holiest works for the sanctification of the soul
"When you fast, be not like hypocrites, sad"
Matt., vi. 16.
WITH this gospel the Church ushers in the solemn fast of Lent. With this gospel she encourages us to put on the weeds of penance, and to endeavour with united efforts to disarm the wrath of God, to avert his impending judgments, and to expiate our sins. She exhorts us to enter on this holy time without sadness; because fasting will enable us to triumph over the flesh and the Devil: and ought sadness and grief to be indulged by the warrior who has the means of victory in his power? May our enemy alone repine at the approach of this happy season: may he be sad during these days of propitiation: may he be alarmed at the view of these consolatory appearances of repentance, and tremble at the display of the mercies which God has prepared for sinners. But you, my beloved, you ought to anoint your heads, and to open your hearts to the feelings of holy joy and gladness: conquerors are never sorrowful.
There are, indeed, various kinds of sadness. There is a holy sadness the sadness of repentance, which advanceth the great work of salvation, and is enlivened by the interior consolations of the Holy Ghost. There is likewise the sadness which is alluded to in the words of my text the sadness of hypocrisy, which observes the letter of the law, and puts on the appearance of rigid austerity, in order to gain the applause of men: this is very uncommon in these times. Lastly, there is a sadness produced by the depravity of corrupt nature, which revolts at the idea of self-denial and restraint: and this, I am grieved to say, is the sadness which is felt by the generality of Christians, and against which it is particularly necessary you should be guarded.
The consequences of this sadness are obvious and certain: every frivolous pretext is adduced for the purpose of obtaining an exemption from the rigour of the law. In order, therefore, that you may not be led into error on a subject of this importance, I will display the futility of the pretexts which are usually alleged, and lay down in plain terms the conditions on which alone a dispensation can be lawfully founded.
1. Were I speaking to men who despised the laws of the Church on this head, and disputed her authority in enacting them, I would prove that fasting always was, and always will be necessary for the support of a truly Christian life. I would go back to the pure ages of Christianity, and show you that religion itself was nourished in the bosom of abstinence and fasting: I would say that, after the ascension of our Lord, the disciples assembled in Jerusalem, and devoted their whole time to prayer and fasting: I would say, that the primitive Christians served the laborious apprenticeship to martyrdom in the austerities of fasting; and that, in the midst of the licentiousness of an idolatrous camp, the Christian soldiers assembled together in order to celebrate, with greater solemnity, the fast prescribed by universal custom: I would say, that the emissaries of the persecutors designated the faithful by the paleness of their countenances, and the odour of sanctity and mortification which distinguished them from the rest of mankind: I would say, that our mortal enemy, who is ever ready to extract pernicious effects from the most pious observances, stirred up many restless spirits to practise new and extravagant abstinences, not with a view to the reparation of the injured justice of God, but with an idea that the meats themselves were unclean: so strongly was the whole Christian world convinced that, after the death of the Spouse, the obligation of fasting was indispensable.
I proceed, however, on the supposition that I am speaking to men who are neither rebellious nor obedient; who acknowledge the obligation of fasting, but who will not fast; who do not openly exclaim with the impious, I will not obey, but who, with the men invited to the marriage feast (Luke, xiv. 19), find some plea or other to excuse their disobedience.
In order to distinguish truth from falsehood in a subject of this importance, it is necessary to state, that since the law of fasting is made and received, it is impossibility alone that can justify the infringement of it: by impossibility I mean a difficulty founded on evident and considerable danger: for the Church established the law with the intent not to destroy in this world, but to save in the next.
This being the truth, let us now examine your excuses. You say, in the first place, with great assurance and boldness, that you are dispensed with fasting for sufficient reasons; that your conscience does not reproach you on that head; and that, if you had nothing but the transgression of this precept to answer for before God, you could present yourself at his tribunal without fear: or, in other words, that you have naturally a weak constitution, that you are not able to undergo the severities of fasting, and that the little health you enjoy is entirely owing to care and precaution.
If it be true that your weakness is such as you describe it to be, I will ask whence did it originate?
Was it not from this over solicitude and care to preserve it?
Was it not brought on by that soft voluptuous life which you have led? Was it not occasioned by habits of indolence, and by constantly indulging your sensual appetite in all its caprices?
Were you, however, to examine impartially into the state of your health, you perhaps would discover that the constant aversion you feel for self-denial and penance, has led you into an error on this subject; and that you imagine that your constitution is weak, because you never have had piety and resolution sufficient to induce you to try its strength.
If this be the case, as it probably is, can you pretend that the very reason which makes penance more necessary, is a sufficient plea for a dispensation? Your imaginary weakness is itself a crime, and ought to be expiated by extraordinary austerities, instead of exempting you from those which are common to all the faithful.
