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FASTING A MEANS TO CHRISTIAN PERFECTION.
“When He had fasted forty days and forty nights, He was afterward an hungered.”
THE fasting of our Lord is one of those mysteries by which the Church in her solemn Litany pleads to be delivered from the power of sin. “By Thy Baptism, Fasting, and Temptation, good Lord, deliver us.” Like the mystery of His holy Incarnation, of which it is a consequence, it must be far beyond our understanding. It seems strange that the Holy One should fast; that He who was without sin should use a sinner’s discipline. We feel hardly to know what we may say of it. Thus much is certain, as the Church teaches us to say, that His forty days fast was “for our sakes.” It was for us sinners that He was incarnate and born; that He submitted to the conditions of humanity; 57that He took natural sleep and food; and so likewise that He watched and fasted.
Again: it was as a part of His humiliation for us. As He took our nature, so He put Himself in our stead. He took the condition of a sinner; He “was made under the law,” as one condemned by it; was circumcised, as one that needed mortification of the flesh; was baptized with the baptism of repentance, as one that needed forgiveness; even so He fasted, as one that needed the self-chastisement of a penitent. It was the humiliation of the Holy One to undergo all that is the due reward of sinners.
And again: He fasted for our imitation; not, indeed, in the length and intensity of His miraculous abstinence, but according to the measures of our nature. His example has all the force of a command. Though there were no precept of fasting in the New Testament, yet this prominent act of our Great Master, the true pattern of a devout and holy life, would be enough. In this, likewise, it is most true that “the disciple is not above his Master, neither the servant above his Lord.” We may be sure that there are virtues and an efficacy in the discipline of fasting known only to Him who “knew what is in man.” It is related, in some deeper way than we understand, to the realities of our spiritual warfare, to the actings 58of our spiritual life, and to the substance of our natural being. Whether we can see all the reasons of it or no, we may rest assured that by His own example He has, in the most emphatic way, prescribed fasting to us; that no one who desires to advance in a devout life will venture to disregard the practice; and that none but they who dare to slight the example of our blessed Lord will venture to speak lightly of the duty.
I say this, because worldly, self-confident, and light-minded people, not knowing of what they speak, are wont to justify their own shallow and self-sparing religion by sinful levities on this most sacred duty. Let them beware of what they are saying. Either our Lord’s life is our example, or it is not. Let them choose which they will, and abide by the consequences. To those for whom His life is no example, His death is no atonement; to those to whom His example is a law, the practice of fasting is a duty.
Fasting is the act of abstaining either wholly or in part from natural food, and that for a longer or for a shorter time, either at the precept of the Church, or by our own voluntary self-discipline. The principle on which it is founded may be stated thus: that as there is a religious use of food, so there is a religious abstinence from it. To this it is commonly objected, that it is a matter wholly 59indifferent, external, inefficacious; that it savours of formality, false confidence, and dark views of our justification; and that it is all but expressly condemned in holy Scripture. It is asked, Who fasted more than the Pharisees, and what were they? What can he plainer than St. Paul’s words: “The kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.”1919 Rom. xiv. 17. “Meat commendeth us not to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, neither if we eat not are we the worse.”2020 1 Cor. viii. 8.
Now, rather than answer these objections in detail, it will be better to establish one or two plain truths, on the proof of which these objections must fall to the ground. And in so doing, it may be well not to quote the examples of saints, as Moses, David, Daniel, Anna, St. Peter, St. Paul, and of the early Church; though this, it might be thought, would be enough for any faithful or reverent mind; nor to bring direct texts, such as “When ye fast, be not as the hypocrites;”2121 St. Matt. vi. 18. or, “Can the children of the bridechamber fast while the bridegroom is with them? . . . The days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then shall they fast in those days:”2222 St. Mark ii. 19, 20. because such modes of proof (sufficient 60as they are) generally end in a question how far examples are binding, or precepts still in force, and the like.
