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This is the cover of a pamphlet introducing the new, stripped-down, freedom-o-the-Christian-centered Lenten framework for American Catholics after the Second Vatican Council. It is part of Notre Dame’s Catholic Pamphlet Collection, which was available on archive.org for a very short time – I discovered it one night, and then, it seems as if a couple of weeks later, it had been taken down, I presume because of copyright issues. 

It being the first Friday of Lent, you’re probably going to herethere have been the usual minor rumblings about the purported relative ease of the fast for post-Vatican II Latin Rite Catholics.

Well, here’s my problem with that yearly ritual….

…(the apologizing and complaining, not the fasting, that is)…

The whole idea of the post-Conciliar changes to penitential fasting and abstinence was to present, as it were, a minimum on paper, with the expectation that the individual, flush with the glory of the Freedom of the Christian (and the Spirit of the Council), would take it from there.

The legal minimalism was supposed to unleash an internal maximalist lurking in all of us who had just been waiting to be treated like an adult instead of a child defined by adherence to rigid rules.

The rules are supposed to be minimal. That was the intention of the changes. 

And just a slight detour –

First, St. Francis de Sales had excellent advice on fasting. Read it here.

Secondly, a century and a half ago, people were complaining that the Catholic Lenten fast was too lax. John Henry Newman addressed it, and I talk about it here.  It’s startlingly prescient. Really…life and human nature does not change that much. These words could have been written today:

For example, in respect to curiosity. What a deal of time is lost, to say nothing else, in this day by curiosity, about things which in no ways concern us. I am not speaking against interest in the news of the day altogether, for the course of the world must ever be interesting to a Christian from its bearing upon the fortunes of the Church, but I speak of vain curiosity, love of scandal, love of idle tales, curious prying into the private history of people, curiosity about trials and offences, and personal matters, nay often what is much worse than this, curiosity into sin. … Hence this is the way in which we are called upon, with this Lent we now begin, to mortify ourselves. Let us mortify our curiosity.

So back to the issue of fasting and abstinence.

I think it’s a good idea to read Paul VI’s document on this, as well as the US bishops’.

From Paul VI, in February 1966

The US bishops, in November 1966.

I’m going to post excerpts in a second, but before we get lost in that, I’ll just venture to say that although I don’t think they should have eliminated the year-long Friday abstinence for any reason, in any way, these efforts to deepen a Catholic’s understanding of the practice are really not bad! In fact, Eamon Duffy, in his excellent article critiquing the loss of Friday abstinence, gives the American Catholic bishops a shout-out for offering a much more grounded articulation of the changes than the British bishops did, who, acccording to him, basically said, “We know this is a lot of bother, chaps, so you don’t have to do it anymore.”

In reading Catholic observers of the pre-Vatican II era, we do see concern with a distance between practice and understanding (that was the motive for the Liturgical Movement, as a whole, after all), and the rapidity with which Catholics after Vatican II ditched Friday abstinence without replacing it with any other penitential practice reveals that distance. Long ago, a Catholic blogger recounted his parents’ reaction to the lifting of Friday abstinence – they and their Catholic friends in the neighborhood celebrated by having a huge steak barbecue!

What I see then, is one more example of the misguided nature of the “renewal” of the Church. Instead of truly starting from where people were and what they already practiced, and trying to help people understand that, they moved to a state of minimalism, stripping the hard-to-follow and hard-to-understand stuff away, trusting in an ideal: people, flush in their mature Christian freedom, would just do what the deeper, yet now impenetrable intention of the “rules” had been guiding them toward through the centuries.

Perhaps for some that happened, but for the bulk it didn’t, and the other consequences were dire:

  • Loss of Catholic identity in that shared practice
  • A shaking of faith as Catholics, who had been presented with these practices as an expression of the solid, unchanging rock of the Catholic faith, were told, in essence: “KIDDING!” What was solid and worth taking seriously? What, that the Church taught, could be trusted?

Now, back to it. I’ll just end with two official documents detailing the changes in practice. They are worth reading, and honestly, when you are even lightly familiar with two thousand years of Catholic thinking and writing on fasting and other penitential practices, the call to go deeper than the minimal and just use that as a starting point that is the center of these documents, is not inconsistent with that tradition.

The mistake – and it was huge – was in, really, changing anything. It shouldn’t have been changed, for it stripped Catholic life of a deep connection to centuries of Catholic practice and was too idealistic about human nature.

From Duffy’s article:

The ritual observance of dietary rules—fasting and abstinence from meat in Lent, and abstinence from meat and meat products every Friday, as well as the eucharistic fast from midnight before the reception of Communion—were as much defining marks of Catholicism before the council as abstention from pork is a defining characteristic of Judaism. The Friday abstinence in particular was a focus of Catholic identity which transcended class and educational barriers, uniting “good” and “bad” Catholics in a single eloquent observance. Here was a universally recognized expression of Catholicism which was nothing to do with priests or authority.

