First Sunday of Lent – On the Abuses of Fasting.
PRAYER BEFORE MEDITATION.
My God, I firmly believe that Thou art here present. I acknowledge that on account of my many sins I am utterly unworthy to appear before Thy sacred countenance. Yet, confiding in Thy infinite goodness and mercy, I venture to address Thee, to call upon Thy holy name, and meditate upon Thy commandments, in order that I may acquire a better knowledge of Thy holy will, and accomplish it with more fidelity. Wherefore enlighten my understanding that I may perceive what I ought to do or leave undone for the promotion of Thy glory and my own salvation; at the same time excite my will, that I may repent with my whole heart of my past sins, and resolve for the future to do all that Thou requirest of me. Grant me above all to know Jesus, my divine Teacher and Guide, more clearly, that I may love Him more dearly, and consequently labor, struggle and suffer with greater generosity and self-sacrifice in imitation of His example. Holy Mary, Mother of God and my Mother, show Jesus to me now, and let me study thy divine Son to the salvation of my soul. Holy Guardian Angel, keep far from me all distracting thoughts; my patron saint, come to my assistance. Amen.
First Sunday of Lent – On the Abuses of Fasting.
And when he had fasted forty days and forty nights, he was afterwards hungry. . . . Matt. iv. 2.
What an example, dear Christians, is displayed before our eyes in the gospel of this Sunday! Innocence itself – the Lamb without spot – the Holy One of Israel, fasts in the midst of a dreary solitude! He fasts, not during a small portion of the day, nor from one only kind of food, like His pretended disciples of these times; but He fasts during the protracted space of forty days, and forty nights; He abstains from every species of corporal nourishment. Prayer and contemplation are His only food: tears, and supplications for lost man, are His only employment. The anguish, and horror excited by the view of the innumerable sins, and of the obstinate impenitence of mankind, render Him insensible to the cravings of hunger and thirst: and the ardent longings of His soul to effect our deliverance from them, cause Him to submit with alacrity and joy to every pain, to every labour and fatigue.
Can we, my beloved, view this example of the Son of God with indifference at this holy time? Can we, the authors of His sufferings, – the victims, who alone ought to be devoted to sacrifice, can we, I say, refuse to mingle our tears with His? Can we steel our hearts against the sorrows of repentance? He suffered voluntarily; and He suffered for our good alone: we are commanded to suffer; and to suffer for our own salvation. – What more powerful incitement could be proposed to us, than the sight of a God-Man fainting under the languors of fasting? But, alas! I fear, that the greater number of Christians, instead of being inspired with a holy ardour, are solicitous only to avoid the rigours of the law, and to add to the mitigations which the relaxed morals of our forefathers have introduced.
My object, in thus introducing the subject of fasting to your notice a second time, is to lay before you the extent of your obligations at this season, both as Christians, and as sinners.
1. There is hardly any precept more universally abused than is the precept of fasting. At a time, when the judgments of God are heavy upon the nations of the earth, and fasting and prayer are the only means of restraining His just indignation, Christians are solicitous only for an increase of the relaxations of the Church, and for a total abolition of every thing that is painful to flesh and blood. They say, that, in the first ages, when innocence and simplicity prevailed, severity of discipline was seasonable; but that, in these times, when immorality has spread its baneful influence on every side, a greater latitude, or even free liberty in the article of penance, is the only proper system to be adopted.
Instead of entering into a refutation of this irreligious principle, – a principle which, I trust, is not entertained by any one in this assembly, I will examine what bounds the Church has thought proper to prescribe to her condescension, and I will endeavour to distinguish those relaxations, which a vitiated custom has introduced, from the mitigations, which she either authorizes or tolerates. These may be collected from the motives which first gave rise to the institution of the law.
The law of fasting was instituted for the express purpose of crucifying the flesh, in order, says St. Chrysostom, to fortify the soul against future temptations, and to contribute to the expiation of past sins. Our fasting, therefore, must be sufficiently rigorous to answer this desirable end; otherwise, our fasting will be fruitless.