If the Church were to make any distinction among her children; if she was inclined to grant privileges to some, and none to others, it would be to those whose lowly arid dependent station exposes them to the hardships and fatigues of toilsome labour who suffer from the severities of the seasons, from hunger, from thirst, from public oppressions, and from private wrongs who have only a distant view of the pleasures which this world affords and whose happiness has attained its greatest height when a bare sufficiency is procured for themselves and families. But as for those on whom the world has lavished its choicest gifts whose greatest unhappiness arises from the satiety and disgust which is inseparable from sensual felicity, they can pretend to no other distinction than that of increased austerity, and a prolongation of the canonical rigours of penance.
But what is their conduct? The opulent, the independent, the higher classes of society the men who alone seem to need repentance the men for whom this penitential time is principally intended, are almost the only ones who plead for a dispensation; whilst the poor artisan, the indigent labourer, who eats his bread in the sweat of his brow whose days of feasting and merriment would be to the rich man days of penance and mortification, whilst he, I say, bows down with respect and submission to this holy law, and even in his poverty retrenches from his usual pittance, and makes the time of Lent a time of extraordinary suffering and penance. But, my God! the time will come when thou wilt openly espouse the cause of thy holy law, and confound the advocates of human concupiscence. The Pharisees in the gospel disfigured their faces, in order that their fasting might be remarked by men: but this is not the hypocrisy of the present day; no: after a year spent in excess, in murmurings, and in sin, the pampered disciples of a crucified Jesus put on a pale, a weak appearance at the commencement of this holy time, for the sole purpose of setting up a plausible pretext to violate in peace the law of fasting and abstinence.
My dear brethren, has the tenderness of your constitution ever deterred you from taking part in any worldly enjoyment? Ah! you can bear the fatigues of company and entertainments; you can overcharge yourselves with surfeiting and wine; you can submit to the painful consequences of high living and intemperance; you can keep irregular hours, and take other liberties which would be felt by the strongest constitution. It is fasting alone that you cannot endure; then only are you particularly solicitous for your health, when penance is required.
Is it for me only, says the Lord by his prophet, is it for me only that you refuse to suffer, house of Israel? You are indefatigable and strong in the ways of iniquity, but in my service you are weak and discouraged by the least difficulty. "Tell me if you have anything to justify yourselves" Isa., xliii. 26.
So it is, my beloved friends, and so it always has been: pleasures are never incommodious. The purchase of what you love is always cheap. The slavery of the world, of riches, and of iniquity is not painful, because you are worldly, ambitious, and sensual. But, if you could once divest yourselves of this spirit of the world, and imbibe the spirit of Christ, then your strength would not fail in his service; then you would be convinced that the law of fasting was not a cruel and destructive law; then you would acknowledge that the observance of your duties was not incompatible with the care of your health; then, with Daniel and the three children, you would experience that forbidden meats were not by any means necessary for the preservation of your strength and vigour.
Supposing, however, that fasting does weaken your corporal faculties, is it not just that you should stamp the painful seal of the cross on the body, which has been so often marked with the shameful characters of the beast? Is it not time that members which have served iniquity should at length be subservient to justice; aud that grace should be strengthened in your infirmity? The law of fasting was instituted for the express purpose of weakening the body, and if you experience sensations of languor and faintness, it is no more than was intended; you have reason to rejoice on that account, for your merit will be proportionate to your patient suffering. The end, therefore, proposed by the law can never be a proper reason for a dispensation.
You perhaps may say, that the Church has approved your reasons, and released you from the obligation of fasting by the ministry of your director.
To this your own conscience will reply, that a dispensation obtained contrary to the intention and spirit of the Church is void, and that the obligation is still in force: that is to say, that the dispensation which is granted without a sufficient cause, is not a dispensation in the sight of God. This is the doctrine of the saints. If, therefore, your reasons are not candidly and truly of that nature as to require a relaxation in your favour, you impose upon your pastors, and you are transgressors every time that you avail yourselves of this fraudulent and unjust dispensation.
The Church, indeed, is not ignorant of the imposition. She sees with grief, that almost the whole of the submission of these loose and supine Christians consists in extorting her consent to the infringement of her own laws. And if, notwithstanding this conviction, she still appear to favour their unjust demands, she is influenced by the fear of driving them to extremities, and is willing to keep them in her communion by the simple ties of out ward respect and obedience. But woe to the Christians who force her to this afflicting alternative. The disease must be dangerous indeed, when the patient is allowed to choose his own regimen.
2. But allowing that your reasons are just, and that a dispensation is necessary, nevertheless it not unfrequently happens, that you transgress the law of penance by the manner in which you avail yourselves of this dispensation of the Church.
It is incumbent on you, as Christians, to lament your inability to observe the law, and to offer up to God the sacrifice of an humble heart, as a kind of compensation for the corporal penance which you are unable to endure. Esther called on Grod to wit ness her necessity, and expressed her detestation when she was obliged to partake of the profane meats and banquets of the uncircumcised. Urias exclaimed, when he was pressed by his sovereign to go down to his own house and enjoy the pleasures of a momentary repose: "What! shall I eat and drink while Israel and Juda are enduring the severities of the camp?" II. Kings, xi. 11.
