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.


St Francis de Sales

Today is the feast of St Francis de Sales (1567-1622), the great (-est?) bishop of Geneva. If ever there was an uplifting spirituality, practical yet gentle, it is his. It is a tall order to choose one of his many gems to quote, apart from the obvious, and famous, examples. So on his feast day, as we invoke his intercession and ask his help, we find he has something to say to encourage us in our devotion to the saints:

To ensure that the saints pray and intercede for us, we must invoke them and ask their help. The best way to celebrate their feasts is to realize the power they have with God for obtaining the graces of which we stand in need. Our Lord is so pleased when we profit from the intercession of the saints that, wishing to bestow on us some favor, He often inspires us to seek their mediation and invites us to ask them to pray for us. With full confidence we should seek their help and turn to them, especially on their feast days, without doubting for a moment that they will listen to us and will obtain for us what we are asking. (Sermons 51, O. X, pp. 136-137)

St Francis de Sales, pray for us.

Beelzebul, St Francis de Sales and the Unity of the Church

Not quite the title you might have expected to read, but bear with me…

The gospel set for today, Monday of the Third Week of the Year (1) is from St Mark 3:22-30. It deserves careful reading, especially in light of the fact that it coincides with the memoria of St Francis de Sales this year. The RSV version reads:

And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Be-el’zebul, and by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” And he called them to him, and said to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man; then indeed he may plunder his house. Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the sons of men, and whatever blasphemies they utter; but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” – for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”

Jesus cures the man with a withered handSome context – immediately preceding this episode in St Mark’s Gospel we have seen our Lord heal a man with a withered hand on the sabbath (to the horror of the Pharisees), heal others as well as cast out demons, and appoint the Twelve to preach and “to cast out demons” (v.15) themselves. Our Lord is very much setting the pace as he overturns the status quo. The status quo had been that people with disease and possessed by demons were pretty much left to themselves, with little relief from the community or from the Jewish religious authorities. We need only think of the demoniac who lived “night and day among the tombs and on the mountains… always crying out, and bruising himself with stones” (Mark 5:5), or the man who had been sick for 38 years and who could never get to the healing pool of Bethzatha when a space became free without another taking the place before he could (John 5:2-9). For all these, where others had failed, Jesus provides the remedy. And in doing so he upsets the comfortable balance of religion that had developed among the various factions in society at that time. Like most compromises, this status quo did little to benefit anyone except the adroit and the ambitious.

So the scribes and Pharisees seek to turn the tables by ascribing our Lord’s ability to cast out demons (when they could not, and would not) to the fact that he was in the service of demons himself. Beelzebul (or Beelzebub) was a pagan deity whose name meant “Prince Baal”, thus the reference by the Pharisees to the “prince of demons”. There was a belief among many at the time that weaker demons were subject to greater ones. So, Jesus must therefore be, at the very least, in the service of Satan himself in order to be able to cast out as many demons as he had – thus went the scribes’ argument.

The first thing our Lord does is to demolish their faulty theology… or rather, demonology! If Satan were to undo his own work, how could his kingdom stand? It is an illogical argument, and easily dismissed. Moreover, neither Satan nor any demon were in the habit of healing the sick, and certainly they would not have been preaching, as Jesus had been, that “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Jesus’ works were very clearly not those of the devil, but could only have been those of God.

It in light of this that our Lord decrees the gravity of the sin against the Holy Spirit. The nature of that sin is to ascribe to Satan, to evil what is demonstrably the work of God. It is in essence the sin of blasphemy, a direct insult to and rebellion against God, much like Lucifer’s rebellion. While ever this blasphemy is neither recognised nor repented of, it is outside God’s forgiveness. The blasphemy is the greater when it is from the mouths of those who should know better.

Yet there is, as so often, another possible level to this passage. For while Satan does not cast out his own demons, nevertheless his kingdom is divided. It is an irony that Jesus can see that Satan’s kingdom is divided not in the way the scribes’ made out, but in that its only unity is in hatred of God and his beloved creature, man. Unity built on hatred is no unity at all. The principle that my enemy’s enemy is my friend is one of short-term pragmatism, and not enduring truth or substance. This is the weak foundation of the unity of Satan’s kingdom, a house built on sand. And now that our Lord has come, Satan’s house is in fact falling, his reign coming to an end. When the disciples he sent to cast out demons returned to him reporting their success our Lord declared:

I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. (Luke 10:18)