It will be better simply to take the objector on his own ground, and to shew, first, that fasting without a pure, or at least a penitent, heart, is useless, or even worse; next, that fasting is a means to attain both penitence and purity; and, lastly, that without fasting there is seldom to be found any high measure of either.
1. And first let it be said: That fasting with out a pure, or at least a penitent, heart, is simply useless, and may be even worse.
This, I suppose, it is hardly necessary to prove. The objector cannot overstate it. There are no words of energy and denunciation which are not used in holy Scripture to condemn the hypocrisy of such abominable fasts. The prophets are full of them. “Wherefore have we fasted, say they, and Thou seest not? wherefore have we afflicted our soul, and Thou takest no knowledge? Behold, in the day of your fast ye find pleasure, and exact all your labours. Behold, ye fast for strife and debate, and to smite with the fist of wickedness: ye shall not fast as ye do this day, to make your voice to be heard on high. Is it such a fast that I have chosen? a day for a man to afflict his soul? is it to bow down his head as 61a bulrush, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? wilt thou call this a fast, and an acceptable day to the Lord? Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor, that are cast out, to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?”2323 Is. lviii. 3-7. Again: “Pray not for this people for their good. When they fast, I will not hear their cry.”2424 Jer. xiv. 11, 12. And again: “Speak unto all the people of the land, and to the priests, saying, When ye fasted and mourned in the fifth month, even those seventy years, did ye at all fast unto me, even to me? And when ye did eat, and when ye did drink, did not ye eat for yourselves, and drink for yourselves?”2525 Zech. vii. 5, 6. “When ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.”2626 St. Matt. vi. 16. “Thou blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also.”2727 St. Matt. xxiii. 26. “Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth 62a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man. . . . For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies: these are the things which defile a man.”2828 St. Matt. xv. 11, 19, 20.
There were Pharisees then in the Church of God, and there are Pharisees now; men of an ascetic outside, full of darkness and impurity within. A rigid system of formal religion often covers a thoroughly licentious state of heart. Moreover, they that fast with scrupulous rigour are sometimes proud, uncharitable, self-complacent, or indevout, irreverent, and secular. All this is most true and fearful; but I suppose that no one ever thought that acts of fasting could cancel a habit of mental sin. Nay, they become both sins and dangers in themselves. Therefore let the very worst be said of fastings without repentance, mortification, and charity. They are mere unsanctified hunger and thirst, with self-deception. Outward humiliation without a corresponding inward humility, external severities without internal abstinence from sins of the world and of the flesh, are simple hypocrisy. They are not only useless, but fearful provocations of God. On this let so much suffice.
2. And further: what is fasting but one of the means of attaining to penitence and purity?63
It is not an end. In itself it is nothing. There is no fasting in heaven, no abstinence among the spirits of the just. It is only we, fallen and sullied, that need this discipline of humiliation. Fasting is a part of repentance. It not only expresses indignation at ourselves, as unworthy of God’s pure creatures, but it helps to perfect our abasement. It is a part of our humiliation: a means of realising our own weakness, and of mortifying the strength and lusts of the flesh. Now all this will be plain, if we consider what holy Scripture tells us of the flesh in which we are born, and of its power against and over the spirit which dwells in us.