Now to the US Bishops, from 1966:

  1. Wherefore, we ask, urgently and prayerfully, that we, as people of God, make of the entire Lenten Season a period of special penitential observance. Following the instructions of the Holy See, we declare that the obligation both to fast and to abstain from meat, an obligation observed under a more strict formality by our fathers in the faith, still binds on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. No Catholic Christian will lightly excuse himself from so hallowed an obligation on the Wednesday which solemnly opens the Lenten season and on that Friday called “Good” because on that day Christ suffered in the flesh and died for our sins.
  2. In keeping with the letter and spirit of Pope Paul’s ConstitutionPoenitemini, we preserved for our dioceses the tradition of abstinence from meat on each of the Fridays of Lent, confident that no Catholic Christian will lightly hold himself excused from this penitential practice.
  3. For all other weekdays of Lent, we strongly recommend participation in daily Mass and a self-imposed observance of fasting. In the light of grave human needs which weigh on the Christian conscience in all seasons, we urge, particularly during Lent, generosity to local,national, and world programs of sharing of all things needed to translate our duty to penance into a means of implementing the right of the poor to their part in our abundance. We also recommend spiritual studies, beginning with the Scriptures as well as the traditional Lenten Devotions (sermons, Stations of the Cross, and the rosary), and all the self-denial summed up in the Christian concept of “mortification.”

 

This paragraph relates to Vigils and Ember Days, but I think it succinctly summarizes the whole intent:

Vigils and Ember Days, as most now know, no longer oblige to fast and abstinence. However, the liturgical renewal and the deeper appreciation of the joy of the holy days of the Christian year will, we hope, result in a renewed appreciation as to why our forefathers spoke of “a fast before a feast.” We impose no fast before any feast-day, but we suggest that the devout will find greater Christian joy in the feasts of the liturgical calendar if they freely bind themselves, for their own motives and in their own spirit of piety, to prepare for each Church festival by a day of particular self-denial, penitential prayer and fasting.

On the Friday abstinence, year-round:

  1. Gratefully remembering this, Catholic peoples from time immemorial have set apart Friday for special penitential observance by which they gladly suffer with Christ that they may one day be glorified with Him. This is the heart of the tradition of abstinence from meat on Friday where that tradition has been observed in the holy Catholic Church.
  2. Changing circumstances, including economic, dietary, and social elements, have made some of our people feel that the renunciation of the eating of meat is not always and for everyone the most effective means of practicing penance. Meat was once an exceptional form of food; now it is commonplace.
  3. Accordingly, since the spirit of penance primarily suggests that we discipline ourselves in that which we enjoy most, to many in our day abstinence from meat no longer implies penance, while renunciation of other things would be more penitential.
  4. For these and related reasons, the Catholic bishops of the United States, far from downgrading the traditional penitential observance of Friday, and motivated precisely by the desire to give the spirit of penance greater vitality, especially on Fridays, the day that Jesus died,urge our Catholic people henceforth to be guided by the following norms.
  5. Friday itself remains a special day of penitential observance throughout the year, a time when those who seek perfection will be mindful of their personal sins and the sins of mankind which they are called upon to help expiate in union with Christ Crucified.
  6. Friday should be in each week something of what Lent is in the entire year. For this reason we urge all to prepare for that weekly Easter that comes with each Sunday by freely making of every Friday a day of self-denial and mortification in prayerful remembrance of the passion of Jesus Christ.

 

Back to Duffy:

The Church has always linked personal asceticism and the search for holiness with this demand for mercy and justice to the poor; the Lenten trilogy of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving is both fundamental and structural. By making fasting and abstinence optional, the Church forfeited one of its most eloquent prophetic signs. There is a world of difference between a private devotional gesture, the action of the specially pious, and the prophetic witness of the whole community—the matter-of-fact witness, repeated week by week, that to be Christian is to stand among the needy.

 

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Lent’s happening. Here we are.

Take a look at this marvelous photography project:

I’ve always been a street photographer. It just so happened that I was out photographing on Ash Wednesday in 1997. Out of only maybe six sheets of film, I had two really good pictures that day, which are amazing odds and it felt lucky. After the second year of doing it (when I photographed the police officer) I realized I had something. Because it’s only one day of shooting a year, it never makes me feel like it is enough, I feel compelled to do it again and again each year. It’s like an addiction.

From the book’s website:

“When I first saw someone with a cross of ashes on their forehead, it seemed like they were revealing a secret about themselves that was almost mystical. The idea, then, of asking this complete stranger if I could take their picture felt more personal than usual, like I was asking for their soul. But my subject’s response was “sure,” as if I had just asked to photograph them with their hat or scarf.

While Ash Wednesday is a solemn day for practicing Christians, meant to observe one’s mortality and repent, my primary interest is in the visual juxtaposition of the contemporary with the ancient. I encounter my subjects on their way to Saks Fifth Avenue, running to an important meeting or to catch a train, yet they wear the mark of a sacred ritual.”

 — 2 —

Just a reminder about artist Daniel Mitsui. He has a blog here, in which he always has interesting things to say about his particular art projects and art in general – for example, how he makes a living as an artist. This recent post on the “Lenten veil” is fascinating. I learn something new every time I visit his site.

Of course the most important thing to remember about Daniel Mitsui is – support his work. 

— 3 —

I had a lot of Lent-related posts this week, and will have more over the next couple of days. Just click back and forth to see. 

–4–

Earlier this week, First Thing’s Matthew Schmitz tweeted about the film The Salesman. I’d never heard of it. It’s on YouTube. I’ve watched about half of it and will finish on Friday, probably. It’s fascinating.