The kingdom of God, the seed of which is the Church, has a unity not based on the negative, the nothingness of hatred, but on the great positive, the true reality of God’s abiding truth and love. So it is very disturbing to see the fruition of ecumenism in such developments as the Ordinariate for ex-Anglicans being ascribed to Vatican attempts to take over the Anglican communion, or to see those seeking to come to the Church through the Ordinariate as misogynists or one-issue Christians who are merely seeking shelter from women clergy. Surely this comes very close to a failure to ascribe to God his own works. Indeed from the mouths of some it may be a blasphemy, perhaps – as they see their little fiefdoms crumbling around them. But they crumble not in vain; out of their ruins the Church is being added to, new accommodation built, as it were, for those who are seeking unity on the Rock, to be fully one with the Vine. Our prayer must be that they do not cling to the wreckage, but seek to enter into the enduring House of God, built on the Rock; and that they might see this clearly as the work of God.

St Francis de SalesSt Francis de Sales has appeared on these pages before, here and here. In light of the above he is a worthy saint to be calling upon today. In the early 17th century he laboured as Bishop of Geneva, in the heartland of Calvinist Protestantism, to bring the straying sheep back to the Church. He did so not through threats or denunciations but through preaching the Good News. On his last visit to Paris crowds thronged to hear him preach as they had never heard “such holy, such apostolic sermons”. He lived and dressed simply, and had a great concern for the poor, and was zealous in hearing confessions. He was also a powerful writer and his Introduction to the Devout Life is still as fresh and sound today as it ever was. In other words, he preached powerfully by both his words and his life. Due to his labours thousands of Protestants came back to the Church. And in this Week of Christian Unity, that is precisely what we are praying will happen again in our day. As indeed it is, as the Ordinariate shows us. It is fitting that St Francis de Sales is the patron of Church Unity, a unity that can only be built on truth and love.

So let us endeavour always to recognise the works of God, and give him glory for them. And if we cannot do so then let us at least obey the sound principle of St Francis de Sales:

Nothing is more like a wise man than a fool who holds his tongue.

Another Salesian gem

St Francis de Sales is one of the soundest teachers of practical spirituality. His insights are so beautifully expressed that they can abide in your mind for those times, good and bad, when they are of most help. Here is another of his more famous meditations, apt for times of trial:

The everlasting God has, in His wisdom, foreseen from eternity the cross that He now presents to you as a gift from His inmost heart. This cross He now sends you He has considered with His all-knowing eyes, understood with His divine mind, tested with His wise justice, warmed with loving arms and weighed with His own hands to see that it be not one inch too large and not one ounce too heavy for you.

He has blessed it with His holy Name, anointed it with His consolation, taken one last glance at you and your courage, and then sent it to you from heaven, a special greeting from God to you, an alms of the all-merciful love of God.

To be a Christian always requires obedience at certain times to Christ’s teaching, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24). For all that the cross is inevitable in the life of a Christian who truly seeks God, nevertheless God never allows us to be tried beyond our strength. If we do feel a particular cross to heavy to bear, a trial too overwhelming to endure, we must remind ourselves of St Francis de Sales’ words. When we experience a particular cross we can be sure that we can bear it whatever we might feel, otherwise God would not have allowed it to come upon us. This is what it is to deny oneself when it comes to the crunch: to move beyond our feelings and trust in God’s promises.

Our trust can be expressed in even the smallest cry for help. It is that small cry that God might be waiting to hear, so that He knows we are ready to receive his grace fruitfully and not in vain. And always when we have carried our small crosses, which share in the great Cross of Christ, we can be sure that we are that little bit stronger, and that little bit closer to Christ. We should never fail to offer our crosses with Christ offered on his Cross at Mass, for then truly we are becoming one with Christ. Being one with Christ is the heart of life in the Church and the essence of life in heaven. All of which means that when we are carrying our little crosses, Christ still carries his Cross in us, for us and our salvation. After the Cross comes the resurrection.

So let’s never be afraid of that old rugged Cross. It is indeed “an alms from the all-merciful love of God”.

Some wise words

Some wise words from St Francis de Sales, which you may have already read. Nevertheless, they bear repeating:

Do not look forward to the changes and chances of this life with fear. Rather, look to them with full confidence that, as they arise, God to whom you belong will in his love enable you to profit by them. He has guided you thus far in life, do you but hold fast to his dear hand, and he will lead you safely through all trials. Whenever you cannot stand, he will carry you lovingly in his arms.

Do not look forward to what may happen tomorrow. The same eternal father who takes care of you today will take care of you tomorrow, and every day of your life; either he will shield you from suffering or he will give you unfailing strength to bear it.