Are these, my beloved, your sentiments? Do you exclaim: Why am I constrained to spare this criminal flesh, while the Church is clothed in sackcloth and ashes while my fellow mem bers in Christ are walking courageously on in the holy paths of penance? Why, O Lord, have I not sufficient strength to satisfy thy justice I, who have sufficient strength to offend thee? Why was I not endued with a bodily frame capable of enduring every degree of fatigue and torture, that the instrument of my crimes might be made the instrument of my punishment?
Ah! if you were animated with the true spirit of piety, you would blush at a distinction so little merited by your past life; you would consider such a singularity as a kind of anathema as a leprosy which caused you to be banished from the society and communion of the body of the faithful; and you would endea vour to compensate for your bodily infirmities by the strength and vigour of your interior piety.
In the second place, you must reflect that the dispensation from fasting does not include a dispensation from doing penance. The Church has no intention of taking the cross from your shoulders; she is not authorized to do it: she can do no more than lessen its weight, and proportion it to the strength of the bearer. Lent must be in some manner or other a time of penance.
St. Paul says, that he who does not distinguish the Eucharistic bread from common food is guilty of the body of the Lord: and I say to you, that whatever your infirmities may be, if you do not make a distinction between the time of Lent and other times, you are guilty of the law of fasting.
Now, what distinction do you make? Do you pray more than at other times? Are you more charitable to the poor? Do you soothe the afflictions of the suffering members of Christ, and make amends in their persons for the extraordinary gratifications which your infirmities require? Do you abstain from lawful pleasures which are not necessary for your health? Ah! my brethren, a compensation must be made. He who cannot offer a lamb in sacrifice, must offer a pair of doves. The justice of God must be satisfied.
If you cannot crucify your flesh by fasting, you must chastise it by abstaining from unnecessary pleasures; you must mortify your turbulent passions by retirement; you must have less communication with the world; you must be more attentive to your domestic concerns; you must be more assiduous in frequenting the place of worship, in receiving the sacraments, and in performing works of mercy: you must be more circumspect in your whole conduct. This, says St. Chrysostom, is the fast which the Church requires from the infirm. To comply with this, neither health nor strength is requisite: a firm faith and the fear of God will alone enable you to perform it. But alas! a firm faith and the fear of God are precisely the virtues to which you are strangers. You object to sufferings of every description; you imagine that you are freed from all restraint as soon as you are dispensed; and because you are not able to comply with the whole precept, you joyfully conclude that you are not obliged to do anything.
There are many, I know, who say, that fasting is a matter of no great importance; that the great point is to be good and moral men; and that, as to food whether it be this or that whe ther they take three meals or one, it can be of no such consequence in the sight of God as to justify the declamations of the Church, or be a sufficient reason to subject the faithful to so many inconveniences and vexations.
Thus, the children of the world are not satisfied with merely violating the law of fasting and abstinence they proceed even to abuse; they villify it by giving it the name of prejudice which custom has established; and they put on the appearance of reason in order to infringe it without scruple. But what do they degrade? They degrade the most venerable tradition of the Church, the most ancient and the most universal point of disci pline which has descended to us from our forefathers. The respectable institution of fasting, established by the apostles, consecrated by the custom of ages, honoured by the examples of patriarchs and prophets, and of Jesus Christ himself, is nothing more in their language than a popular devotion a pious prejudice, of which enthusiasm alone can exact a rigorous and minute observance.
These, however, I trust are not the sentiments of any individual of this assembly. If, therefore, I will say in conclusion, if your infirmities require a dispensation, indulge not beyond the calls of necessity. Let your repasts savour of the frugality of this time of penance; let them be stamped in some part or other with the seal of mortification. Remember, that, although the Church consents that you do not accompany Moses on the mountain to fast the forty days, she expects that while you remain in the plains below, you neither partake of the profane enjoyments, the excesses, and the festive sports of the Israelites, nor unite with them in the adoration of the golden calf.
Let us, my beloved brethren, enter into the true spirit of this holy time.
Ah! can you remain unmoved at the affecting spectacle which will shortly be displayed before you? When you behold the Church in affliction and clothed in the weeds of mourning and sorrow when you behold her ministers prostrate and weeping between the porch and the altar when you behold your brethren armed with the weapons of penance, and fighting with determined resolution against flesh and blood, will you be able to refrain from uniting with them? Will you have resolution sufficient to continue immersed in the enjoyment of sensual pleasures?
If the body cannot take part in the penitential works of the faithful, at least change your hearts, and be converted to the Lord. If you cannot rend, by fasting, the garment of flesh which encompasseth you, rend your hearts, says the spirit of God, by the tears of grief and compunction. Surpass your brethren in the dispositions of your minds, if you cannot follow them in the exercises of the body. In a word, live more holily than they, and you will fast more profitably. Thus, you will glorify God in your infirmities, and in the end receive the reward which is promised to the truly penitent.