 

–5 —

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Today, my 13-year old and I attended a school concert presented by Your Alabama Symphony! (that’s how they’ve branded themselves) – the theme was music related to Alabama history (this year is the 200th anniversary of us becoming a territory, next year, of statehood.) That, with a bit of 1812 Overture tossed in. As usual, the orchestra was excellent, the audience was cooperative and had clearly been well prepared by their teachers (there was a lot of singing along) and at one point the folk singer leading the program said something like:

You know, when we sing the songs that people two hundred years ago sang, in a way, we’re joined with them – we’re all sharing the same life. 

Hmmm…I keep running across this notion, articulated in relation to music and literature (remember the poetry article from a few months ago?).

The truth is that memorizing and reciting poetry can be a highly expressive act. And we need not return to the Victorians’ narrow idea of the canon to reclaim poetry as one of the cheapest, most durable tools of moral and emotional education — whether you go in for Virgil, Li Po, Rumi or Gwendolyn Brooks (ideally, all four)

How does memorizing and reciting someone else’s words help me express myself? I put this question to Samar.as young, and he was talking about love. I related to him,” Ms. Huggins said. (He writes: “We talked a lot and feel a kiss on our lips/Trembling there like a small insect.”)

“Reciting a poem will help you express what you’re trying to say,” she told me. “It’s like when I need to pray about something, I’ll look into a devotional, and those words can start me off.” Ms. Huggins grew up Episcopalian, but even the resolutely secular need to borrow words of supplication, anguish or thanks every now and then.

..do you think there might be something to it?

Nah….let’s sing a new church into being instead! That will be much better!

 

— 6 —

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Tonight we attended a screening of Grassroots Film’s Outcasts, presented at our Cathedral of St. Paul. It was moving, powerful, sad and hopeful. Filmmaker Joe Campo was in attendance, along with two friars. The film was a powerful witness to the friars’ apostolate around the world, but, just as importantly, an opportunity to think about the huge need for all kinds of Gospel-guided presence in our own community…and what might be happening on that front.

— 7 —

Guess what! I didn’t make cheese pizza for Ash Wednesday!

But nor did I make ….this:

amywelborn

(Spoiler alert: I made this. It was delicious, but then I, for some reason, adore lentils.)

For more Quick Takes, visit This Ain’t the Lyceum!

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The following is a compilation of two posts from last year. For more, er, original content today, go here. 


How did I happen up on this? In the usual, wandering way. I went to archive.org and typed in “ash wednesday” in the search box, and after wading through a bunch of sermons and pamphlets (including one had written!), I happened upon this, and stumbled into a huge rabbit hole.

In that rabbit hole I was introduceed to one Baron Ferdinand de Geramb, (probably) born in Lyons, but of Hungarian descent. An adventurer, a soldier, a prisoner of Napoleon, and eventually…a Trappist. From the old Catholic Encyclopedia:

In 1808 he fell into the hands of Napoleon, who imprisoned him in the fortress of Vincennes until 1814, the time when the allied powers entered Paris. After bidding farewell to the Tsar and Emperor of Austria, he resolved to leave the world. It was at this time that he providentially met the Rev. Father Eugene, Abbot of Notre Dame du Port du Salut, near Laval (France), of whom he begged to be admitted as a novice in the community. He pronounced his vows in 1817.

After having rendered great services to that monastery, he was sent, in 1827, to the monastery of Mt. Olivet (Alsace). During the Revolution of 1830 de Géramb displayed great courage in the face of a troop of insurgents that had come to pillage the monastery; though the religious had been dispersed, the abbey was at least, by his heroic action, spared the horrors of pillage. It was at this time that Brother Mary Joseph made his pilgrimage to Jerusalem. On his return in 1833, he went to Rome, where he held the office of procurator-general of La Trappe. He soon gerambgained the esteem and affection of Gregory XVI, who, though he was not a priest, named him titular abbot with the insignia of the ring and pectoral cross, a privilege without any precedent.

Abbot de Géramb is the author of many works, the principal of which are: “Letters to Eugene on the Eucharist”; “Eternity is approaching”; “Pilgrimage to Jerusalem”; “A Journey from La Trappe to Rome”, besides many others of less importance and of an exclusively ascetical character. They were often reprinted and translated. His style is easy and without affectation. The customs, manners, and incidents of the journey which he describes, all are vividly and attractively given, and the topographical descriptions are of an irreproachable accuracy. Even under the monk’s cowl the great nobleman could occasionally be seen distributing in alms considerable sums of money which he had received from his family to defray his expenses.

I spent a good deal of time skimming through the book to which the search took me: A Pilgrimage to Palestine, Egypt and Syria.  It is quite evocative, as this excerpt about Ash Wednesday shows:

 On the 20th I was awake long before dawn. I went
out of my tent, and seated myself at the entrance. My
Bedouins, at a little distance, were sleeping around some
half-extinct embers. At the slight noise which I made
their camels raised their heads, but laid them down
again immediately on the sand. Silence reigned around
me. It was Ash- Wednesday, a day specially set apart
by the Church, to remind its members of the curse pro-
nounced against the first man after his fall, and in which
his whole posterity is involved. I picked up a handful
of the dust of the desert, marked my brow with it, and,
giving myself the salutary warning which it was not pos-
sible for me to receive at the foot of the altars of Christ,
from the lips of one of his ministers, I pronounced these
words : — ” Recollect, O man, that dust thou art, and
unto dust shalt thou return.”