Throughout holy Scripture we are taught that the flesh which we bear is the occasion of disobedience. I say the occasion, because it was not originally the source. The temptations of sin passed through the flesh as their avenue of approach; and sin, when committed, deposited its evil in our mortal body. Therefore the flesh in holy Scripture is spoken of as the principle of disobedience and the source of temptation. St. Paul says, “They that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. Because the carnal mind is enmity against 64God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God.”2929 Rom. viii. 5-8 Again: “If ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.”3030 Ibid. 13. Again: “Make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof.”3131 Rom. xiii. 14. “Use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh.”3232 Gal. v. 13. “Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lusts of the flesh. For the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would. . . . The works of the flesh are these: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like.”3333 Ibid. 16, 17, 19-21. “He that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption.”3434 Gal. vi. 8. St. Paul speaks of “purifying of the flesh;” St. Peter, of “putting away the filth of the flesh;” of alluring “through the lusts of the flesh;” St. John, of “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye, and the pride of life.” St. Jude, of “the garment spotted by the flesh.”3535 Heb. ix. 13; 1 St. Peter iii. 21; 2 St. Peter ii. 18; 1 St. John ii. 16; Jude 23. From 65all these, which might easily be multiplied, it is plain that there is an inclination to evil, not imaginary and metaphysical, but real and active, in the flesh of which we are born; that our state does not consist in a merely spiritual condition; that our spiritual condition is subjected, by the sin of man, to the power of another inclination or law, which dwells and works in the body of our natural flesh. In early times this truth was so deeply apprehended that some fell into the error of believing in the existence of two principles, good and evil; of which the one was in and of God, the other in and of the matter of the visible world. They believed matter to be unmixed evil; and rather than ascribe its origin to God, they supposed it to have its origin in another being, thereby destroying the unity of God’s creation, and His monarchy over all things. I note this only because we seem, in a recoil from Manichaean errors, to have gone into the opposite extreme, and to treat the flesh as if it were not the subject of evil at all; as if sin lay only in our spiritual nature, and our probation were confined to the workings of the mind. If heretics of old abhorred matter and all contact with it as evil, we have come to be incredulous of the mysterious agency of evil which is in it; and in the conduct of our personal religion exclude it from our thoughts. If this were not so, how could we be so 66ill-inclined to believe that the habit of fasting has a real and effective relation to the purifying of our souls? How could we slight it as a thing external, heterogeneous, and inactive in our sanctification? Many people formally reject the practice as a whole. Others are willing to admit it so far as to be a sort of public acknowledgment of the duty of humiliation: some as expressing, not as promoting, the contrition of the heart; that is, as a sign or symbol of what already exists, and is wrought by other agencies: not as a means, no less than an expression. That is to say, they treat fasting as others do the holy Sacraments, not as a means to effect an end, but as signs that the end has been already otherwise effected. This is surely a highly unscriptural view of the matter. How strained and unnatural it is to interpret St. Paul, when he says, “Mortify, therefore, your members which are upon the earth,” or “they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh, with the affections and lusts,”3636 Gal. v. 24. to mean, be careful to form inward habits of mental religion! And how shallow a knowledge does it imply of our wonderful and fearful nature: how secure and dangerous an unconsciousness of what we are! It is surely impossible for any one to reflect at all without perceiving the relation which exists between the habit of the body and the condition 67of the mind; between the workings of the flesh and the qualities of the soul. Besides these self-evident proofs, which the one word sensuality will suffice to shew, is it not manifest that the sins of anger, pride, hardness of heart, indolence, sloth, selfishness, are so closely related to the body that it is hard to say where they chiefly dwell, whether in the spirit or in the flesh? Does not the universal language of mankind connect them together? Does not the natural instinct of discerning the characters of men by outward tokens prove to us that, whether we will or no, we do associate the bodily and mental habits of men together? Does not a free, or a soft, or excessive course of life insensibly affect the whole character? Is not the tradition of mortification as universal as that of sacrifices, pointing to a truth to be afterwards revealed in the gospel? And what do all these things prove, but that the body, or, as holy Scripture says, the flesh, is the occasion, the avenue, the provoking, aggravating, sustaining