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St. Francis de Sales Sermon for Ash Wednesday

Sermon for Ash Wednesday, February 9, 1622, concerning the spiritual fruits of fasting and the conditions which make fasting pleasing to God: fasting universally, that is, with all the senses and with the understanding, memory, and the appetites of the will; how completely the primitive Christians fasted, fasting through humility rather than through vanity, fasting through obedience rather than through self-will, following the community customs in fasting rather than seeking to be singular, fasting only to please God and not for the esteem of men, and the evil of subjecting the commands of God and our superiors to our own human discretion.

These first four days of the holy season of Lent serve as a preface to indicate the preparation that we ought to make in order to spend Lent well and to dispose ourselves to fast well.  That is why I thought of speaking to you, in this exhortation, of the conditions which render fasting good and meritorious.  I will speak as briefly and as familiarly as possible, not only today but in the discourses that I will address to you every Thursday during this Lent.  All will be simple and proper for your hearts as I can make them.

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. 

That is why our Divine Master, who instituted the fast, greatly desired in His Sermon on the Mount to teach His Apostles how it must be practiced [Matt. 6:16-18], which is a matter of great profit and utility (for it would not have been becoming to the greatness and majesty of God to teach a useless doctrine.  That could not be).  He knew that to draw strength and efficacy from fasting, something more than abstinence from prohibited food is necessary. 

Thus He instructed them and, consequently, disposed them to gather the fruits proper to fasting.  Among many others are these four: fasting fortifies the spirit, mortifying the flesh and its sensuality; it raises the spirit to God; it fights concupiscence and gives power to conquer and deaden its passions; in short, it disposes the heart to seek to please only God with great purity of heart. 

It will be very helpful to state clearly what must be done to fast well these forty days.  For although everyone is bound to know it and to practice it, religious persons dedicated to Our Lord are more particularly obliged to it.  Now, among all the conditions required for fasting well, I will select three principal ones and speak familiarly about them.

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 Jn. 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 no 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 God.  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.  For the same reason, the ancient Fathers and the Christians of the year 400 or so were so careful to spend these forty days well that they were not satisfied with abstaining from prohibited meats, but even abstained from eggs, fish, milk, and butter, and lived on herbs and roots alone. 

And not content with making their bodies fast in this manner, they made their minds and all the powers of the soul fast also.  They placed sackcloth on their heads in order to learn to keep their eyes lowered.  They sprinkled ashes on their heads as a sign of penitence.  They withdrew into solitude to mortify the tongue and hearing, neither speaking nor hearing anything vain and useless.  At that time they practiced great and austere penances by which they subjected their body and made all its members fast.  They did all of this will full liberty, neither forced nor constrained. 

Note how their fast was accomplished whole-heartedly and universally; for they understood very well that since not only the mouth has sinned, but also all the other senses of our bodies and powers of our soul, the passions and appetites are full of iniquities.  It is thus reasonable that, in order to make our fast complete and meritorious, it should be universal, that is to say, practiced in both body and spirit.  This is the first condition to be observed in order to fast well.

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.  All our ancient Fathers have declared it so, but particularly St. Thomas, St. Ambrose and the great St. Augustine.  St. Paul in the epistle that he wrote to the Corinthians [1 Cor. 13], which was read last Sunday, declared the conditions necessary for disposing ourselves to fast well during Lent.  He says this to us: Lent is approaching. 

Prepare yourselves to fast with charity, for if your fast is performed without it, it will be in vain and useless, since fasting, like all other good works, is not pleasing to God unless it is done in charity and through charity.  When you discipline yourself, when you say long prayers, if you have not charity, all that is nothing.  Even though you should work miracles, if you have not charity, they will not profit you at all. 

Indeed, even if you should suffer martyrdom without charity, your martyrdom is worth nothing and would not be meritorious in the eyes of the Divine Majesty.  For all works, small or great, however good they may be in themselves, are of no value and profit us nothing if they are not done in charity and through charity.

I say the same now: if your fast is without humility, it is worth nothing and cannot be pleasing to the Lord.  Pagan philosophers fasted thus, and their fast was not accepted by God.  Sinners fast in this way, but because they do not have humility it is of no profit at all to them.  Now, according to the Apostle, all that is done without charity is not pleasing to God; so I say in the same way, with this great saint, that if you fast without humility your fast is of no value. 

For if you have not humility you have not charity, and if you are without charity you are also without humility.  If is almost impossible to have charity without being humble and to be humble without having charity.  These two virtues have such an affinity with one another that the one can never be without the other.

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 judgement, 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.  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. 

This article is taken from a chapter in The Sermons of St. Francis de Sales: For Lent by St. Francis de Sales which is available from TAN Books

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