Then, joining in spirit and in heart the Christian
people, who, on this day more especially, beseech the
Lord ” to have pity upon them according to his great
mercy’ I waited for sunrise, meditating upon that
awful sentence of death pronounced upon the human
race, the execution of which none can escape, and which
it will by and by be my turn to undergo. It has often
been the case, my dear Charles, that I have felt deeply
moved and violently torn from the things of this world,
while listening to the powerful words demonstrating
their nothingness, issuing from the pulpit amidst the
doleful solemnities with which the holy season of penance
commences ; but I declare to you that this desert, where
the plant itself cannot live ; this soil, which is but dust,
and from which the blast sweeps away in the twinkling
of an eye all traces of the footsteps of man, telling him
that thus shall he be swept away by the blast of death;
this universal silence, not even interrupted like that of
the grave by the voice of grief or the song of mourning;
those ruins, and those empty sepulchers ; those carcasses
of kingdoms and of cities, which had just passed before
my eyes ; and that holy Bible, which related to me the
crimes of generations upon the spot where they were
committed, explained to me the transitory nature, the
paltriness, and the term of human life, and showed to
me, as still dwelling in the heavens, Him who will have
man know that he is the Lord, and that He infallibly
overtakes by his justice the presumptuous mortal who
disdains his mercy — all this spake to my soul in much
stronger language, in a language the energy of which
no words can express.


Now…for the 12-year old….

 

…1947 style.

More from a 1947 7th-grade text, part of the The Christ Life Series in Religion.

Note, again, how the child is treated as a full-fledged member of the Body of Christ, with responsibilities and the capacity to know his or herself and receive grace fruitfully and grow in union with Christ. No pandering, no dumbing-down. Nor is it about rule-following or a shallow embrace of external actions, as our caricatures of pre-Vatican II life tell us it must have been.  It is, as the textbook says, about becoming “more intimately united with Christ.”

Read and contrast to the prevalent contemporary understanding of Lent, which is that it’s about focusing my efforts so God can help me get my life together and feel better about it all.

There is a difference between the two emphases. Subtle, but real between “strengthening the soul’s life” and “having a great Lent.” It’s all about the focus. Is it about me or about Jesus, the Gospel and our mission, as parts of his Body, in a broken world?

And news flash: there is not much about Lent in the CCC, but what is there emphasizes that yes, it is still a penetential season. 

(click on graphics for bigger versions)

 

As living members of Christ’s Mystical Body we must participate in all His life. Today this means waging war on those passions which have been gaining ground in our soul and usurping the reign which belongs to Christ alone. Only a coward flees from a call to arms in a just cause. We, who in Confirmation have been sealed with the Spirit as soldiers of Christ, must fight courageously under His leadership. Is there any special self-indulgence weakening our spiritual life? Let us have entire confidence that with God’s grace we can overcome our faults.

Lent is a time of action and spiritual growth—not a time of gloom and repression, but a time of strong positive effort. Through our vigorous efforts of this season, we grow stronger spiritually, for we become more intimately united with Christ. It is in the Mass, above all, that we receive the grace we need in order to be victorious in the struggle upon which we are entering. Is it possible for you to assist at daily Mass during Lent, offering yourself with the divine Victim to atone for sin and to gain renewed vigor? Exactly what spiritual gains will you aim to make during this Lent? Join in the prayer of the Church today “that our fasts may be acceptable to thee and a means of healing to us. Through our Lord”

ashwednesday1

 

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I’ve been posting a lot of pre-owned content lately, but believe me, I have an excuse!

It’s called work. I’m involved in a project that, while not the most taxing in the world, does gobble up my free time in the very early mornings and later evenings, as well as another ongoing project that I’m still not settled into, and that is taking up a bit more mental space than I thought – once I do settle, I’m hoping I can spend about 15 minutes a day on it over the next few months. But I need to get this Other Thing done first – and the final deadline for the last section of that is in early March, so….

Brain is in Occupied Mode for the moment.

But a few notes, completely random, but mostly reading-related.

  • What am I reading? I realized with dismay that it had been a while since I had actually finished reading a book. I discovered a Trollope that was left hanging, and then The Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayers that I got 2/3 through and then there’s that Vietnamese priest book I started a few weeks back. Seriously, one of my Lent disciplines is to begin reading books and finish them. 
  • What I have finished, though, are books “for school.”  I had my 13-year old read The Lord of the Flies and read it along with him  –  a book as fascinating and depressing as it always is. Having recently finished watching Lost, we were both struck by some parallels and, we suspect, inspirations for the series in the book.
  • The very brief passage that struck me with the most force comes at the very end (spoiler alert!) in the scene in which the children are discovered by the British naval personnel. If you recall, the major conflict in the book has been between Ralph, the boy who attempts to hold on to civilization for as long as possible, and Jack, the leader of the choir boys who battles to assume leadership on the island, driven by a hunter’s bloodlust. Jack, through most of the book, is painted as a powerful, almost mythic figure. All the other boys come under is power and, as the book rushes to an end, Ralph is racing for his life from Jack and those under his sway.
  • But then at the very end, the point of view shifts, and we see the entire situation  from the perspective of the newly-arrived adult. He asks who had been leading the boys. Ralph quickly says that he was. And then:

A little boy who wore the remains of an extraordinary black cap on his
red hair and who carried the remains of a pair of spectacles at his waist,
started forward, then changed his mind and stood still.

