity, they will not profit you at all. Indeed, even if you should suffer martyrdom without charity, your martyrdom is worth nothing and would not be meritorious in the eyes of the Divine Majesty.
For all works, small or great, however good they may be in themselves, are of no value and profit us nothing if they are not done in charity and through charity.
... It is almost impossible to have charity without being humble and to be humble without having charity.... the one can never be without the other.
So, one check upon our humility is to look at the discourse in First Corinthians. Are we impatient? unkind? envious? boastful and proud? easily angered? etc.
B. "Now how can one fast through vanity?"
According to Scripture there are hundreds and hundreds of ways, but I will content myself with telling you one of them...
To fast through vanity is to fast through self-will... It is to fast as one wishes and not as others wish; to fast in the manner which pleases us, and not as we are ordered or counseled.
...On this matter... we find ourselves confronted with two groups of people.
Some do not wish to fast as much as they ought, and cannot be satisfied with the food permitted (this is what many worldly people still do today who allege a thousand reasons on this subject)...
The others... wish to fast more than is necessary. It is with these that we have more trouble.
We can easily and clearly show the first that... in not fasting as much as they should, while able to do it, they transgress the commandments of the Lord.
But we have more difficulty with the weak and infirm who are not strong enough for fasting. They will not listen to reason, nor can they be persuaded that they are not bound by it [the law of fasting], and despite all our reasons they insist on fasting more than is required... These people do not fast through humility, but through vanity. They do not recognize that... they would do much more for God in not fasting ... and using the food ordered them, than in wishing to abstain through self-will. For though, on account of their weakness, their mouth cannot abstain, they should make the other senses of the body fast, as well as the passions and powers of the soul.
Yes, I think we've seen that.
C. On the apparent contradiction between "let your fasting be done in secret" and the Church's practice of public penance, e.g., ashes.
This is always a necessary topic in an Ash Wednesday homily, isn't it? I like St. Francis's take on it:
Our Divine Master did not mean by this that we ought to have no care about the edification of the neighbor. Oh no, for St. Paul says [Phil. 4:5]: Let your modesty be known to all.
Those who fast during the holy season of Lent ought not to conceal it, since the Church orders this fast and wishes that everyone should know that we are observing it. We must not, then, deny this to those who expect it of us... since we are obliged to remove every cause of scandal to our brothers.
But when our Lord said: Fast in secret, He wanted us to understand: do not do it to be seen or esteemed... Be careful to edify them well, but not in order that they might esteem you as holy and virtuous. Do not be like the hypocrites. Do not try to appear better than others in practicing more fasting and penances than they.
St. Francis goes on to say, essentially, "By the way, don't talk to me about St. Paul the Hermit or St. Simon Stylites; they were acting by special inspiration and we're not supposed to imitate them." But we must move on to...
III. "The third condition necessary for fasting well is to look to God and do everything to please him..."
We must not make use of much learned discussion and discernment to understand why the fast is commanded, whether it is for all or only for some. Everyone knows that it was ordered in expiation for the sin of our first father, Adam... Many have difficulties on this subject... No one is ignorant that children are not bound to fast, nor are persons sixty years of age.
Lots of people are not satisfied by the simple idea that the fast is ordered in expiation for sins. This is too mystical for them and they bring in lots of other reasons which seem to them more rational. ("Solidarity with the poor," anyone? "Treading lightly on the earth" with environmentally friendly meatless Fridays?)
And lots of people, oddly enough, argue about who is and isn't supposed to fast. The church is clear on it. We don't have to make up our own rules just because we don't like the Church's. We shouldn't drop hints that healthy and robust 62-year-olds really would do better to fast, for example, laying a burden on someone they do not have to carry.
St. Francis gives three examples to back this up:
- Adam and Eve discussing why it was okay to eat the fruit (Genesis 3:1-6);
- Jesus's disciples who discussed and questioned the notion of His giving of His flesh and blood for them to eat and drink, and were rejected;
- and an episode from the life of St. Pachonius in which the saint rebuked a cook for imposing extra discipline on some young religious, contrary to orders.
This is all that I had to tell you regarding fasting and what must be observed in order to fast well.
The first thing is that your fast should be entire and universal; that is, that you should make all the members of your body and all the powers of your soul fast:
- keeping your eyes lowered, or at least lower than ordinarily;
- keeping better silence, or at least keeping it more punctually than is usual;
- mortifying the hearing and the tongue so that you will no longer hear or speak of anything vain or useless;
- the understanding, in order to consider only holy and pious subjects;
- the memory, in filling it with the remembrance of bitter and sorrowful things...
- keeping your will in check and your spirit at the foot of the crucifix...
The second condition is that you do not observe your fast or perform your works for the eyes of others.
And the third is that you do all your actions, and consequently your fasting, to please God alone...
That, with the sign of the Cross, is the end of the sermon. It's simple and direct, and like most of what St. Francis de Sales writes, very practical.
The next sermon, which I think I will try to look at on Friday, is on the subject of temptation.