Thoughts on My Brutal Friday Penance

Thoughts on My Brutal Friday Penance March 8, 2019

My wife and I were amused to discover that, according to The Rules, we have now achieved sufficient geezerhood to be exempt from the Church’s fast and abstinence discipline during Lent. We shall, of course, fast and abstain all the same. This means, in the American Church of the early 21st Century the following

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But I am always amused at the contrast between the absurdly gentle requests the Church makes of the faithful and the occasional stuff I hear from people who fantasize that Catholic life is some kind of furnace of asceticism. It always makes me think of Chesterton’s comments on St. Thomas Aquinas’ ascetic practices.

St. Thomas, like other monks, and especially other saints, lived a life of renunciation and austerity; his fasts, for instance, being in marked contrast to the luxury in which he might have lived if he chose. This element stands high in his religion, as a manner of asserting the will against the power of nature, of thanking the Redeemer by partially sharing his sufferings, of making a man ready for anything as a missionary or martyr, and similar ideals. These happen to be rare in the modern industrial society of the West, outside his communion; and it is therefore assumed that they are the whole meaning of that communion. Because it is uncommon for an alderman to fast for forty days, or a politician to take a Trappist vow of silence, or a man about town to live a life of strict celibacy, the average outsider is convinced, not only that Catholicism is nothing except asceticism, but that asceticism is nothing except pessimism. He is so obliging as to explain to Catholics why they hold this heroic virtue in respect; and is ever ready to point out that the philosophy behind it is an Oriental hatred of anything connected with Nature, and a purely Schopenhauerian disgust with the Will to Live. I read in a “high-class” review of Miss Rebecca West’s book on St. Augustine, the astounding statement that the Catholic Church regards sex as having the nature of sin. How marriage can be a sacrament if sex is a sin, or why it is the Catholics who are in favour of birth and their foes who are in favour of birth-control, I will leave the critic to worry out for himself. My concern is not with that part of the argument; but with another.

The ordinary modern critic, seeing this ascetic ideal in an authoritative Church, and not seeing it in most other inhabitants of Brixton or Brighton, is apt to say, “This is the result of Authority; it would be better to have Religion without Authority.” But in truth, a wider experience outside Brixton or Brighton would reveal the mistake. It is rare to find a fasting alderman or a Trappist politician, but it is still more rare to see nuns suspended in the air on hooks or spikes; it is unusual for a Catholic Evidence Guild orator in Hyde Park to begin his speech by gashing himself all over with knives; a stranger calling at an ordinary presbytery will seldom find the parish priest lying on the floor with a fire lighted on his chest and scorching him while he utters spiritual ejaculations. Yet all these things are done all over Asia, for instance, by voluntary enthusiasts acting solely on the great impulse of Religion; of Religion, in their case, not commonly imposed by any immediate Authority; and certainly not imposed by this particular Authority. In short, a real knowledge of mankind will tell anybody that Religion is a very terrible thing; that it is truly a raging fire, and that Authority is often quite as much needed to restrain it as to impose it.

And, indeed, even within the Catholic communion it is not hard to find neo-Donatists who squint with disapproval and judgment at those whose ascetic practices during Lent are not deemed to be up to snuff. But the Church leaves such matters between the believer and God and gives us a bare minimum. The point of that minimum is not legalism but simply a sort of guideline.  You can, if you like, exceed the minimum all you like if that helps you draw closer to God.  You can, like Jesus fast forty days if it doesn’t hurt you and impede your ability to do your duties.  You can do as I do and just stick to the Church’s guidelines.

Here’s what you should not do.

  1. You should not use your fast as a weapon against others whose practice differs from yours.  So you should neither judge those who do more than you as fanatics, nor judge those who do less than you as lax. You should, in a word, mind your own business and meditate on this passage of Scripture

As for the man who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not for disputes over opinions. One believes he may eat anything, while the weak man eats only vegetables. Let not him who eats despise him who abstains, and let not him who abstains pass judgment on him who eats; for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Master is able to make him stand.

One man esteems one day as better than another, while another man esteems all days alike. Let every one be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. He also who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God; while he who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. None of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.

Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written,

“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
and every tongue shall give praise to God.”
So each of us shall give account of himself to God. – Ro 14:1–12

2. You should not use your practice of piety as a prophylactic against the weightier matters of the law.  Instead you should let it point you to obedience in those weightier matters.  Jesus summed up the wrongheaded approach as “straining at gnats and swallowing camels.’  There can be a tendency to turn the cultic practice of the faith into an end in themselves, as if the goal of the Rosary is maintaining an accurate bead count or the purpose of fasting and abstinence is to pore over the ingredient of a soup we are served at the neighbor’s house and pick out bits of chicken. The weightier matter of the law in such a circumstance is politeness and gratitude to the host.  The point of abstinence is not to make us persnickety guests, but people who forget ourselves and our desires for the sake of others.  So Isaiah tells Israel

Cry aloud, spare not,
lift up your voice like a trumpet;
declare to my people their transgression,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
Yet they seek me daily,
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that did righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.
“Why have we fasted, and you see it not?
Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’
Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
and oppress all your workers.
Behold, you fast only to quarrel
and to fight and to hit with wicked fist.
Fasting like yours this day
will not make your voice to be heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day for a man to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a rush,
and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
Will you call this a fast,
and a day acceptable to the LORD?

“Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you,
the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, Here I am.

“If you take away from the midst of you the yoke,
the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.
And the LORD will guide you continually,
and satisfy your desire with good things,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters do not fail.
And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to dwell in.

“If you turn back your foot from the sabbath,
from doing your pleasure on my holy day,
and call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the LORD honorable;
if you honor it, not going your own ways,
or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly;
then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” – Is 58:1–14

Consistently, the prophets, like Jesus, insist that our cultic obligations only matter insofar as they lead to moral and spiritual transformation and that if we turn them into prophylactics against such transformation they are worse than useless.  They are harmful.

That doesn’t mean that failure to suddenly be transformed into shining saints means we should give up.  Our prayer, fasting, and almsgiving is normally an affair of small, incremental steps.  If this Easter find you a bit more patient, a bit more loving, a bit more free from the demands of your appetites, fears, or slavery to bad habits, then congratulations!  You have progressed in the life of the Spirit!

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