  • I have read that sentence over and over, trying to absorb the power of the shift in point of view and what it tells us about what’s real, what we think is real, and what’s really real.
  • Other readings with the homeschooling 7th grader: Before Lord of the Flies, he read The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – see appropriate Chesterton quote here. 
  • The next “school novel” is on a somewhat lighter vein – he suggest Murder on the Orient Express, and I had no problem with it. He started it today, so the “school” part of the reading involved an introduction to the genre of detective fiction (which interests him because he’s just started watching Sherlock), Agatha Christie’s life, and then some history and geography inspired by the first three chapters of the book – here’s an excellent page of chapter-by-chapter annotations, and really, take a look. When a kid reads Murder on the Orient Express and goes on all the rabbit trails inspired by it, look at what he can explore: the geography of the Near East, as well as the area covered by the train route, as well as the history of the period in that area – a time in places like Aleppo and Kirkuk very different from our own.
  • Short story read on Monday: “The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky” – by Stephen Crane. Emphasis on the humor in the story as well as the story as a metaphor for the changes then occurring in the West.

Poems read over the past couple of weeks:

  • “Do not Go Gentle Into That Good Night”
  • “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”
  • “The Lake Isle of Innisfreee”
  • “The World is Too Much With Us”
  • “Miniver Cheevy”
  •  “Fern Hill”

 

For his own, individual reading, he’s tearing through Dune. I gave him the first volume for Christmas, he read it, then read Children of Dune over a couple of days (it’s much shorter than the first) and is about to start Dune Messiah. 

  • Older brother has just started The Great Gatsby for school, so I’m reading that, too – can I admit that this is the first time for me?

Guys, I went to high school in the 70’s. We read Jonathan Livingston Seagull for religion class, for pete’s sake.

In case you think this business of “Mom reading along with school assignments” is weird and just too helicoptery for words, please consider:

  • like to read and talk about books. It’s what I do. 
  • Talking about books together is a good thing. Talk about books with your spouse, your friends, your kids, your book group, strangers on a plane – it’s all good, it expands your brain and your experience a little bit, every time.
  • Go see The Commuter – the latest Liam Neeson-as-unlikely-hero film.  Okay, forget I said that. Don’t go see it because it’s just barely okay, but it has a sweet – and actually crucial –  plot point related to Neeeson and his high school son’s school reading assignments.
  • So yeah, maybe if you read along with your kids’ reading assignments, you too can be a hero on a commuter train….

 

 

 

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"amy welborn"

(As with all the graphics I create – although not with my personal photos! – feel free to copy, share and use as you wish.)

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.

 

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"amy welborn"

 

(Also a repeat from last year – but it bears repeating…)

Preparing for the Lenten fast? I last posted some thoughts contrasting contemporary paradigms for fasting and the deeper Catholic tradition. No deep thoughts from me today, but just pointing you to St. Robert Bellarmine and his book The Art of Dying Well.  (Which, of course, is really about the art of living well.) It’s available free online here. 

The fruit and advantages of fasting can easily be proved. And first; fasting is most useful in preparing the soul for prayer, and the contemplation of divine things, as the angel Raphael saith: “Prayer is good with fasting.” Thus Moses for forty days prepared his soul by fasting, before he presumed to speak with God: so Elias fasted forty days, that thus he might be able, as far as human nature would permit, to hold converse with God: so Daniel, by a fast of three weeks, was prepared for receiving the revelations of God: so the Church has appointed “fasts” on the vigil of great festivals, that Christians might be more fit for celebrating the divine solemnities. The holy fathers also everywhere speak of the utility of fasting. (See St. Athanasius, Lib. de Virginitate St. Basil, de Jejunio. St. Ambrose, de Elia et Jejunio. St. Bernard, in sermone de Vigilia Santi Andræ., &c.) I cannot forbear quoting the words of St. Chrysostom (Homily in Genesis): “Fasting is the support of our soul: it gives us wings to ascend on high, and to enjoy the highest contemplation.!

 

Another advantage of fasting is, that it tames the flesh; and such a fast must be particularly pleasing to God, because He is pleased when we crucify the flesh with its vices and concupiscences, as St. Paul teaches us in his Epistle to the Galatians; and for this reason he says himself: “But I chastise my body, and bring it into subjection: lest perhaps, when I have preached to others, I myself should become a castaway.” (1 to Cor. ix. 27.) St. Chrysostom expounds these words of fasting; and so also do Theophylact and St. Ambrose. And of the advantages of it in this respect, St. Cyprian, St. Basil, St. Jerome, and St. Augustine, and in the office for Prime the whole Church sings, “Carnis terat superbiam potûs cibique Parcitas.” (Moderation in food and drink, tames the pride of the flesh.)

 

Another advantage is, that we honour God by our fasts, because when we fast for His sake, we honour Him: thus the apostle Paul speaks in his Epistle to the Romans: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercy of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, pleasing unto God, your reasonable service”(chap, xii.) In the Greek, “reasonable service,” is, reasonable worship: and of this worship St. Luke speaks, when mentioning the prophetess Anna: “And she was a widow until fourscore and four years; who departed not from the temple, by fastings and prayers serving night and day.” (chap. ii. 37.) The great Council of Nice in the V. Canon, calls the fast of Lent, “a clean and solemn gift, offered by the Church to God.” In the same manner doth Tertullian speak in his book on the “Resurrection of the Flesh,” where he calls dry, unsavoury food taken late, “sacrifices pleasing to God:” and St. Leo, in his second sermon on fasting saith, “For the sure reception of all its fruits, the sacrifice of abstinence is most worthily offered to God, the giver of them all.”

