27 February 2023

Fasting: Denial of the Flesh and Joy of the Spirit

A meditation on Lenten fasting. Father explains that fasting and other mortifications of the body produce joy in the spiritual realm.

From Rorate Cæli

By Fr Kevin M. Cusick

“Memento, homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris.”

The suffering of physical privation in our Lent fasting and other means of self-denial has the purpose of securing for ourselves the higher spiritual goods. The grace of inner gladness, that of the spirit which endures beyond the limits of the flesh, is one of these.

“ In that time Jesus said to his disciples: And when you fast, be not as the hypocrites, sad. For they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast.” (Matthew 6, 16)

Christ does not oppose the laws of religious observance. As in other circumstances recounted in the Scriptures here again that is the case. He came “not to abolish”, He said, but rather “to fulfill” the law. So we are urged to follow the teachings while avoiding the hypocrisy of those teachers of the law who invert the purpose of the law. As in our own day, the salvation of souls comes first, but contemporary “Pharisees” are obsessed about which version of the liturgy the sheep prefer, rather than simply finding satisfaction in the fact that people want to go to holy Mass as God commands.

Saint Augustine speaks of the despising of the flesh required for investing more fully in the life of the soul. The one enduring in this world only for a time, the other for eternity.

“It is evident that by these precepts we are bidden to seek for inner gladness, lest, by running after that reward which is without, we should become conformed to the fashion of this world, and should so lose the promise of that blessing which is all the truer and more stable that it is inward, that blessing wherein God hath chosen us to be conformed to the likeness of His Son. In this chapter we will principally consider the fact that vain-glory finds a ground for its exercise in struggling poverty as much as in worldly distinction and display; and this development is the most dangerous, because it entices under pretense of being the serving of God.”

Using the things of this world more temperately enables us, while growing in the love of God who gives them, to lift our minds and hearts to the greater, spiritual gifts bestowed in Christ.

“He that is characterized by unbridled indulgence in luxury or in dress, or any other display, is by these very things easily shown to be a follower of worldly vanities, and deceives no one by putting on a hypocritical mask of godliness. But those professors of Christianity, who turn all eyes on themselves by an eccentric show of groveling and dirtiness, not suffered by necessity, but by their own choice, of them we must judge by their other works whether their conduct really proceeds from the desire of mortification by giving up unnecessary comfort, or is only the mean of some ambition the Lord bids us beware of wolves in sheep's clothing, but ‘by their fruits’, says He, ‘ye shall know them.’”

In our own day we see the inversion of those who assume the costume of poverty in public, or demand it of others, while using personal power to enable, with appointment to office, criminals and corrupt persons who grovel like courtiers. These men of power are enriching themselves, enjoying the vain show of the trappings of rule, while surrounding themselves with rapists and thieves who go unpunished. The sheep are devoured and their souls imperiled by men who should love and serve them as Christ wills but who rather conduct themselves instead like ravening wolves.

“The test is when, by diverse trials, such persons lose those things which under the cover of seeming unworldliness they have either gained or sought to gain. Then must it needs appear whether they be wolves in sheep's clothing, or indeed sheep in their own. But that hypocrites do the contrary makes it no duty of a Christian to shine before the eyes of men with a display of needless luxury - the sheep need not to lay aside their own clothing because wolves sometimes falsely assume it.”

With our penance and fasting we voluntarily “lose” some of those things we cannot ultimately keep. The great season of Lent is about spiritual reward: the Lord is the true cause of joy because the only One who has the power to confer the kind of riches that last. Matthew chapter 6 records our Lord’s teaching about conforming ourselves to Him so as to share in His joy.

“Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.”

Piety is necessary. Serving and loving God requires serving and loving others. However, our motives must conform to those of God when working in the world as His servants so that the light which is truly His may shine before men for His glory and honor.

“Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

Lent is a grace for seeking our reward from God in all of life. It is the seed of a perennially repentant gratitude in recognition that His mercy has saved us from the damnation which we deserved because of our sins. The ashes which adorned us on the first day of Lent must become for us a “clothing” in a spiritual sense of poverty, reinforced by our abstinence from the eating of flesh meat, our almsgiving, our prayer. We must more and more put on the garment of a total dependence on the Lord for what is truly lasting.

The renewal of our baptismal promises at Easter is preceded in this holy season by penance and prayer. The flesh is disciplined that the spirit may become stronger and more radiant through the grace first bestowed by water and the invocation of the Trinity.

The goal of our spiritual striving is won at the cost of putting to death the flesh that one day will return to the dust from which it came. Reject all vanity as deception. Put on the Spirit through seeking lives of virtue, the love of God and others which desires first the Kingdom, salvation of souls.

Our mourning must be for sin, the cause of true loss through eternal damnation, not for the flesh and its ills which last only for a time. May the Lord forbid we ever forsake God in believing falsely we ever deserved an existence free of all suffering in this vale of tears.

May our eyes be ever upon Christ, the image of the Father, offered on the Cross for the sake of our eternal salvation. Thus we learn the truth of our real value, regretting our sins by which we sought evil, and desiring only Christ, He alone who is life. As we deny the flesh we at the same time seek Him in the Eucharist, Eternal Food for our souls and the promise of a share in His life forever. “Rend your hearts, not your garments.” (Joel 2)

Jesus, we love You. Save souls!

Praised be Jesus Christ now and forever.

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