cause of moral and spiritual evil in the soul? that it kindles and keeps alive the particular affections which, when consented to by the will, become our personal and actual sins? It follows, then, at once, that an external self-discipline, such as fasting, does enter into the means of our sanctification; that as the obstructions to penitence and purity of 68heart arise chiefly out of sensuality, or indulgence of the affections and motions of the flesh or carnal mind, so a system which withdraws the excitements and contradicts their effects must tend to set the soul freer for its purely spiritual exercises. Let it be taken only as a removal of obstructing causes, and of intimate and subtil hindrances. This at least, upon the lowest ground, must be conceded. And yet it is hardly possible for any thoughtful person to rest satisfied with this imperfect view. The fasting of our blessed Lord was not a mere semblance; it was not an appearance, as the Docetae believed His manhood itself to be—an unreal action, for the sake of leaving an example to us. Though He was all pure, and had in Him nothing that fasting could mortify, as He had nothing on which sin could lay its hold, yet, without doubt, even in His perfect and spot less humanity, abstinence had its proper work. “Though He were a son, yet learned He obedience by the things which He suffered;”3737 Heb. v. 8. by that inscrutable mystery of suffering He tasted of sorrows, which in His impassible nature He could never receive into His Person. He was weary, faint, grieved, buffeted, and put to pain, even as we are: and these things on His humanity had the same effects as they have on ours. So, without 69doubt, in His fasting. What may have been its effects on the actings of His spotless soul in its aspect towards God, we dare not speculate; but can we doubt that the fast of forty days had its own peculiar work in that perfect sympathy towards us, by which He is able to feel with us in our natural infirmities? Was it not out of the same depth of experience that He spoke, when, as St. Mark writes, “In those days the multitude being very great, and having nothing to eat, Jesus called His disciples unto Him, and saith unto them, I have compassion on the multitude, because they have now been with Me three days, and have nothing to eat: and if I send them away fasting to their own houses, they will faint by the way: for divers of them came from far.”3838 St. Mark viii, 1-3. May we not say, that He thereby made trial of such bodily infirmities as give to the poor, the sick, the self-denying, a peculiar share in His perfect sympathy?
With us, however, fasting is a means of humiliation, abasement, repentance for the guilt of sins committed, and for the soils of sin which penetrate our inmost soul. To us sinners it is a sharp and necessary medicine to cleanse our hearts, to waken and excite devotion, to chasten and clear the spiritual affections towards God, and to humble our natural pride. These are its first and obvious uses. 70It also helps to form in us a pure and unselfish sympathy with the suffering members of Christ, in their patience and necessities, in their faintness and heavy toil, in the languor of sickness and feebleness of age. It is good for us to see our tables spread like a poor man’s board; for many go from their birth to their grave and never know the taste of hunger. There are secrets of suffering into which not only the rich and soft, but even the charitable and pitiful, can never enter, except by self-denials, of which fasting is an example and a pledge.
3. And this leads us to the last point. It may be safely said, that without fasting and the habits implied in it, we shall hardly attain to any high degrees of the spiritual life. I would not be understood to say, that there are not to be found some who never fast, and are yet purer and more penitent than some who do: that is very certain. Some who fast seem not at all the better: rather, as has been said, they seem to grow less gentle, less self-mistrusting, less charitable,—more high-toned in their professions, projects, and censures.
Again: some who have never been taught to look upon fasting as a duty have gone through life without using it as a part of their personal religion, yet are nevertheless truly pious, gentle, and devout. But the question is rather to be stated 71thus: seeing what they are without this scriptural practice, what would they have been if they had been early taught to use it? Surely we may believe they would, in all parts of a holy life, have outstripped their present selves. If they have come to be what they are without following this precept of our Lord’s example, what might they not have attained by a fuller imitation of His life! For it is not to be denied, that there are, even among persons of a devout life, two very distinct classes. There is one which consists of people who are truly conscientious, faithful to the light that is in them, charitable, blameless, diligent in the usual means of grace, and visibly advanced in the practice and principle of a religious obedience. Yet there is something wanting. Their alms are given without the grace of charity: their consolations are not soothing. There is a want of sympathy, tenderness, meekness, reverence, submission of will, self-renouncement: sometimes there is a tone which is even selfish, imperious, heartless, or worldly.