 

A fourth advantage fasting hath, is being a satisfaction for sin. Many examples in holy Writ prove this. The Ninivites appeased God by fasting, as Jonas testifies. The Jews did the same; for by fasting with Samuel they appeased God, and gained the victory over their enemies. The wicked king Achab, by fasting and sackcloth, partly satisfied God. In the times of Judith and Esther, the Hebrews obtained mercy from God by no other sacrifice than that of fasting, weeping, and mourning.

How to go about it? His thoughts:

The chief end of fasting, is the mortification of the flesh, that the spirit may be more strengthened. For this purpose, we must use only spare and unsavoury diet. And this our mother the Church points out since she commands us to take only one “full” meal in the day, and then not to eat flesh or white meats, hut only herbs or fruit.

This, Tertullian expresses by two words, in his book on the “Resurrection of the Flesh,” where he calls the food of those that fast, “late and dry meats.” Now, those do not certainly observe this, who, on their fasting-days, eat as much in one meal, as they do on other days, at their dinner and supper together: and who, at that one meal, prepare so many dishes of different fishes and other things to please their palate, that it seems to be a dinner intended, not for weepers and fasters, but for a nuptial banquet that is to continue throughout most of the night! Those who fast thus, do not certainly derive the least fruit from their fasting.

Nor do those derive any fruit who, although they may eat more moderately, yet on fasting-days do not abstain from games, parties, quarrels, dissensions, lascivious songs, and immoderate laughter; and what is still worse, commit the same crimes as they would on ordinary days. ….They also spent that time which ought to have been devoted to prayer, in profane quarrels, and even in contentions. In fine, so far were they from attending to spiritual things, as they ought to have done on the fasting-days, they added sin to sin, and impiously attacked their neighbours. These and other such sins ought those pious people to avoid, who wish their fasting to be pleasing unto God, and useful to themselves: they may then hope to live well, and die a holy death.

 

 

 

MORE, including on almsgiving:

Lastly, It is necessary above all things, if we wish to be saved and to die a good death, diligently to enquire, either by our own reading and meditation, or by consulting holy and learned men, whether our “superfluous” riches can be retained with out sin, or whether we ought of necessity to give them to the poor; and again, what are to be understood by superfluities, and what by necessary goods. It may happen that to some men moderate riches may be superfluous; whilst to others great riches may be absolutely essential. But, since this treatise does not include nor require tedious scholastic questions, I will briefly note passages from Holy Writ and the Fathers, and so end this part of the subject. The passages of Scripture: “You cannot serve both God and mammon.” “He that hath two coats, let him give to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do in like manner.” And in the 12th chapter of St. Luke it is said of one who had such great riches, that he scarcely knew what to do with them: “Thou fool, this night do they require thy soul of thee.” St. Augustine, in the 50th book of his Homilies, and the 7th Homily, explains these words to mean, that the rich man perished for ever, because he made no use of his superfluous riches.

The passages from the Fathers are chiefly these: St. Basil, in his Sermon to the Rich, thus speaks: “And thou, art thou not a robber, because what thou hast received to be given away, thou supposest to be thy own?” And a little farther he continues: “Wherefore, as much as thou art able to give, so much dost thou injure the poor.” And St. Ambrose, in his 81st Sermon, says: “What injustice do I commit, if, whilst I do not steal the goods of others, I keep diligently what is my own? impudent word! Dost thou say thy own? What is this? It is no less a crime to steal than it is not to give to the poor out of thy abundance.” St. Jerome thus writes in his Epistle to Hedibias: “If you possess more than is necessary for your subsistence, give it away, and thus you will be a creditor.” St. John Chrysostom says in his 34th Homily to the people of Antioch: “Do you possess anything of your own? The interest of the poor is entrusted to you, whether the estate is yours by your own just labours, or you have acquired it by inheritance.” St. Augustine, in his Tract on the 147th Psalm: “Our superfluous wealth belongs to the poor; when it is not given to them, we possess what we have no right to retain.” St. Leo thus speaks: “Temporal goods are given to us by the liberality of God, and He will demand an account of them, for they were committed to us for disposal as well as possession.”

And St. Gregory, in the third part of his Pastoral Care: “Those are to be admonished, who, whilst they desire not the goods of others, do not distribute their own; that so they may carefully remember, that as the common origin of all men is from the earth, so also its produce is common to them all: in vain, then, they think themselves innocent, who appropriate to themselves the common gifts of God.” St. Bernard, in his Epistle to Henry, archbishop of Sens, saith: “It is ours, for the poor cry out for what you squander; you cruelly take away from us what you spend foolishly.” St. Thomas also writes: “The superfluous riches which many possess, by the natural law belong to the support of the poor”; and again: “The Lord requires us to give to the poor not only the tenth part, but all of our superfluous wealth.” In fine, the same author, in the fourth book of his “Sentences,” asserts that this is the common opinion of all theologians. I add also, that if one be inclined to contend that, taking the strict letter of the law, he is not bound to give his superfluous riches to the poor; he is obliged to do so, at least by the law of charity. It matters little whether we are condemned to hell through want of justice or of charity.

