A few of St. Augustine’s sermons on Lent have come down to us. This is a translation published in 1959 – you want sermons 205-211, that start on p. 185. I am not sure of the dating or specific context – they seem to have been preached in different years, since the themes carry over from sermon to sermon – such as the repeated reminder that if you abstain from some food or drink, it then makes no sense to replace what you have sacrifice with something that either is more costly or affords you as much or greater pleasure.
I appreciated this, from Sermon 207. Forgive the formatting – go the original for a better view, in the format of your choice!
By the help of the merciful Lord our God, the temptations of the world, the snares of the Devil, the suffering of the world, the enticement of the flesh, the surging waves of troubled times, and all corporal and spiritual adversities are to be overcome by almsgiving, fasting, and prayer.
These practices ought to glow throughout the entire life of a Christian, but especially as the Paschal solemnity approaches which stirs up our minds by its yearly return, renewing in them the salutary memory that our Lord, the only-begotten Son of God, showed mercy to us and fasted and prayed for us. As a matter of fact, eleemosyna in Greek signifies mercy in Latin. Moreover, what mercy could be greater, so far as we poor wretches are concerned, than that which drew the Creator of the heavens down from heaven, clothed the Maker of the earth with earthly vesture, made Him, who in eternity remains equal to His Father, equal to us in mortality, and imposed on the Lord of the universe the form of a servant, so that He, our Bread, might hunger; that He, our Fulfillment, might thirst; that He, our Strength, might be weakened; that He, our Health, might be injured; that He, our Life, might die? And all this [He did] to satisfy our hunger, to moisten our dryness, to soothe our infirmity, to wipe out our iniquity, to enkindle our charity. What greater mercy could there be than that the Creator be created, the Ruler be served, the Redeemer be sold, the Exalted be humbled and the Reviver be killed?
In regard to almsgiving, we are commanded to give bread to the hungry, but He first gave Himself over to cruel enemies for us so that He might give Himself as food to us when we were hungry. We are commanded to receive the stranger; for our sake He ‘came unto his own and his own received him not.’ In a word, let our soul bless Him who becomes a propitiation for all its iniquities, who heals all its diseases, who redeems its life from corruption, who crowns it in mercy and pity, who satisfies its desires in blessings. Let us give alms the more generously and the more frequently in proportion as the day draws nearer on which the supreme almsgiving accomplished for us is celebrated. Fasting without mercy is worthless to him who fasts.
Let us fast, humbling our souls as the day draws near on which the Teacher of humility humbled Himself becoming obedient even to death on a cross. Let us imitate
His cross, fastening to it our passions subdued by the nails of abstinence. Let us chastise our body, subjecting it to obedience, and, lest we slip into illicit pleasures through
our undisciplined flesh, let us in taming it sometimes withdraw licit pleasures. Self-indulgence and drunkenness ought to be shunned on other days; throughout this season, however, even legitimate eating is to be checked. Adultery and fornication must always be abhorred and avoided, but on these days special restraint must be practised even by mar-
ried persons. The flesh, which has been accustomed to restraint in regard to its own satisfaction, will readily submit to you when there is question of clinging to another’s goods.
Of course, care must be taken to avoid merely changing instead of lessening pleasures. For you may observe that certain persons seek out rare liquors in place of their ordinary wine; that they, with much greater relish, counterbalance by the juice of other fruits what they lose by denying themselves the juice of grapes; that, in place of meat, they procure food of manifold variety and appeal; that they store up,
as opportune for this season, delights which they would be ashamed to indulge in at other times. In this way, the observance of Lent becomes, not the curbing of old passions, but
an opportunity for new pleasures. Take measures in advance, my brethren, with as much diligence as possible, to prevent these attitudes from creeping upon you. Let frugality be
joined to fasting. As surfeiting the stomach is to be censured, so stimulants of the appetite must be eliminated. It is not that certain kinds of food are to be detested, but that bodily pleasure is to be checked. Esau was censured, not for having desired a fat calf or plump birds, but for having coveted a dish of pottage. 5 And holy King David repented of having excessively desired water. 6 Hence, not by delicacies obtained with much labor and at great expense, but by the cheaper food found within reach, is the body to be refreshed, or, rather, sustained in its fasting.
So, no, the parish Lenten All-You-Can-Eat Fish Fry would probably not fly with St. Augustine. Or any other the saints, I’m guessing.
For you see, traditionally, Catholic spirituality emphasizes frugality, simplicity and an appropriate level of asceticism, for all, not just religious. This was undoubtedly a more organically experienced reality in times in which most people lived in survival mode most of the time anyway. Our more generally prosperous times have undercut this sensibility, narrowed it and domesticated it, so that any call to bodily mortification and sacrifice is presented as a possibly helpful lifestyle choice rather than what all Christians should be striving for, since all Christians (as Augustine notes) live in imitation of Christ and his sacrifice and humility.
It is also a fundamental orientation that lived alongside the Catholic embrace of the Incarnation and God’s goodness as experienced through creation: that is the Feast, alongside the Fast. They coexist, sometimes uneasily and in tension, questioning and challenging each other in spiritual writings, traditions, liturgy, church law and the lives of ordinary Christians. They do so vividly this week, as Carnivale tumbles into Ash Wednesday.
Together we feast, together we fast, on our way, letting Jesus teach us what it is we are really hungry for.