The other class are perceptibly distinct; and their difference may be said to lie in the depth and vividness of their charity and compassion. They inspire no fear, except that which attends on great purity of life; they attract and win to themselves the love of others, especially of the 72poor, the timid, the suffering, and even of children. There is about them something which is rather to be felt than defined. We feel ourselves to be in the presence of a superior, and yet of one who has nothing fearful or exciting, nothing that rudely abashes or repels us. We feel to be sensibly drawn to them, and to be thoroughly persuaded of their goodness and gentleness of heart. Though we know that our least faults will in their eyes seem greater than much graver faults in the eyes of others, yet we have less fear of making them known, because we feel sure of their tenderness and kind interpretation. Such they are in their aspect towards us. What is their devotion, as it is seen by God alone, we can only conjecture from the purity and intensity of all their spiritual life.
Now such characters as this certainly seem almost to differ in kind, rather than in degree, from the others. They have another pattern of devotion before them, and are under another discipline. Their self-control is perceptibly of a finer sort; the subjugation of their passions is evidently on a more perfect rule; and their devotion has a vividness and depth which the others do not possess. Now this seems to be the cast of character which is seldom, if ever, formed without an habitual exercise of secret humiliation. All that we 73perceive of sympathy and gentleness is the result of contrition and self-chastisement before God. And this is wrought in them by a system of self-discipline, into which fasting seldom, if ever, fails to enter. Without this, and the kindred habits allied to it, there can be but little of that recollection of heart out of which comes a keener perception of the spirituality of the law of God, of the malign character of sin, or of the habitual consciousness of our own infinite unworthiness in the sight of Heaven. All these, which are the first principles of repentance and purification, are but faintly, if at all, apprehended by any but those who use in secret a discipline of self-chastisement; and all attempts at such discipline will be found, sooner or later, to be most imperfect, and indeed all but in vain, unless they are ordered on the rule which is here given by the example of our blessed Lord. Fasting and prayer are so related, that in their spirit, quality, and effect, they will rise or fall together; and fasting is so related to the spiritual cross of Christ, that we may believe it to possess virtues greater and more penetrating than we may ever know in this life.
Lastly, as to the particular rules by which this duty is to be limited and directed, I cannot at tempt to say any thing; partly because it is hardly possible to be particular without provoking objections 74to the principle from those to whom the instances will not apply; and partly because, in such questions of personal religion, they who are not able to guide themselves ought to have recourse to their spiritual pastor. It is but to keep up a delusion, too prevalent already, to attempt to do by public preaching what can only be efficiently done, in particular cases, by private counsel and advice. I will therefore only venture on two suggestions.
One is, whatsoever be your practice, let it be without ostentation. “Thou, when thou fastest, anoint thy head and wash thy face, that thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret.” There are few that can stand being noticed, without suffering in the purity of their intention. Howsoever well they may have begun, secondary motives insinuate themselves with a strange subtilty. The comments of others, either by way of opposition, or, much more dangerously, of approval, seldom fail to produce an unhealthy self-consciousness which mars all, and then “verily we have our reward.” Moreover, there is no reason why we should not carry our secret discipline with us into all paths and conditions of life. We may fast in the midst of the world, in its business and distractions, even when compelled to be present in the midst of its feastings. Let it be a matter between ourselves and God.75
The other suggestion is, that we do not venture on any over-rigid practice at first. Excessive beginnings often end in miserable relaxations at last. Hardly any thing so much deteriorates the character as retracting good resolutions, or falling away from high professions. Little acts are great tests of self-control, steadiness, perseverance. Let us be content with these, and turn it to our humiliation that we are neither worthy nor able to undertake greater things. Higher rules of devotion are for those that are stronger than we. Let us ever bear in mind that all such practices are no more than means to an end. Let us never rest till that end is attained. And let us ever bear in mind that, fast and afflict ourselves as we may, there is only one “fountain opened for sin and for uncleanness,” only one foundation, one sacrifice, one atonement for sin, which is the cross and blood-shedding of our Lord Jesus Christ.76
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