 

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(This is a repeat, but worth a revisit. Feel free to use the image at the bottom of the post.)

(Welcome new visitors – check out a new posts with some more Vintage Catholic thoughts on fasting – from St. Robert Bellarmine and St. Augustine. )

 

What’s Lent? This thing that’s coming soon?

You might have the impression that Lent is all about you. Your personal growth. Your spiritual health. Your happiness.

Maybe.

Or maybe not. Maybe there’s more to Lent than how it’s going to make your life better.

For you see, there’s a difference between understanding Lent as a particularly listcicle-friendly (40 days! 3 disciplines!)  opportunity for an individual’s spiritual growth and understanding it as the entire Church’s solemn call and responsibility to do penance and grow in faith.

Are those different things? Yes.  Think about it. Not in tension, not opposed, but slightly different roads and paradigms.  The first is centered on pleasing ourselves, the second on pleasing God.

It is the distinction highlighted by Francis de Sales’ last of three pointers for a good fast, highlighted below: fast to please God alone.  To many of us, this sounds odd, since we have been formed to believe that we need to nothing to please God other than accepting ourselves as we are, haven’t we?

For what happens in modern spiritual discourse is that we have collapsed the two – we please God most of all when we are ourselves and are content with ourselves.  When you dig deeply, that’s true – when we are the selves God created and that above all brings us contentment and peace.

But what our spiritual wisdom has also reminded us of is that reaching that point requires stripping and sacrifice and a hard journey – not simply acceptance of the Good News that we are God’s creatures and loved by him. It is complicated, yes, but the bottom line seems to me that when you remove penance and the organic nature of fallen creation and the role of our fallen selves in that, you really are just left with individuals on a journey to feel okay about themselves, and not much more.

It’s an intriguing distinction. As an amateur student of the strangeness of modern Catholicism, I am most often struck by the sharp ironies and waves of unintended consequences that mark our slice of history.

We post-Conciliar Catholics were formed in a way that emphasized both individual spiritual freedom yet also the greater weight of  community, perhaps best encapsulated by the sense that no, Mass is not the time to come and focus on God’s presence as an individual. Rather, it is the time in which individuals freely come, but not to pray individually, but rather to do “the work of the people” in liturgy.

(This is why some liturgists think the worst sin one can commit during Mass is to kneel and pray quietly after receiving Communion instead of standing with the group and singing that you are bread ready to be chewed for justice or some such. We are here as the people of God, by God.)

The irony to me is that when you consider pre-Vatican II materials, the sense of communal identity was actually much stronger in those bad old days when (we are told) indvidual piety was emphasized above community.

So why is it that now, we are continually having to be told that we are community, experience community-building experiences and asked how we would like our parishes to create stronger communities?

Part of it is simply cultural and social.  “Community,” period was stronger, sometimes to oppressive extents.  You didn’t have to build community, you were born into it, you lived in it your entire life, and perhaps woe to you if you attempted to crack those walls.

Double-sided and full of shadows – that’s everything, that’s life.

But you see it in older treatments of Lent.   If you read pre-Vatican II popular and catechetical works on Lent, you encounter an unmistakable sense of the season being about the entire Church – the community – engaged in a journey – being willing to sacrifice in order to form itself to be more like Christ, in gratitude for all God has given, in sorrow for sin, with each individual’s efforts being a part of that greater whole, and being important because of it.

But today, we are on our own. Lent is about you and your walk with Jesus and making that better. It’s ironic. Matthew Kelly’s “Best Lent Ever” marketing campaign is the pinnacle of this sensibility: it’s all about Lent as a peak individual consumer experience – like Sandals for the soul.

As an aside on the “best Lent ever” slogan…I’m reminded of the more traditional way of inspiring spiritual fervor during the season, something an older priest up in Indiana used to regularly pull out and that I’ve heard on retreat…not make it your best Lent ever but a reminder that we should approach the season as if it were our “Last Lent ever.”

(The same template might be used for Advent or even about Sunday and reception of Communion….receive Communion as if it might be your last..)

Dire, yes, but as the kids say, you’re not wrong. 

Because it could be, indeed.  Both “best” and “last” indeed center us on the self and the needs of the soul, but with different orientations and expectations. 

And then there is penance.  Fasting serves many purposes, as St. Francis de Sales will tell us. But at root, it is a penitential act, not simply one to help us to “grow in faith” and find peace and joy and focus.  Yes it does, indeed do so, but it does so, Catholic tradition has normally held, because, among other things, the penitential act of fasting is part of the process of ridding our lives of sin and its effects – a process which  of course brings us closer to Christ. Not just because it’s fasting and giving stuff up, but because it is penitential.  I’ll let St. Francis de Sales explain.

 

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 find some people who think that to fast well during the holy season of Lent it is enough to abstain from eating some prohibited food. But this thought is too gross to enter into the hearts of religious, for it is to you I speak, as well as persons dedicated to Our Lord. 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.

 

The first condition is that we must fast with our whole heart, that is to say, willingly, whole-heartedly, 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.

