More than one kind of fasting – St Francis de Sales

With Ash Wednesday now passing for another year and our Lenten observance upon us, a few wise and perhaps not often seen words from St Francis de Sales might be helpful as we launch ourselves into the penitential discipline of Lent. In this sermon, a long one, he teaches on fasting. This excerpt bears a little reflection form us all:

To treat of fasting and of what is required to fast well, we must, at the start, understand that of itself fasting is not a virtue. The good and the bad, as well as Christians and pagans, observe it. The ancient philosophers observed it and recommended it. They were not virtuous for that reason, nor did they practice virtue in fasting. Oh, no, fasting is a virtue only when it is accompanied by conditions which render it pleasing to God. Thus it happens that it profits some and not others, because it is not undertaken by all in the same manner… We know very well that it is not enough to fast exteriorly if we do not also fast interiorly and if we do not accompany the fast of the body with that of the spirit…

We must fast with our whole heart, that is to say, willingly, wholeheartedly, universally and entirely. If I recount to you St. Bernard’s words regarding fasting, you will know not only why it is instituted but also how it ought to be kept.

He says that fasting was instituted by Our Lord as a remedy for our mouth, for our gourmandizing, and for our gluttony. Since sin entered the world through the mouth, the mouth must do penance by being deprived of foods prohibited and forbidden by the Church, abstaining from them for the space of forty days. But this glorious saint 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.

Ash Wednesday, 1622

So let us think beyond food for our fasting self-denial. What is some little good that we can deny each of our senses? Such a universal fast is not only a noble offering to the Lord, but a way of taming all our senses, so easily and regularly indulged in this modern world. With our senses more tame, maybe our behaviour might become less selfish and our treatment of others more Christian.

A lot to hope for, perhaps? Well, if Confucius got anything right it was this: a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.

And it can be a small one.

If you want a more detailed Lenten rule, you might want to read Dom Mark’s Lenten programme: it is practical, reasonable and traditional.


Ash Wednesday – the Church’s shame & Lenten penance for Pope Benedict

The ash and the Cross

As we  launch today into this joyful season of lenten penance, perhaps our joy should be tempered by our sorrow at all that Pope Benedict has endured these last 8-odd years. Surely the wilful misrepresentations of his teachings, the arrogant refusal to accept his attempts to reconcile those drifting from the Church and to restore order to the life and liturgy of the Church, the scandalous opprobrium heaped on him for the abuse crisis when he was one of the few who so clearly and consistently stood against it, the bile and venom spat at him – and not just by the world but especially by Catholics: all this is an indictment of God’s people just as much as of the world. How could a man of such sensitivity be expected to withstand the torments of the world while being so maligned, so undermined, from within his own Church by the people God called him to lead?

The obedience of Christ on the Cross puts us to shame, especially those who have so wilfully disobeyed Pope Benedict. They have made their choice for “me”, not for God, or justice, or equality or any other self-serving camouflage. May God forgive them, and convert them.

This Lent let us double our penance, and take no short-cuts nor allow ourselves anything but the most truly justified breaks from our penance, and offer it up especially in reparation for the failure of the Church to support its supreme earthly Pastor as he deserved, and God demands.

And let us pray that in the Lenten conclave God will grant us the pope we should desire and not the one we have deserved by our culpable action, or inaction.

The Pope’s abdication brings shame – not to him, but on us.

Repent and believe the Gospel.


Ash Wednesday

The ash and the Cross

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”

(Matthew 16:24-25 ESV)


Strip me of all
but the mark,

thumb crossing
on forehead,

that I might
let mingle

my spiraling soot
with His blessing

ashed. The burned
arm of palm

once so green
now tendered

of want

joins as one
the wind-tunneled trail

from which I came
and the long road

down which I travel
invoking darkness

seeking light:
I'm listening.

(A Prayer for Ash Wednesday, by Maureen Doallas)