The flesh is crucified, and the passions are weakened, either by the length of abstinence, by the simplicity of food, or by frugality in meals. – Excuse the detail into which I must enter; it is indispensable; and I will be as concise as possible.
The length of abstinence is the first. – The primitive Christians never broke their fast before sunset: and for this their slender meal they prepared themselves by an uninterrupted application to works of piety. They frequently watched in the temple, singing hymns and canticles over the tombs of the martyrs, during the whole preceding night. This was their fast; and by the length and severity of their sufferings, they succeeded in weakening their flesh, and in opposing an effectual barrier to their criminal passions. – But, my beloved brethren, what benefit do we reap from the severity of our fasts? What are our fasts? In addition to the indulgence of the Church, which has advanced the hour of repast, and has, moreover, tolerated a small refection in the morning, and at night, we take the most unwarrantable licences. Our whole attention is apparently absorbed in devising means to arrive at the time of meal without pain or languor. We avoid the craving of hunger with the greatest care; not considering that the fast even of our Saviour was not exempt from it. And if, notwithstanding our care, we feel a slight faintness and debility, we gladly take alarm for the safety of our health, and plead for a dispensation.
But, my beloved, do you not know, that at this time you ought, with the Royal Prophet, to prevent the rising sun, in order to prolong your fast, and to unite your prayers with those of the Church; that you ought scrupulously to offer to the Lord the first fruits of a day which is to be sanctified by penance, and that you ought to put to profit every moment of this time of grace and salvation?
Not sufficiently gratified with these liberties and relaxations, you frequently make it a subject of enquiry, whether the fast is injured or broken by drinking out of meal-time? I reply in the first place, that, it being the intent of the law of fasting, to mortify the sensual appetites, and particularly the taste, every liberty, between meals, which is favourable to this sense, is a kind of infringement of the law. I reply in the second place, that every mitigation of the pains of abstinence is contrary to the spirit of the law. – But, supposing that the unlawfulness of it were only doubtful, would you be prudent in exposing yourselves to the danger? This, at least, is incontestible, that these mitigations are of new date; and that example can neither justify an abuse, nor constitute any thing like a prescriptive right in opposition to a positive injunction.
Allowing, however, for argument sake, that these relaxations are innocent; nevertheless, out of respect for this holy time, you ought to abstain from them. You have many unlawful gratifications to atone for; and when will you atone for them, if, even in Lent, you will not refrain, in the spirit of piety and penance, from things which you deem to be lawful at other times? – Do not, my beloved friends, suffer yourselves to be so very easily imposed upon: our fasts are already so much relaxed by the tolerance of the Church, that we cannot pass the bounds which she has prescribed, even in the most trifling degree, without incurring the guilt of venial sin. Her indulgence has been extended to the utmost limits, and beyond them we cannot take one step without transgressing.
2. In the second place, what shall we say of the simplicity of food, and of the frugality in meals, which ought to be observed at this holy time? In Lent, says St. Leo, we should live sparingly; we should feed the poor members of Christ with what we retrench from our tables; and our frugality, as the apostle insinuates, should impart abundance to our suffering, brethren. – But is this our rule of conduct? The fact is, and it neither can, nor ought to be dissembled, that we seek to gratify the. sensual appetite as much in Lent as at other times. We procure every delicacy that our means will permit: and if we be so situated, that we cannot procure so great a variety as we wish, we either violate the fast by taking meat, or we forfeit the merit of it by our impatience and complaints.
I say nothing of our temperance in the one meal allowed: for we seldom prescribe any other limits to our appetite, than what are suggested by sensual avidity. – In what part of our fast, then, is any merit to be found? In the morning, the generality, so far from adhering strictly to what is tacitly allowed in this kingdom, and which is very little, abstain only from butter, and take their fill nearly as usual. At the great regular meal of the day, every thing is given up to the gratification of the appetite. And it is known that their collations, as they are called, do, in point of quantity at least, differ but little from their common evening refreshments: sensuality, indeed, they cannot indulge, because there is no tempting variety of food, but they eat unsparingly of what there is. – Thus, abstaining from what are called white meats at night and morning, and from flesh meat once or twice in the week oftener than usual, is the only penance that we perform in Lent: or in other words, the relaxations, which our forefathers would have considered as a grievous infringement of the precept, we consider as the highest point of observance.