How many sins have entered into the soul through the eyes, as Holy Scripture indicates? [1 In. 2:16]. That is why they must fast by keeping them lowered and not permitting them to look upon frivolous and unlawful objects; the ears, by depriving them of listening to vain talk which serves only to fill the mind with worldly images; the tongue, in not speaking idle words and those which savor of the world or the things of the world. We ought also to cut off useless thoughts, as well as vain memories and superfluous appetites and desires of our will. In short, we ought to hold in check all those things which keep us from loving or tending to the Sovereign Good. In this way interior fasting accompanies exterior fasting.

This is what the Church wishes to signify during this holy time of Lent, teaching us to make our eyes, our ears and our tongue fast. For this reason she omits all harmonious chants in order to mortify the hearing; she no longer says Alleluia, and clothes herself completely in somber and dark colors. And on this first day she addresses us in these words: Remember, man, that you are dust, and to dust you shall return [Gen. 3:19], as if she meant to say: “Oh man, quit at this moment all joys and merrymaking, all joyful and pleasant reflections, and fill your memory with bitter, hard and sorrowful thoughts. In this way you will make your mind fast together with your body.”

This is also what the Christians of the primitive Church taught us when, in order to spend Lent in a better way, they deprived themselves at this time of ordinary conversations with their friends, and withdrew into great solitude and places removed from communication with people…….

 

The second condition is never to fast through vanity but always through humility. If our fast is not performed with humility, it will not be pleasing to God…..

But what is it to fast through humility? It is never to fast through vanity. Now how can one fast through vanity? According to Scripture there are hundreds and hundreds of ways, but I will content myself with telling you one of them, for it is not necessary to burden your memory with many things. To fast through vanity is to fast through self-will, since this self-will is not without vanity, or at least not without a temptation to vanity. And what does it mean to fast through self-will? It is to fast as one wishes and not as others wish; to fast in the manner which pleases us, and not as we are ordered or counseled. You will find some who wish to fast more than is necessary, and others who do not wish to fast as much as is necessary. What causes that except vanity and self-will? All that proceeds from ourselves seems better to us, and is much more pleasant and easy for us than what is enjoined on us by another, even though the latter is more useful and proper for our perfection. This is natural to us and is born from the great love we have for ourselves.

Let each one of us examine our conscience and we will find that all that comes from ourselves, from our own judgment, choice and election, is esteemed and loved far better than that which comes from another. We take a certain complacency in it that makes the most arduous and difficult things easy for us, and this complacency is almost always vanity. You will find those who wish to fast every Saturday of the year, but not during Lent.{2} They wish to fast in honor of Our Lady and not in honor of Our Lord. As if Our Lord and Our Lady did not consider the honor given to the one as given to the other, and as if in honoring the Son by fasting done for His intention, one did not please the Mother, or that in honoring the Virgin one did not please the Savior! What folly! But see how human it is: because the fast that these persons impose on themselves on Saturday in honor of our glorious Mistress comes from their own will and choice, it seems to them that it should be more holy and that it should bring them to a much greater perfection than the fast of Lent, which is commanded. Such people do not fast as they ought but as they want.

There are others who desire to fast more than they should, and with these one has more trouble than with the first group.

The glorious St. Augustine, in the Rule that he wrote for his religious (later adapted for men religious), orders that one follow the community as much as possible, as if he wished to say: Do not be more virtuous than the others; do not wish to practice more fasting, more austerities, more mortifications than are ordered for you. Do only what the others do and what is commanded by your Rule, according to the manner of living that you follow, and be content with that. For although fasting and other penances are good and laudable, nevertheless, if they are not practiced by those with whom you live, you will stand out and there will be some vanity, or at least some temptation to esteem yourself above others. Since they do not do as you do, you experience some vain complacency, as if you were more holy than they in doing such things.

Follow the community then in all things, said the great St. Augustine. Let the strong and robust eat what is ordered them, keeping the fast and austerities which are marked, and let them be content with that. Let the weak and infirm receive what is offered them for their infirmity, without wishing to do what the robust do. Let neither group amuse themselves in looking to see what this one eats and what that one does not eat, but let each one remain satisfied with what she has and with what is given to her. By this means you will avoid vanity and being particular.

 

The third condition necessary for fasting well is to look to God and to do everything to please Him, withdrawing within ourselves in imitation of a great saint, St. Gregory the Great, who withdrew into a secret and out-of-the-way place where he remained for some time without anyone knowing where he was, being content that the Lord and His angels knew it.

 

This is all that I had to tell you regarding fasting and what must be observed in order to fast well. The first thing is that your fast should be entire and universal; that is, that you should make all the members of your body and the powers of your soul fast: keeping your eyes lowered, or at least lower than ordinarily; keeping better silence, or at least keeping it more punctually than is usual; mortifying the hearing and the tongue so that you will no longer hear or speak of anything vain or useless; the understanding, in order to consider only holy and pious subjects; the memory, in filling it with the remembrance of bitter and sorrowful things and avoiding joyous and gracious thoughts; keeping your will in check and your spirit at the foot of the crucifix with some holy and sorrowful thought. If you do that, your fast will be universal, interior and exterior, for you will mortify both your body and your spirit. The second condition is that you do not observe your fast or perform your works for the eyes of others. And the third is that you do all your actions, and consequently your fasting, to please God alone, to whom be honor and glory forever and ever.

Lent 2016

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