You are well acquainted, my brethren, that the Church existed a thousand years before any indulgence was granted to the faithful. One repast, taken in the evening with thanksgiving, terminated the abstinence of the whole day. And then, what a sorry repast! It consisted of herbs and vegetables: a repast of mourning, and penance; where every thing breathed the mortification of Jesus. Pious conversations, spiritual reading, and exhortations to martyrdom, were the only seasoning; and they eat rather to prolong their sufferings, and to satisfy nature, than to flatter sensuality.
The diminution of charity in the breasts of the greater number of her children, obliged the Church in after ages to relax from the rigour of her, discipline in this point: she, however, acted as creditors are accustomed to act with their bankrupt and insolvent debtors; she made a composition with their tepidity; she saved what she could of the wreck, and acquitted them of the rest with regret.
Every indulgence, therefore, which the Church allows in addition to the one meal, is a favour which she has granted through necessity. Our precautions not to exceed cannot be too rigorous. – But where are the men, who are solicitous to keep within the narrow limits? Alas! few of this description are to be found: there are none, I fear, except a small number of retired souls, penitent solitaries, chaste and tender virgins, habituated to the yoke of the Lord from their infancy. From appearances, one would judge that severe discipline was intended for them alone; and that criminal, worldly-minded men, after a life of wickedness and excess, were authorized to mitigate and retrench every remnant of penitential austerity.
Such, my brethren, is our fast of Lent. Without the smallest intention to exaggerate, such it is as I have described it: such and no better. This, then, in its fullest extent, is the entire course of what has always been considered as the first and greatest of all our penitential labours. And these are the offerings which we make to God: these the remains of that venerable institution which has been handed down to us from the earliest times of our apostolic ancestors: these the fasts, formerly so famous amongst Christians, and consecrated by the memorable examples of Moses, of Elias, and of Christ Himself.
PRAYER AFTER MEDITATION.
My God, I give Thee heartfelt thanks for all the graces and all the light Thou hast conferred on me during this meditation. Pardon me all the negligence and the distractions of which I have been guilty, and give me strength to carry out the resolutions that I have made. Fortify me, that from henceforth I may diligently practise this virtue . . . avoid this fault . . . perform this action . . . to Thy honor. Help me to do this, sweet Virgin Mary; and if I ever forget my good resolutions, I entreat my Angel Guardian to recall them to my memory. Amen.
He who has renounced the world or despises it should resemble a statue which does not prevent itself being dressed in rags, nor being despoiled of the purple which ornaments it.. – St. Ignatius of Loyola, Lancicius.
March Devotion: St. Joseph
Virtue to practice: Mortification
O St. Joseph whose protection is so great, so strong, so prompt before the throne of God, I place in you all my interests and desires. O St. Joseph, do assist me by your powerful intercession and obtain for me from your Divine Son all spiritual blessings through Jesus Christ, Our Lord; so that having engaged here below your heavenly power, I may offer my thanksgiving and homage to the most loving of fathers. O St. Joseph I never weary contemplating you and Jesus asleep in your arms. I dare not approach while He reposes near your heart. Press Him in my name and kiss His fine Head for me, and ask Him to return the kiss when I draw my dying breath. St. Joseph, patron of departing souls, pray for me. Amen.
Prayer to St. Joseph by Pope St. Pius X
O Glorious St. Joseph, model of all those who are devoted to labor, obtain for me the grace to work conscientiously, putting the call of duty above my natural inclinations, to work with gratitude and joy, in a spirit of penance for the remission of my sins, considering it an honor to employ and develop by means of labor the gifts received from God, to work with order, peace, moderation, and patience, without ever shrinking from weariness and difficulties, to work above all with purity of intention and detachment from self, having always death before my eyes and the account that I must render of time lost, of talents wasted, of good omitted, of vain complacency in success, so fatal to the work of God. All for Jesus, all through Mary, all after thine example, O Patriarch, St. Joseph. Such shall be my watchword in life and in death. Amen.
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